JCC brings Jewish life to seniors in assisted living

JCC brings Jewish life to seniors in assisted living

Jennine Shpigel hands Anna Freno a Hanukka gift bag from the JCC.
Jennine Shpigel hands Anna Freno a Hanukka gift bag from the JCC.

Twenty-five seniors sat in a room decorated with menoras, Christmas trees, and other decorations for both holidays at The Chelsea at Manalapan. They recited the blessings over the candles and enjoyed singing such holiday classics as “Maoz Tzur” and “I Have a Little Dreidel.” The Chelsea is a chain of private assisted living facilities. 

Lincoln Richman, program manager at the Jewish Community Center of Middlesex County in Edison, entertained with his guitar and played holiday songs interspersed with Yiddish, folk, and pop tunes.

There were audible sighs of recognition when he played “Bei Mir Bist Du Scheon” and attendees raised their arms to signify the rising of sun during “Rise and Shine.”  Richman also taught them a new tune in Ladino, Judeo-Spanish, “Ocho Kandelikas.”

“I thought it was wonderful,” said Shirley Kutlin, 94, about the Dec. 15 holiday program. Kutlin, a 10-year resident of The Chelsea, recalled how joyously her family, Polish immigrants, celebrated Hanukka.  “It brought back lots of memories of my childhood with my family.”

For many seniors living in secular assisted living facilities, getting out to find a connection to Jewish life can be difficult. However, Jewish holiday and cultural programming is now coming to them through JCC Connects, a program of the JCC of Middlesex County in Edison, which makes the rounds three to four times a year to eight assisted living facilities in Middlesex and Monmouth counties. 

“It’s important that these people remain a part of the Jewish community and we are actively looking for ways to do this,” said Laura Safran, federation director of community impact. “The funding we provide allows the JCC to move beyond its walls and tells these people that they matter. This initiative reminds seniors even if they don’t live in a Jewish building or area there is a way for them to connect Jewishly.”

JCC director of Jewish and family programming Jennine Shpigel said JCC Connects, which is funded by the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, has proven so popular the JCC is now “pushing to include more facilities.” 

She explained the program replaces its successful Shabbat Connects, which brought a Friday afternoon Shabbat celebration to assisted living residents. 

“Each time we go, we do something a little different,” Shpigel said of JCC Connects. “We’ve done Israel, Jews and Broadway, and Jewish music.”

December’s theme is not surprisingly Hanukka. Richman said during the programs, which last 60 to 75 minutes, “We always talk to the residents a little beforehand and afterward have refreshments and talk a little about the program, whether it’s Broadway or Israel, and schmooze a little before we take off.”

In his December program Richman sang “Sweet Caroline” in honor of Neil Diamond’s 50th anniversary tour. Seniors chimed in during the chorus. 

“I thought the program was very invigorating and interesting,” said Barbara Tuck, 78, who moved to The Chelsea three years ago from Florida. “I like to listen to Jennine’s programs. They are always fun and it’s wonderful to have them here.”

The festivities concluded with the distribution of jelly doughnuts, a traditional Hanukka treat, and gift bags of holiday decorations, a dreidel, and gelt.

“I enjoyed it so much,” said Barbara Beck, 92, a Chelsea resident for 10 years after moving from Woodmere, Long Island. “Judaism and Hanukka mean a lot to me.”

Federation director of community impact Laura Safran said funding the program is “important to us because going out into the community and meeting community needs is what we’re all about.” 

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