‘Isolation is the worst thing’

‘Isolation is the worst thing’

Zalmen Mlotek to be among entertainers on JFS of Clifton/Passaic’s Zoomathon

Zalmen Mlotek
Zalmen Mlotek

It’s not as ambitious as a long-ago Jerry Lewis telethon, but an upcoming Zoomathon aims to raise enough money to keep a popular senior citizens’ socialization program operating in Passaic County.

The story begins 15 years ago, when Jewish Family Service and Children’s Center of Clifton-Passaic took part in a federally funded pilot of Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, or NORCs. This concept involves services and activities geared to enabling seniors to age in place in good emotional and physical health.

According to JFS figures, about 28 percent of the Clifton-Passaic population is over 65 years old. More than half of them live alone. Half report financial difficulties, 24 percent have emotional issues, 16 percent have cognitive decline, and 16 percent have mobility problems. In short, it was a good place to pilot a NORC.

One aspect was a weekly social program, Club Sequoia, held at the local JCC. This program proved so successful at fostering a sense of community and reducing isolation that even though the federal funding ended and the JCC closed a decade ago, JFS continued hosting Club Sequoia and increased it to four days a week with the support of the Taub Foundation and local donors.

Under the direction of onsite coordinator and social worker Shaina Bodenheim, JFS staff and social work students organized Club Sequoia lectures, fitness classes, current-events discussion groups, games, and arts programs for about 90 seniors, who were transported from Passaic, Clifton, Bloomfield, Nutley, and Jersey City. The seniors ate lunch together and took an active role in planning activities.

Covid changed the picture drastically for Club Sequoia and its affiliated Café Europa for Holocaust survivors, JFS’s director, Esther East, said. Tragically, three members of the group died of covid. And the future of the entire program is in jeopardy.

“When we were in our building before corona, we had a big beautiful meeting room with a sound system and a movie projector, and we offered tai chi and other senior friendly activities,” Ms. East said. “We had a special component we introduced for people with early memory loss. And because it was in the JFS building, it became a point of caretaking, too. If participants had more needs identified, we were able to provide a continuum of care.”

She recalled, for example, that the staff discovered one club member was being financially abused, and they took care of the problem.

In happier times as Club Sequoia, Mara Adler O’Kelly offered group singing lessons.

But “since the pandemic started, the seniors can’t come in, and only about 20 of them have been able to master participating in group activities online,” Ms. East continued. “The rest of them we’re calling every week.”

With covid-related funding cuts and increased community needs now threatening Club Sequoia’s very existence, JFS is holding a Zoomathon variety show with live and pre-recorded performances by artists including Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck, the artistic director of National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene; Simply Tsfat; members of the Zamir Choral Foundation; and banjo virtuoso Aaron Jonah Lewis.

The virtual fundraiser is scheduled for September 13 at 5 p.m. Learn more at jfsclifton.org/project/save-our-seniors.

“Because it’s a social and recreational club, and not a medical model, we can’t bill Medicare or Medicaid for this service,” Ms. East said.

“It doesn’t cost much to run Club Sequoia, but there are expenses. Normally we support free programs with grants, client fees from our counseling division, and philanthropic donations from the communities we serve. Because so many donors have been impacted by corona or are giving people direct aid, this program needs another source of support to stay alive.”

Mr. Mlotek said that when he was asked to participate in a benefit to save the Sequoia Club, he immediately said yes. He’s already giving weekly concerts from his living room via the Folksbiene Live nytf.org/live

“As artistic director of the National Yiddish Theater — Folksbiene — the longest running Yiddish theater in America, I am keenly aware of the comfort that music, particularly Yiddish music, can have,” he said. “One of my first jobs was to go to the Workmen’s Circle Home for the Aged in the Bronx many years ago, and I would be moved to see the effect that music had on the residents there.”

If Club Sequoia were to close, according to Pearl Ricklis, director of Geriatric Services at JFS, “Our members would be devastated, isolated, and bereft. They know us, they trust us, and they count on us.”

Before the pandemic, Club Sequoia gave participants the chance to cuddle with therapy dogs.

Tamar Hollander, a longtime Sequoia participant, wrote a poem that reads in part:

“Don’t you see this isn’t a want it is a need/Without Sequoia some people can’t live./This is a socialization outlet that some people/Need to get and Sequoia does give./Please don’t close it down and take it away./We all need this program every day./Help us keep this program alive.”

Another member, Ceil Haber, said, “I enjoy Sequoia. I enjoy the lectures and … the current events. I enjoy the social contact. I think it should remain open. Socially, everybody needs it, especially now during the pandemic.”

JFS Special Programs Manager Hannah Kestenbaum said, “We would love to raise $50,000 because we have nearly 100 seniors and Club Sequoia costs about $1,000 per year for one senior. There’s no fee to log on to the Zoomathon, and you can be part of something meaningful even with a small donation.”

Ms. East says she is grateful to the “wonderful musicians” who agreed to perform for the one-hour program.

“We don’t want our seniors to be neglected,” she said. “They could survive without this, but they would be surviving alone, and isolation is the worst thing.”

For more information, or to volunteer to perform, sponsor, or attend, email Ms. Kestenbaum at h.kestenbaum@jfsclifton.org.

Who: JFS of Jewish Family Service and Children’s Center of Clifton-Passaic

What: Has a Zoomathon fundraiser featuring Zalmen Mlotek, Simply Tsfat, the Zamir Chorale, and Aaron Jonah Lewis

When: On Sunday, September 15, at 5 p.m.

Why: To help JFS support the seniors who are isolated and more in need than ever

How: Go to jfsclifton.org/project/save-our-seniors/

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