Seniors find a haven in Paterson
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Seniors find a haven in Paterson

Low-cost apartments offer dignity, activities, security

Seniors on a low income deserve to live with dignity, said Sandy Eckstein, newly named director of the Federation Apartments in Paterson.

Eckstein, who has been the social worker at the apartments for the past 10 years and succeeds longtime director Sue Shusman, describes the facility as “a great way for someone on a fixed income to live well and have a nice life.”

Financed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the apartments clearly fill a great need.

“There aren’t enough low-cost apartments for seniors,” Eckstein said, adding that “a lot of affordable housing is not low income.” Some of her residents live on less than $1,000 a month, she said. Nevertheless, because they can afford to pay the rent – one-third of their income – “they can live with dignity.”

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New and former Federation Apartments staff members Sue Shusman, Sandy Eckstein, and Paula Gershonowitz.

Not surprisingly, the apartments have a very long waiting list.

“The national situation is dire,” Eckstein said. “Low-income housing is not being built in sufficient numbers. Not enough new money is being put into it.”

Eckstein said residents at the Paterson apartments “live in a clean and safe environment.” The building has an elevator, laundry, security guard, and gated parking lot. “There are also other seniors to make friends with,” as well as activities in the building.

“We provide activities to promote socialization,” she said, pointing out that the director of tenant services, Eleanor Kohn, plans monthly programs such as yoga, shopping trips, and visits to restaurants. Kohn also arranges for monthly birthday parties, complete with entertainment.

While Jewish residents are still in the majority – the facility was founded by the Jewish community in 1971 – more than half of them are Russian. About 80 percent are women.

“There’s still a synagogue on the premises,” Eckstein said, adding that because many of the residents now do not observe Shabbat, “Sam Heller and David Berman” – who are members of an Orthodox synagogue in Fair Lawn – “arrange for boys to come from Fair Lawn to make sure we have a minyan.”

Eckstein noted that “Forty years ago, there was a vibrant Jewish community in Paterson.” As the demographics of the town have changed, “we still occasionally get English-speaking Jews, but not in the numbers they used to be.”

Residents must be 62 or older, with an income below $40,000. While most are Russian Jews, the apartments also serve African Americans, most from the Paterson area.

Residents receive periodic visits from synagogue and school groups as well as from federation volunteers. One volunteer, Sam Heller, gives a beginning Hebrew class once a week. Over the last few years, the facility has held a Chanukah party as well as a megillah reading and Purim celebration. The Chanukah party is provided by the Knights of Pythias.

“One member of our board is a member there,” Eckstein said. “They’re very well organized, and they come with a whole group and all the food. We give them the number of tenants and they bring the latkes and refreshments.

Some members of Fair Lawn synagogues come and join us,” she continued. “We light menorahs, sing songs, and dance a little.”

On the second night of Passover, some residents attend a seder at the Glen Rock Jewish Center; the shul’s rabbi, Neil Tow, is a member of the building’s board of trustees.

“So many people don’t know we exist, but it’s a place that can be so helpful to a senior on a fixed low income,” Eckstein said. “They don’t have to live in a basement or rely on relatives. They can live independently, on their own. The can make friends and start enjoying the rest of their lives.”

Some residents have been there for more than 30 years, she said. “When they come, they tend to stay, depending on their health.”

As a social worker, Eckstein’s job was to interview prospective tenants, offer one-on-one counseling, and help people with concrete services such as applying for Medicaid or food stamps, obtaining medication, helping them find a doctor, or explaining bills they did not understand. Now that Eckstein has taken over as director, a new social worker, Paula Gershonowitz, has been hired.

“We’ve also been looking for someone to teach English as a second language,” Eckstein said, noting that some of her new Russian tenants would be interested in such a class. “We’re always on the lookout for volunteer opportunities.”

Tow became involved in the apartments three years ago, when he was invited tojoin the group’s board.

“I understand that there’s always been a rabbi on the board,” he said. “There was an opening and they extended an invitation. It’s been a great learning experience, to find out the great things they’re doing over in Paterson.”

In addition to attending monthly board meetings, Tow leads a Tu Bi-Sh’vat service, a model Passover seder, and the group’s Chanukah event. He also is on call for counseling when necessary.

“It’s a very positive thing,” he said, adding that the events he leads draw a mix of Jews and non-Jews.

The apartments are owned by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, according to Judy Blake, the president of its board. She noted that in the early 1970s under the leadership of Gerrard Berman, the federation felt that creating such a facility was “a necessity.”

“It was started for Jewish seniors in Paterson,” she said. Because her children were attending Yavneh Academy, then across the street, “we watched it go up.

“How nice to have seniors and young kids together,” Blake continued. “They used to interact. The kids would go over and do different activities.

“It’s a wonderful facility – a gem,” she said, noting that she knew some of the “charter members… and they loved it. It’s like a wonderful oasis for seniors in the middle of Paterson.

“I would come in the summer and see them out on stone benches around the porch, with some men playing cards or reading and some women chatting. It was delightful.”

The 24-member board, she said, is made up of “very active people from federation,” about 18 of whom attend the monthly board meetings. Among the members is Sari Gross, who heads the federation’s Mitzvah Day.

“She helps people who need assistance in different ways,” Blake said, pointing out that among other things, Gross obtains Chanukah gifts for residents. Alan Weitzman, “an architect who is so helpful in keeping the building in working condition,” also is active.

Caryn Goodman, the board secretary and a geriatric care consultant, said her profession and her volunteer work are “a perfect fit.” Her father, Larry Goodman, a past board president, also continues to be active.

“The board members are all such wonderful workers,” Blake said. “It’s been a pleasure being on the board, because they’re such good people and so good to work with. Some people have been on it for years.”

While demographics have changed, she said, the goal of the Federation Apartments remains the same – “to have seniors comfortable and secure,” with the added benefit of regular activities and a “wonderful support system.”

“I think the institution is an important piece of the Jewish communal picture in this area, and I hope people get to know it, to get a sense of what they’ve been doing,” Tow said.

“We have in Paterson a well-run, clean, efficient, well-managed building we should all be proud of,” Tow said, adding his hope that people might want to participate in some of the facility’s events.

For more information, call Sandy Eckstein at (973) 881-8141.

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