Alon Berkowitz of Alpine, 13, was the first teenager to work on the TeleCare Connection, a program of Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson.
“I was looking for a community service project for my bar mitzvah, and my parents told me about JFS, about how they always have great ideas that can help our community,” he said. That was in January – Lisa Feder, the JFS executive director, had just secured a grant for the program, but had gotten no further with it. “We caught her at a good time,” Alon said. He and his parents started by asking their friends to donate old computers or iPads if they were about to upgrade their systems; that made the original funding go further.
Then Alon and his mother, Nancy Berkowitz, met the woman who was to be at the other end of the TeleCare Connection, Lisbeth Strauss of Fort Lee, a German Holocaust survivor.
“Mrs. Strauss is an incredible woman,” Nancy Berkowitz said. “This was a woman who had never touched a computer before, or ever used email. She originally was a schoolteacher, and she taught kids about Alon’s age. When we first were there, she was astonished. She looked at him and said, ‘I used to teach children your age, and now here you are, teaching me.’
“His first lesson with Mrs. Strauss was teaching her how to turn the iPad on and off, and how to charge it,” she continued. “That was the whole lesson. The touch screen at first was incomprehensible to her. But she has come such a long way, and now she writes very sophisticated emails. She just didn’t understand at first that you could just touch your finger to the screen to type.”
When you never have dealt with new technology, no matter how smart and well-educated you are, when you come face to face with it, the whole thing seems on some level to be magic, and as foreign as if it’s come from another planet.
“Alon also had to learn how to talk – how not to use a lot of terms that we use all the time,” his mother said. “‘Just click’ doesn’t make sense. ‘Double click’ doesn’t make sense. Things on the Internet – the whole Internet itself – don’t make sense.
“At first, Mrs. Strauss couldn’t comprehend how touching something on the iPad would affect things all around her. The concept of email at first was a little bit daunting. She didn’t understand how it was going in and coming out. But she was always eager to learn.”
Alon Berkowitz taught his peers how to make TeleCare Connection work. “We met with teenagers who were interested in teaching older people how to use these devices. I went over some of the basics with them – how you need to act with elders, how to have patience.”
The Berkowitzes have developed a very real friendship with Mrs. Straus. “We see her at least once a week,” Alon said. “We tend to drop in on weekends, to check on her. During the storm, we made sure that she was good.”
The program assumes that most of the teaching will be done over Skype, both because it’s less threatening for the teenagers that way, and because, “on a pragmatic level, you don’t have to rely on Mommy or Daddy to drive you,” Feder said. But “you really come to love your TeleCare buddy,” Alon said.
Feder hopes that the program can grow. “We’re all hoping that it ends up being a model, that as JFS can show its success we can build it up from 20 seniors to 200.”
“Mrs. Straus has all these friends who are incredibly jealous,” Nancy Berkowitz added. “They keep asking if they can drop by when Alon teaches. There is an incredibly want and need on the part of these elders to live in the 21st century.”