The Friendship Campus, a revolutionary effort

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by Kevin Cody

“If you want to light a candle, if you want to inspire others, you must first be a candle yourself,” Rabbi Yossi Mintz likes to say, even when he shamelessly holds that candle.

Last Wednesday, Rabbi Mintz shared this advice with more than 1,000 people attending the dedication of the Friendship Campus last Wednesday. The private school, on Inglewood Avenue in Redondo Beach, will provide vocational training for students with special needs.

Breakthrough guests included Michael Greenberg, CEO of Skechers, Harris Toibb, CEO of Toibb Real Estate, Ted Schwartz, CEO of Schwartz Capital, and Andy Cohen, co-CEO of Gensler Architecture.

These five donors alone provided more than half of the $36 million originally planned for the Friendship Campus. The budget has since grown to $55 million. Of this amount, $42.5 million was raised, well beyond the 50% threshold usually raised before construction begins.

The five legacy donors, all residents of Manhattan Beach, all attributed their support of the Friendship Campus to a personal interest in children with special needs, sparked by Rabbi Mintz’s vision.

The Chabad Jewish Community Center rabbi “touched my soul,” as Greenberg put it, in 1996, when he approached him about supporting the Circle of Friendship.

The Friendship Circle, now known as the Friendship Foundation, provides social opportunities for students with autism, Down syndrome, and other special needs by pairing them with mainstream students.

Friendship Circle sparked memories for Greenberg of his early school years.

“My third-grade teacher asked for volunteers to help children with mobility issues walk from class to class. I raised my hand,” Greenberg told the groundbreaking audience.

Since that 1996 meeting, the Friendship Foundation has expanded from Sunday meetings at the Jewish Community Center to 10 South Bay school districts with 40 school clubs, serving more than 2,000 students annually. The program is largely funded by the Skechers/Friendship Circle Pier to Pier Walk, which has raised over $20 million over the past 10 years.

But the Circle of Friendship was not the end of Rabbi Mintz’s vision. At that 1996 meeting, he told Greenberg that he wanted to start a vocational school for students with special needs. After high school, there are few opportunities for them. The national unemployment rate for adults with special needs is 83%.

“When I see someone with a challenge, I see someone with a gift who just needs the opportunity to bring it out,” Rabbi Mintz said during his remarks at the groundbreaking. .

Toibb told the audience that Rabbi Mintz touched his soul as he recalled his memories of helping elderly Jewish refugees from Russia in the 1980s.

“The Jews who were driven out of Russia had no money and no place to go. So we made room for them to live in a preschool I was involved with. I learned a lot watching them help preschoolers. They had patience and there was no language barrier. When Yossi told me about his vision, I saw that was my vision too,” Toibb said.

He and his wife, Linda, launched the Friendship Campus fundraising campaign with a donation of $5 million.

“’You crazy bastard, what are you doing?’ Michael Greenberg told me. “I said maybe I was a crazy bastard, but I know what I’m doing. I want to make noise.

The “noise” reached Greenberg’s neighbor, Schwartz.

“Michael told me that I would be the ideal person to fund this project,” Schwartz recalled at the groundbreaking. “I said I would be proud to be involved. The vision is there. But I have a better idea for fundraising. Let’s find six people to invest $3 million each. I will be the first.

Portia Cohen learned of Rabbi Mintz’s campus vision 15 years ago when he invited her to a school campus in Redondo to attend a Circle of Friendship activity, she said. to the public.

“I asked Rabbi Mintz, so where do you go from here? He opened a desk drawer and pulled out a sketch of a campus, with a machine shop, a kitchen, a gym and lots of happy children. He said he wanted to create a future for these children and an environment where they would feel loved.

“I looked at the drawing and said to him, ‘You need an architect,’ recalls Cohen.

Toibb took on the responsibility of enlisting Andy Cohen. His company’s previous projects included the Ritz Carlton at LA Live, the Banc of California Soccer Stadium and the Shanghai Tower, the second tallest building in the world.

“Fortunately, Andy lives in Manhattan Beach. It wasn’t a hard sell. He said he would be honored to design the campus. Then I told him it was pro bono. It was harder to sell. He asked me what I wanted. I said, you tell me. He came back with what he thought was a great design. I didn’t like that. He made a second drawing. I didn’t like that. I think he thought I was abusing my pro bono privileges. But he treated us like a paying customer, and finally he got the indoor/outdoor concept.

Renderings of the Friendship Campus show a 64,000-square-foot, two-level, glass-covered building with two interior patios opening to the sky and a sloping cantilevered roof that gives the impression of the building is ready to take off.

The 3.5-acre site was formerly Franklin Elementary, which the school district closed, along with seven other campuses in the mid-1980s. In 1986, the school district adopted a financial strategy of renting rather than selling its properties.

“It was at the end of a conversation when the rabbi said he needed a property for something special,” Redondo Beach Schools Superintendent Steven Keller told Breakthrough Guests.

The district’s prime school properties were already leased – one to the Pep Boys on Artesia; and the others at Heritage Point, Kensington and Seasons retirement homes, all on Pacific Coast Highway, Keller said.

“I dropped the old, ‘Rabbi, I got this nice property just down the street from the school district office. It wasn’t lovely and I never would have thought that he would bite.

The school had recently been vacated by a nursery school and had been poorly maintained.

“During a tour of the property, Harris Toibb asked me, ‘What do we need to make this happen?’ I looked at his Cole Hahn tennis shoes and said, “Harris, I’ll take your shoes.”

Toibb responded by asking if Keller was okay if he wrote something. He wrote “One million dollars” on a check and gave it to Keller.

“We got off to a good start,” Keller recalled.

Attorney Jerry Katz, another Manhattan Beach resident, drafted the agreement for a 66-year lease, exclusively for an education and development center for young adults with special needs. At Keller’s insistence, the agreement required the new campus to serve the Redondo School Districts Transition Program for special needs students ages 18 to 22.

Rabbi Mintz closed the groundbreaking ceremony by reminding guests that an additional $12 million is needed to complete the campus, and that custom bricks and stepping stones on The Pathway of Inspiration are available for donation. The path will cross a garden while circling the campus.

Then Rabbi Mintz revealed that his vision didn’t stop with special needs children in South Bay. He wants Friendship Campus to be a model for similar schools around the world. To be that candle, he said, Friendship Campus will host neurodivergence conferences with leading educators and scientists.

“We don’t want to ‘own’ this idea. We want to share it with the world,” he said. Emergency room

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