In Search of More than a Friendly Hello

by Natalie Jacobs April 29, 2016



“During your working years, you’re being socialized all the time,” says Melanie Rubin, director of senior and adult programs for the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center. “All of a sudden, when you’re retired, you lose a lot of those social connections.”

Add to that the financial constraints of a fixed income and transportation issues related to living in San Diego’s sprawl and there is a considerable population of older people who become more and more isolated as they age.

“People watch seven hours of tv a day if they’re retired and isolated,” says Hedy Dalin, director of geriatric care management for Jewish Family Service.

“The lack of social connection really negatively effects both the mental and physical well-being of an individual,” Brenda Bothel, senior director of aging and wellness services for JFS, adds.

The three women are gathered around a cell phone in a hotel room in Washington, D.C. They’re at the Aging in America conference in conjunction with a grant their organizations received from the Jewish Women’s Foundation, a giving circle of 80 members who contribute to and manage a fund established by Jan Tuttleman, z”l, at Jewish Community Foundation.

In 2014, both the JCC and JFS received a total of $210,000 from Jewish Women’s Foundation, to be distributed across three years for programs designed to address the social needs of senior Jewish women. Under the grant, the JCC has developed a technology tutoring program in collaboration with its teen center. Rubin also personally invites women to community events like the Jewish Film Festival and adult education classes.

The collaborative relationship between JCC and JFS allows Rubin to utilize JFS’s extensive On the Go ride-sharing network, in addition to offering scholarships for tickets to various events put on by both organizations. At JFS, Dalin and Bothel have used the grant money to expand senior center hours at the College Area center, now housed at Temple Emanu-El, to include Sunday activities with kosher lunch. Their Bikkur Holim friendly visitor volunteer program has expanded under this grant as well.

Barbara Bry, outgoing chair of the JWF leadership council, says although JCC and JFS were the only organizations to submit grant proposals, she was excited about the prospect of reaching different geographic areas through the grant – JFS programs are focused in the College Area and JCC programs primarily target UTC.

Joyce Axelrod, who will take over as chair in June, echoes the importance of expanded geographic support for these women. Axelrod participated in the focus groups that were convened during the decision-making process and remembers a few striking conversations with some of the older women who participated.

“Some women felt not engaged in the Jewish community because they felt they were too far out,” Axelrod recalls. Despite programs like On the Go, she says, “still some people feel beyond the bounds.”

Every few years, Jewish Women’s Foundation chooses a different category of women and girls to support through focused, multi-year grants. Each JWF member aged 40 and older makes a five-year commitment to the Foundation for $2,000 each year; members younger than 40 make the same five-year commitment for $1,000 each year. During grant decision years, members host focus groups with the community, including rabbis and leaders of various local organizations, to come up with a short list of needs, or as Bry calls it “a menu of options.” Each member offers a vote and a smaller council of about 10 women make the final decision.

The previous JWF grant cycle supported initiatives to enhance leadership opportunities for young girls. The Jewish Family Service program Girls Give Back, which organizes service opportunities and leadership training for teen girls, was developed with funding from that grant. Jewish Family Service’s Project Sarah, for victims of domestic abuse, and the Jewish Single Parents program both received JWF grants in previous years.

Girls Give Back remains a success story for this specific multi-year form of grant-making from JWF. That program was started with their grant funding, and is now supported by Hadassah and others, with management oversight still provided by JFS.

At the halfway point for this grant cycle, both JCC and JFS are still working to find the older women they seek to engage.

“Our biggest challenge is actually reaching those isolated individuals,” Brenda Bothel of JFS says from the phone in D.C. She directly addresses the Jewish Journal audience with this request: “If folks would think about their friends and their neighbors that don’t get out much, that they haven’t seen lately – make those phone calls and encourage them to connect with either the JCC or JFS. There’s really no wrong door.”

They say some of the women they contact are initially reluctant to share information or agree to get involved, because it’s unusual that someone who is at first a stranger is interested in their personal affairs.

“[Some people] don’t want to take us up on the transportation because they feel like ‘oh, you’re going to spend all this money just on me? Don’t pity me, I don’t want to take up all that money,’” JCC’s Rubin paraphrases from her conversations.

But, all three grantees report, they’re working to personalize things as much as possible.

“We go out to the homes,” Dalin of JFS says. “Once you’re in the home, it opens doors and people start talking, once they know that someone is reaching out and caring enough to do that, to give them encouragement to do something that sometimes they didn’t want to do.”

A separate part of the Jewish Women’s Foundation Jan Tuttleman endowment, about $20,000 annually, is reserved for professional development and community-wide networking and empowerment events. This money was used to bring Rubin, Bothel and Dalin to D.C. for the aging conference.

“The plan is to offer general personal development opportunities for women,” Sharyn Goodson, who managed JWF at the Community Foundation for five years, explains.

Also under that umbrella, the Foundation hosted its first community-at-large event, entitled “Women and Change” in January of this year, with more than 50 women invited to attend at no cost, since it was underwritten by the endowment.

“It took the council some time to figure out how best to use Jan’s bequest,” Goodson says. “Because she was all about leadership and development and personal growth, they really felt this was a good thing to do.”

“I love the group,” Bry says of the Jewish Women’s Foundation. “Being involved in organizations that empower women is very important to me and this is directly impacting Jewish women and girls.”

Axelrod notes that there is something special that happens in a conversation between women.

“Sometimes, women to women you can expect more honesty and openness,” she says, reflecting on her participation in the focus groups, where older Jewish women were asked to get very personal about things like loneliness and friendship.

After two days at the Aging in America conference, Dalin, Bothel and Rubin say they feel reinforced in their efforts with social integration programs.

“[We’ve] learned how crucial socialization is,” Dalin says. “We knew it, but seeing the evidence-based practices on this really brought it home that this is something that is not a luxury, it is not a life enhancement program, it’s life or death.”


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