The Friendship Circle co-founder Esty Bruck talks Zooming through the corridors of power with leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees Mogg.

Esty Bruck zooming in on Jacob Rees Mogg

Order! Ahem, so Esty, tell us about how the charity first started…

When I came on board in 2008 along with Mimi Lyons, it wasn’t The Friendship Circle it is today. It began as a Chabad-Lubavitch concept that year with Rabbi Dovid Jaffe, (who remains our chairman despite the fact we are now independent), asking if I would take on the programme leadership. Over time it has evolved to plug the gaps we’ve seen open up across Manchester.

People have needed support in all different areas – we don’t say no to anyone, and we’ve done our best to support them as friends in whatever area is needed. We’ve never relied solely on local authority funding, being privately supported from generous individuals and fundraising events, which is one reason we survived recent cuts where many services around us didn’t.

When we started 12 years ago, there was a massive gap for adults with disabilities to integrate into the community. There seemed to be lots in place for kids up to the age of 18 but after that there are few other ways for them to make friends and that isolation was really glaring. There are so many local authority grants which provide youth funding, that’s why the majority of our work is focused towards adults.

Esty Bruck (right) with member Adam Patchick at the charity’s art exhibition.

So how does The Friendship Circle help?

We aim to encourage social integration within the community through our busy calendar of activities, which is where our 150 volunteers come in, taking part and making friends with our 130 members, keeping them busy, happy, and teaching them new skills in an effort to help them integrate into mainstream Jewish life.

It’s giving people the opportunities to break barriers – like our annual fashion show. To many, it just sounds like a nice event, but for someone who has always suffered from confidence issues to be up there on the catwalk, their level of confidence goes through the roof. Events like that can change them as much as anything, empowering them to do things they never thought they could do.

How has the charity fared over lockdown?

We furloughed all our staff – myself excluded – to keep the charity afloat, so for a while it was quite full-on, but thankfully my wonderful team are all back now.

Before lockdown, we hosted between seven and nine different activities each week, either at our Prestwich hub or out and about. It became like a community within a community, we were a family. So when COVID hit, we tried to replicate that as much as we could. We tested the waters of Zoom straight after Pesach, supporting people with seder plates and in April we launched a full-on virtual activity calendar.

We’re obviously not as busy as we were with activities and not everything works online, but some things have been brilliant. We recently hosted a virtual talent show with members stepping into the spotlight to play music or read a poem to an audience of 50 – it was a really lovely event.

We have been putting on exciting Zoom activities on a week – quizzes, art, baking, bingo, keep-fit, singing and loads more – with many activities coming with packs that volunteers deliver to members’ houses. Pre-COVID we threw massive Shabbat meals with 100 people and everyone would be buzzing and meeting friends. That’s one of the biggest things we miss, so we tried to replicate that at home for Rosh Hashanah by delivering them goodie bags they all opened together over Zoom.

We have 80 buddy groups, and those volunteers kept in touch with members throughout lockdown, supporting them with shopping or advice. Then as restrictions were relaxed, people ventured out for walks. I was meant to lead a group for a hike up Snowdon, but I broke my leg two days before! Considering the weather, I may have dodged a bullet.

We’ve managed to connect more people during COVID, because we have members who physically struggled or didn’t feel comfortable to attend in-person activities, so online really opened the door to them. Some things even work better on Zoom; we have discussion groups where that mute button comes in handy! To be honest, it’s a really great time to break your leg!

Esty joins in Chanukah celebrations at the charity’s Prestwich hub.

What are the difficulties charities are facing right now?

Charities are often making a fraction of what they’d hoped from fundraising events, at a time when we’ve never needed them so badly. Events like the Manchester 10K were cancelled, but supporters have been doing their own things to raise money for us which is great. These periods of isolation have shown how important social interaction is; I don’t think we would have spoken to Jacob Rees Mogg if it wasn’t for COVID.

As funding is cut, services are having to increasingly rely on charities to fill crucial gaps. They are often the prevention measure before things get to crisis point where local authorities have to step in. Without their work, these services would be completely overrun.

The Friendship Circle members strut their stuff with volunteers at the annual fashion show.

How did you come by the opportunity to speak to Jacob Rees Mogg?

Our local MP, Christian Wakeford, first contacted us ahead of Volunteers’ Week in June, asking if there were any volunteers we’d like to put forward for awards. Following on from that, I said I’d love to meet him to discuss what our charity does, so we had a chat over Zoom and the next thing I know we received an email saying we had been mentioned in Parliament!

Wakeford was speaking about government support of charities and our name came up – it was fantastic publicity for us. Then I got a phone call from Jacob Rees Mogg’s office to say that he would like to interview us for a Youtube video which encourages MPs to mention charities in Parliament.

So we discussed how people with disabilities fit into society and the role we play as a charity. He asked how what we do fits into Jewish life, so I explained how social interaction plays such a big part in our work. Even if our members are not religious, we’re still a very social community, so if you’re isolated and have disabilities, it can be particularly challenging.

When he asked how we felt about our mention in the Commons, I explained how important it is that people with disabilities are on the top of MPs agendas. It’s our mission to help people see individuals with disabilities for who they are and recognise the often-overlooked contribution they can make to society. Despite existing on the fringes, their voices need to be heard as loud as everyone else’s.

I feel like the interview opened some doors for us, and the more we talk about this, the more inclusive a society we can all share – and when it comes from the top, it really helps with those perceptions.

The Friendship Circle Drummers collective.

Were there any issues that members or supporters wanted you to address?

Before the interview, I had an eye-opening discussion with parents who support children with disabilities about the struggles they face. They are not so much concerned about government policy, so much as decision-making on a local authority level.

The hoops they’re forced to jump through to get support for their child prove the biggest challenge. They highlighted the process of allocating care to someone with disabilities isn’t fit for purpose. We believe quality of life is one thing missing from local authority calculations – the hours many suffering with physical disabilities receive simply don’t stretch beyond personal care, leaving them unable to attend centres like ours to socialise or learn a new skill and that’s something that needs to be taken seriously from a higher level.

Do you feel it is ironic for politicians to praise charities while supporting austerity measures which have worked to their detriment?

I don’t think that politics has always worked to our detriment. We have benefited from government policies like Gift Aid. The main thing right now is that politicians are listening, and it is hugely important to make sure they understand the issues.

The Friendship Circle member Hannah Levy enjoying a social night with friends.

Has it made you think more about how charities feed into the democratic process?

The interview helped me realise a desire to secure our members better representation, not just in Parliament, but in the local Jewish community. I’ve launched a regular forum where all our members are invited to come and talk about issues they face, with Christian Wakefield attending our next virtual Q&A, where members will have the floor to ask him anything. This will continue on a regular basis with people who can make a difference.

I am going to work on making sure that our members have the opportunity to be included in different forums within the Jewish community and with Jewish communal organisations. I will ensure that they will have their voices heard and valued.