As part of Friendship Circle of Cleveland’s plan to expand its services, Rabbi Yosef Peysin was named its new director of youth engagement.

He began the role July 19, about four weeks before the organization’s 12th annual My Walk 4 Friends Aug. 15.

“I met (Executive Co-Director) Rabbi Yossi Marozov in shul, initially reaching out to me about the opening,” Peysin, a 29-year-old University Heights resident, told the Cleveland Jewish News on July 26. “I had just finished my Ph.D. in applied behavior analysis and I was working as a special education teacher as well as conducting field research. I also have experience as a rabbi building Jewish community, so I intended to come here and work in Jewish education.”

But, life had other plans for Peysin. Marozov invited him to an interview, where it became apparent to him that accepting the role at Friendship Circle of Cleveland was an “incredible opportunity for me to combine both legs of my training and experience in this role, where I am engaging and bringing in teens.”

Originally from Chicago, Peysin moved to University Heights in June with his wife, Chana, a Cleveland Clinic intern, and their two children. He attends services at Waxman Chabad in Beachwood.

In addition to earning his Ph.D. from Columbia University in New York City, Peysin also went through seven years of rabbinical school, serving as an assistant rabbi for two years. During his training, he served as a youth counselor for at-risk Jewish teens and college-age students in Chicago’s Chassidic Jewish community, identifying areas where students felt under-served by the education system. He also has five years of experience working, teaching and researching individuals with disabilities.

“Given my background in ABA (applied behavior analysis), there is somehow a tremendous, gaping hole in the research literature,” he said. “There is an emphasis on communication, on social skills, but the effects of a friendship as a holistic entity, and the need of that for individuals with special needs, there is very little literature on creating friendships and how it benefits individuals with special needs. So, as I learned more, I thought this was an amazing opportunity for me.”

Additionally, Peysin served as an ambassador for Friendship Circle International as part of its cross-country bicycling trip, “Bike 4 Friendship.” During that time, he raised awareness and funds for the activities as a cyclist on the tour.

But Peysin’s unique combination of skills doesn’t stop there. A co-founder of the American folk-pop/rock duo, the Rogers Park Band, Peysin plays guitar alongside Mordy Kurtz. The pair grew up together in the Chabad community of Chicago’s Rogers Park area. Their most recent album, “Petersburg,” was released in 2018.

“What attracts me to this role is that I have many different parts of my background and training in community building, teaching individuals with special needs and working with Jewish teens,” he said. “But, I’m also a professional musician. There are these three components of my passions and interests, and this position allows me to use all three components in my work regularly.”

With his Chassidic Chabad upbringing in mind, Peysin said his main goal as director of youth engagement is to fill a need. Chabad messaging, he explained, centers on the Jewish community as one people. And if one person or one subset of the community is in need, then it’s everyone’s responsibility to address it.

“To have hurt or deficiency in any part of it is a pain or deficiency in the whole,” he said. “As concerned as we are for our well-being and growth, any part of the Jewish community requires the same attention we give ourselves and our loved ones. Friendship Circle has this amazing model that benefits individuals with special needs, who are mostly Jewish, and teenage Jewish volunteers. It’s a dual role reaching two parts of the Jewish community to some extent that don’t get the same attention as others.”

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