Ethel Rosenfeld celebrated her 100th birthday on board a plane, returning from a trip to Florida with a group of seniors from JCC MetroWest’s Cooperman JCC in West Orange — where the following week the entire staff turned up to share another cake and sing to her.
It was an appropriate way to mark the milestone. Though clearly the kind of person who practices moderation and in general a cool customer, Rosenfeld admitted, “I loved traveling.” With her late husband, Ernest, who died 10 years ago, or with one or two close friends, she went to Israel, Switzerland, Kenya, and Australia, among other places.
Though she was tired for a day or two after the Florida jaunt, advanced age seems to have had little effect on Rosenfeld. Asked what the secret of her longevity is, she declared, “I haven’t got one. Luck, I suppose.”
Brought up in Manhattan, with Hungarian-born parents, she spoke only Hungarian until she started school. She and her husband moved to New Jersey in 1940, and she worked for many years as a clerk for Essex County, handling deeds and mortgages. “My mother wanted me to do more, but I wasn’t ready to be pushed. I wasn’t that ambitious,” she recalled.
These days “everything takes longer,” she admitted, so she doesn’t read as much as she used to, but she uses glasses only sometimes, and doesn’t need a cane or a hearing aid.
The toughest part, she said, was giving up driving four years ago at 96. It was around the time she moved from her house in Maplewood, where she had lived since 1959, to an apartment in the Jewish Community Housing Corporation’s Village Apartments of the Jewish Federation in South Orange. She lives there with her “champagne-colored” cat, Red.
“If I’d had my cataract surgery before that, I might have carried on driving,” she said. “I hated giving up my car.”
But Rosenfeld still puts in time each week — as she has done for 30 years — with EIES, the Electronic Information and Education Service of NJ, reading to the blind. Her reading matter, as it happens: New Jersey Jewish News.
On Saturday mornings, she goes to services at Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn with her daughter, Naomi, who lives just a few minutes from her. She also has a son, Ira, who lives in Westchester County, NY, and four granddaughters — all successful career women, she stated proudly. However, Rosenfeld admitted, “I wish I had a great-grandchild.”
She walks to the shops on South Orange Avenue, a block away from her building. And two or three times a week, she takes the bus to the Leon and Toby Cooperman JCC to attend programs at the William Margulies Senior Center. Rosenfeld serves on the board and sometimes helps handle the lunches.
“I’m not particularly interested in the socializing,” she said. “I do the exercise classes, and I like the talks on current events.”
Oh, and she likes the travel. Gina Goldman, Margulies director and assistant director of the JCC’s Center for Adult Enrichment, described Rosenfeld as “a spitfire” — not the crackling kind, but rather someone who’s on the ball. For example, in Florida, when the group toured an exhibit of Renaissance paintings at Sarasota’s John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Rosenfeld pointed out that a man in one of the works was wearing a tallit.
“She’s punctual and practical and not a kvetcher,” added Goldman, who made Rosenfeld a pipe cleaner crown marking her 100th while they were in Florida.
The centenarian is “very appreciative of anything people do for her,” Goldman said, “and that makes her a pleasure to travel with.”