In a second floor conference room at the West Orange JCC, Jill Tekel looked over the shoulder of Ralph Magrans and helped him solve a word puzzle.
Employing skills she learned as a speech pathology major at Montclair State University, Tekel was helping Magrans, a Verona resident, cope with the effects of a stroke he suffered in December 2011.
For the past year, Magrans has been one of 14 “members” of the Adler Aphasia Center, a facility where stroke and brain injury survivors meet four times a week to recapture lost language skills.
Tekel organized the local chapter of the AAC, based in Maywood and founded by a friend of hers, Mike Adler, who suffered a stroke in 1993.
Adler and his wife, Elaine, created a place “where people who have had strokes could come to have therapy and feel productive,” said Tekel. “The program gives Ralph an opportunity to be with other people who are going through the same thing. We call ourselves ‘members’; we are like a family.”
Volunteering time and effort comes naturally to Tekel, who is being honored on Monday, April 29, as a “Woman of Valor” by the Livingston chapter of Hadassah.
Comedian Alan Zweibel, a writer for the original cast of Saturday Night Live, will be the keynote speaker at the Crystal Plaza in Livingston.
“Both Hadassah and the Adler center are passions of mine,” she said.
Tekel’s involvement with Hadassah began 40 years ago, when she and her husband, Harvey, ran a family-owned industrial laundry business in Wilkes Barre, Pa. Influenced by her mother-in-law, Yvette Tekel, she joined local chapters of the National Council of Jewish Women and Hadassah “so I could meet people.”
After their children, Erica and Adam, were born, the Tekels moved to West Orange.
In 1988, she would survive a harrowing experience that would give her a new sense of determination. As she was driving along Route 280 in East Orange, Tekel’s car hit a barrier and flipped over. She was left blinded in one eye.
“It pushed me in a new direction,” she told NJ Jewish News over lunch in a Whippany restaurant. “I was very depressed. But I learned that just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you can’t do anything worthwhile.”
The accident happened a few months before her Erica was to become bat mitzva. “I had to get myself back together,” said Tekel. She discovered there were not many clothing stores that specialized in dresses for teenage girls. So she went to work at the Macy’s branch in the Willowbrook Mall to learn marketing. A few months later she opened a store called Classic Teen on Route 10 in East Hanover.
“I designed dresses that I thought were appropriate for 13-year-old girls,” she said. “But I couldn’t handle their demanding mothers. So after three years I decided it was more fun to work for Harvey in the laundry.”
She also returned to school for a master’s degree in criminal justice, specializing in hate crimes. “I’m Jewish, and we need to protect ourselves. But it wasn’t only about Jews,” she said, noting her concern about injustices done to blacks and other minorities. Her studies led to jobs at the Anti-Defamation League and Community Relations Committee of the MetroWest federation.
After five years at the CRC, Tekel moved again. “My kids were out of college and out of the house, so I said, ‘What do I do now?’ I had to reinvent myself.” So she became a real estate agent.
She also became a board member of B’nai Shalom, the Conservative synagogue in West Orange where she has been a member for many years, and an activist in the Jewish Women’s Network, which aids Jewish women who run for political office.
In 2010, Tekel ran for a seat on the West Orange City Council. “I didn’t have enough support to take on the ‘Old Boys Club’ in West Orange, but I am very happy I ran. I had 1,100 votes. That means I had 1,100 friends out there in my hometown. I am very happy about that. But I would never run again. It was too much work.”
A year later she opened a Hadassah thrift shop at the rear of a women’s clothing store in West Orange. The store closed after the landlord raised its rent.
The Adler Aphasia Center, however, is thriving, and outgrowing its space at the JCC. “We will have to rent a bigger place,” said Tekel.
“There is only one thing I would really like to try. Stand-up comedy. I’m not a great singer and I don’t know if I have acting talent, but I would like to take a class. I think it would be fun.”