Isolated Jewish seniors targeted in new ‘Connection’ program


Bill Motchan

Fran Zellinger said the new Jewish Senior Connection program is ‘a gift to seniors.’

When Fran Zellinger was growing up, she watched TV on a black-and-white set and talked to friends using a dial phone. Now she’s a Zoom veteran. That’s why she’s enthusiastic about a new program called Jewish Senior Connection, which takes full advantage of video conferencing.

“I think that it’s a gift to seniors, and I think that if someone would just try it, they would be amazed at how much they would enjoy it,” Zellinger said. “It’s being done under a grant for seniors, and I think that these programs that are designed for seniors are marvelous.”

Jewish Senior Connection officially kicked off Tuesday, April 13, with a screening of a portion of the documentary film “Cyber-Seniors” along with a discussion led by Susan Kemppainen about the Mirowitz Center’s new Tech Tutor program. In addition, St. Louis NORC coordinator Sarah Levinson offered tips to access online Jewish community resources.

The program was developed by Congregation B’nai Amoona, Traditional Congregation and Kol Rinah and is open to all Jewish seniors who are 65 and older regardless of their congregation affiliation. It’s a result of a JCA Charitable Foundation grant awarded to the three participating congregations, said Marcia Mermelstein of B’nai Amoona who is coordinating the program.

“When the JCA [Jewish Center for Aged] closed, there was an endowment fund from the JCA Charitable Foundation,” Mermelstein said. “An organization in the Jewish community can apply for a grant for programs that benefit older Jewish adults.”

The proposal was written by Liessa Alperin, B’nai Amoona director of innovative learning, engagement and youth. The grant will help fund the program through January. For the planning team, the goal is to offer monthly events. Initially, they will be virtual, but the hope is to transition to in-person gatherings if they can be done in a safe environment.

“We have lots of ideas,” Mermelstein said. “We’re going to try performance programs with music. I would like to see occasionally showing a movie. I love cooking, so maybe a series on that would work. We could offer a whole cooking class for people. I would also like to think about doing something on a Saturday night with a havdalah service and then a social program, or maybe a Sunday brunch program.”

She is planning events along with her two Jewish Senior Connection counterparts, Rabbi Scott Shafrin from Kol Rinah and Marian Gordon, executive director of Traditional Congregation. They hope to get an assist from volunteer members of the congregations.

Kol Rinah, Congregation B’nai Amoona and Traditional Congregation partnered to create the Jewish Senior Connection program. (Bill Motchan)

The program is modeled in part from a successful partnership of four Reform congregations: United Hebrew Congregation, Congregation Shaare Emeth, Temple Israel and Temple Emanuel. Mermelstein said that series of events has drawn many members of the Jewish community because it offers a regular gathering that people look forward to.

“It wasn’t necessarily the program subject that makes people come,” she said. “A lot of the people who come do it regularly each month, and they look forward to seeing their friends and eating lunch and seeing people. The program isn’t inconsequential, but it’s not the main thing. That is the social part of it.”

Another aspect of the Reform congregations’ series that Jewish Senior Connection will emulate is offering a subsidized meal. Initially, it will be a kosher lunch that participants can pick up prior to the program at Kol Rinah or B’nai Amoona.

Monthly events are just one part of Jewish Senior Connection. Mermelstein said an important aspect of the program will focus on the more isolated, more vulnerable older people at home who are often by themselves. Those at-risk individuals could also be caregivers.

“I consider them at risk and isolated at home,” she said. “If you are a serious caregiver, you are not going out as much and your life has gotten much smaller. Your time and efforts are more devoted to one person and you are more isolated even if you are in good health.”

Mermelstein said plans call for a group of volunteers who will make regular check-ins on those more isolated members of the Jewish community. Those volunteers will be trained to listen on phone calls for warning signs. They’ll also have a list of resources to offer the people they’re calling.

“I think it will be a great thing to involve them and a great thing for the older adults,” Mermelstein said. “They’ll be asking questions like, ‘How are you managing? Is there anything you need?’ and they can answer questions about resources like the homemaker program from JFS (Jewish Family Services) for meal prep and cleaning and housekeeping. They are not caseworkers or social workers, but we can give them resources.”

Zellinger said she is excited to begin attending Jewish Senior Connection programs because she was a guest at a number of the Reform congregation events.

“I feel very fortunate that several years ago, I was asked by my brother and sister-in-law if I would like to attend,” Zellinger said. “They were getting a very good turnout, and I saw people that I hadn’t seen in years, people that I might have gone to grade school with or had as a neighbor 30 to 40 years ago. It was such a delight to be able to see all these people, so I’ve been going for several years. I’m hoping the one being done by B’nai Amoona, Kol Rinah and Traditional Congregation can also attract a large number of people.”

Future Jewish Senior Connection events will be scheduled on the second Tuesday of the month. The program is open to any member of the St. Louis Jewish community who is age 65 or older. For more information about upcoming events, contact Marcia Mermelstein at 314-576-9990, ext. 139.