One of the more interesting activities in which I participate, is the virtual senior center at Self Help in New York City. This organization, founded as a support for aging Holocaust survivors, and now reaches across all communities in the metropolitan area, realized that one of the issues that effects the elderly the most is loneliness. The reality is that for any number of reasons many seniors are unable to leave their homes, making it is impossible for them to access the brick and mortar community centers. So, with an amazing grant, this organization set up a way for those who would otherwise spend their days alone the ability to connect with their peers.
The virtual senior center provides classes ranging from a variety of exercise programs, to legal rights, to history, to world news, to art history, computer education, and even have classes where the participants can speak to each other in their cradle languages (both Russian and Chinese). Sample of classes.
This is done all from the comfort of a person’s home. It’s even done at my comfort. Since I simply boot up my computer, put on a pair of head phones, and enjoy 1 hour of a very special and educational interaction.
I have been volunteering with Self Help as a class facilitator for well over a year now. In fact, when I went back to work (luckily, I am able to work from home) I conditioned it upon being able to teach at Self Help. My class began as a discussion on Middle East politics, Jewish history, the US Constitution and the US election. We talk about everything from climate change to the Law of the Sea to the hegemony of American culture. We also discuss issues that directly effect New York City and seniors specifically.
Meanwhile, last week I had read some interesting modern takes on the holiday of Purim and we opened with a discussion about Vashti and the #MeToo movement, segueing into the true meaning of Esther’s journey from Persian princess to the Jewish heroine Hadassah. The week before we talked about St Patrick’s Day and the history of Irish immigration to the US. Before that we have talked about “living your best life,” and the fall out to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
So why do I do this every week?
Believe me, this is not a selfless act of charity.
In truth, I began this journey to honor my parents. They were never blessed to have reached the age of most of those in my class. And I would have hoped, had they been granted such longevity, there would be someone out there in this world, that would have wanted to make sure that they were never forgotten and that their days were filled with opportunity and joy. So, I decided that if I had wanted actions by others for those I loved, then why wouldn’t I stand up and be counted right now for someone else’s parent?
I have always tried to live the values expressed by Hillel:
If I am not for myself who will be for me,
If I am only for myself what am I,
If not now, when?
So, I found SelfHelp on a volunteer website and as they say…the rest is history. Well, at least some of my more recent history.
At one point my class participants told me how much they like my class, because I listen to them. I let them speak their minds. They told me because they are old, no one is interested in their opinions any more (which I find so unbelievably sad on so many levels). I think one of the more important things that we have lost in this very mobile world of ours is the wisdom of earlier generations. We have forgotten that just because someone did not grow up with an iPhone, does not mean that they do not have immense value to offer us.
But the truth of the matter is that the blessings that I have received far outweigh anything that I have given to anyone. The accumulated life knowledge and experience that are shared each week is amazing. The sheer unadulterated joy in speaking their minds (at times interestingly unfiltered) and discussing every issue we put forward is a unique learning experience for me.
Just to share one story: the topic of the day was how did you celebrate Christmas? After all we are in the US and the many of the SelfHelp participants are not Jewish. (I try to bring a cross section of ideas, topics, and respect to everyone’s background and culture)
We talked about wonderful meals with family, traditions and the joy of the holiday. Of course, I talked about Jewish Christmas, Chinese takeout and what movie we watched.
Then one very elderly lady told us that the daughter of the woman that saved her when she was young during the Holocaust comes to pick her up for Christmas Eve. That her children join with this Christian family of righteous gentiles, and they celebrate the holiday together, as they have done since they all survived the war.
I told her that it is official- she won the holiday celebration sweepstakes.
Then we signed off for the day.
I closed my computer and sat quiet for awhile.
I wonder to this day about the stories that are lost on the younger generation. And am thankful every day that to honor my parents, I am blessed with knowing these people.
If you have an elderly loved one who lives in the New York metropolitan area, and would benefit from SelfHelp Virtual Senior Center Click HERE.