On Saturday, some 30 residents of the Brightview Senior Residence in Paramus — many between the ages of 80 and 90 — showed that advancing years have nothing to do with activism.
Rena Bernstein — who originally was from Elmwood Park, then Fair Lawn, then Cape Canaveral, Florida — moved back to the area about a year ago, and she lives in Brightview now. “It’s taken me a while to get settled here again,” Ms. Bernstein, a former member of the now-defunct Fair Lawn chapter of American Jewish Congress, said. But clearly — though her AJCongress days are far behind her — Ms. Bernstein, 86, who helped organize a tenants association when she lived in Elmwood Park, still is speaking truth to power.
“About a week ago, after the shooting in Florida, I was aggravated by the lack of action by Congress regarding gun violence. It’s disgraceful that they haven’t done anything,” she said, citing Sandy Hook in Connecticut as another example of a horrific school shooting , and noting that nothing was done even after kindergarten children were gunned down.
“A group of us were sitting and talking at dinner,” Ms. Bernstein said. “It nearly brought me to tears. Some of the people said, ‘What can you do?’ Then it hit me. We can do something.”
What they could do, she said, was march in front of the Brightview on Saturday — carrying signs demanding an end to gun violence — in solidarity with the people marching that day in Washington, D.C., in local towns from Englewood to Paramus and beyond, to Manhattan, to all over the country, all under the banner “March for Our Lives.” Ms. Bernstein explained that given the physical frailty of some Brightview residents, who rely on walkers or canes, they would not be able to join a regular march. “We’re not as physically capable as we used to be,” she said. “But we decided to do something.”
One of her nephews sent Ms. Bernstein some poster board and other supplies. “We’ll write things like ‘Stop Gun Violence’ and ‘Stop the Killings in Our Schools,’” she said. And those who were unable to join the demonstration or choose not to still can write letters to their members of Congress, she added. The activist, who was a speech therapist in Ridgewood for 19 years, also said “the idea of arming teachers is ludicrous.”
Ms. Bernstein took her idea for a rally to Samantha Lawrence, the executive director of Brightview Senior Living in Paramus, who offered her immediate support for the senior rally. “Being heard in this world has no age limit,” Ms. Lawrence said. “I am so proud to be a part of this community where our residents live vibrantly, and this activism is a truly beautiful example of their passion for making a difference.
Ellie Berg of Fair Lawn, also a longtime member of the Fair Lawn AJCongress, said that engaging in protests is nothing new for members of the organization. Off the top of her head, she gave a few examples and recalled a surveillance project, launched together with the Fair Lawn police and the now-defunct Fair Lawn Jewish Community Council, to catch those people vandalizing local Jewish institutions. (This writer remembers standing in the shadows of Congregation Shomrei Torah at midnight, holding a walkie-talkie and looking out for would-be vandals.)
“In 1968, Fair Lawn AJCongress protested the Board of Education’s intention to cancel its contract with the Fair Lawn Committee for Peace in Vietnam, which had invited the famous pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock to speak at the Thomas Jefferson School,” Ms. Berg said. “Fair Lawn united its veterans groups — unfortunately including Jewish War Vets — and notified the FBI and the John Birch Society to encourage the cancellation of the event. While AJCongress didn’t offer an opinion on the war — although we had a stand — our purpose was to support Spock’s right to speak. He did speak, with the FBI on the roof of the school ‘protecting’ the citizens.
“Another example is when the Borough of Fair Lawn began displaying the Nativity scene. AJCongress protested, resulting in strong negative publicity, letters to the editor, etc., but somehow we established a relationship with St. Anne’s Church, which — on the following Rosh Hashanah — placed a greeting ad in the Fair Lawn community newspaper. The Jewish community reciprocated at Christmas.
“What I think is important is the power to protest, and prior to that, to be organized, so that when the need is there, we have the ability to act fast,” Ms. Berg said.
“Just because of our age, it doesn’t mean not that we’re not interested in the world around us and the lives of our children,” Ms. Bernstein added. She is discouraged by the current political situation, she noted, but is heartened by the fact that Republicans who have resigned from Congress and won’t run again finally are speaking out. “I’m hoping now that they can convince enough people to do something,” she said.