These services are helping older Jews master technology and stay connected in isolation

Renee Ghert-Zand

Until April, Gail Lipsitz had never heard of the popular videoconferencing platform Zoom.

“All of a sudden, everyone was talking about and using Zoom. I had no idea how to get it and use it,” the 74-year-old Baltimore resident said.

Thanks to tutoring provided over the phone by Melanie Waxman, technology concierge from the Tech Knowledge Hub at the Edward A. Myerberg Center for older adults, Lipsitz was able to upload Zoom both to her iPhone and iPad and start using it confidently.

She’s now using Zoom to virtually attend exercise classes and classes from her synagogue, as well as Jewish educational institutions like Hadar, Pardes and the Hartman Center. Lipsitz is also tuning in to Shabbat services at her son’s California congregation, gatherings of her havurah and meetings with friends over tea.

With tens of millions of Americans staying home due to the coronavirus pandemic, many older Americans are struggling to master and use the technology younger people commonly use to stay in touch with family, friends and community.

Jewish groups have responded by making special efforts to help seniors use the technology, assisting them not just with accessing the services they may require, like online shopping, but also ensuring that they stay socially connected to the wider world.

Human connection, even if it’s online, is critical to emotional well-being and even physical health, studies have shown.

“Celebrating Passover virtually was an incentive to get online” for newly homebound seniors, said Katie Lehner, marketing director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton. “That was just the beginning, and then it snowballed in terms of the demand for more programming via Zoom.”

In addition to offering personalized guidance to help seniors learn to use virtual communication tools, many Jewish agencies are creating online programs especially for older people. The Myerberg Center, a program of CHAI supported by The Associated, Baltimore’s Jewish federation, offers 30 virtual activities weekly, including fitness, humanities and art classes. Tutorials on how to use food delivery and financial apps, such as PayPal and Venmo, also are available.

In one recent week Niki Barr, director of the Myerberg Center, saw about 740 participants in its virtual classes.

“This is just about the same number that we have when classes would meet in person,” she said. “I was blown away.”

Jewish federations and their agencies have been notifying seniors through emails, phone calls and print ads in local Jewish media that support is available for getting connected online.

Some federations are relying on volunteers to provide tech assistance. Abbie Bailey, a 39-year-old mother of two preschool-age children, has been sheltering at home in Florham Park, New Jersey, and was looking for a way to help during the pandemic.

“I reached out to the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey and said I wanted to help in any way I could,” said Bailey, who runs a retail store in nearby Livingston.

Through its dedicated helpline that matches volunteers with those seeking tech support, the federation paired Bailey with two women, one of them a Holocaust survivor. She has called and walked them through the steps of how to install and use Zoom so they can stay in touch with their families.

“They appreciated the help and seemed to be in good spirits and OK with sheltering in place,” Bailey said. “One of the women, who is 92, has invited me to lunch when this is all over.”

It took a while for Mitzi Kreinberg, 93, of Livingston, to log on to Zoom. After receiving support from Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest’s technology helpline, she finally figured it out and then expanded her online connections using other tools.

“I used Facebook, which I can access readily, to participate in classes, book reviews and chats,” Kreinberg said.

In Ohio, a Virtual Conversations series with local speakers has been well attended, according to Marcy Paul, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Dayton. Each online session begins with a short “how to” reviewing the basics of Zoom. Those needing extra help can receive it ahead of time individually.

Many seniors have taken their newfound knowledge and applied it to maintaining regular connections beyond formal offerings.

Linda Novak, 73, had previously used her computer only for email and Facebook. But she got help from Amy Dolph, program administrator for her local JCC in Dayton, to learn how to run her book club using Zoom.

“The book I had chosen was the first one up for discussion, so Amy gave me some extra help in learning how to run the meeting using Zoom,” Novak said. “Her tutorial was priceless.”

In Chicago, CJE SeniorLife, an affiliate of the Jewish United Fund of Chicago, had to quickly revamp its programming to suit the age of coronavirus.

“Before COVID, most of our programming was face to face and in person. We didn’t have much of a virtual presence,” said Cathy Samatas, manager of community engagement for CJE SeniorLife, which serves up to 20,000 individuals in its community-based and residential services.

More than half of those who access virtual programming live independently in the community, while the others are residents of CJE’s nursing home and assisted living facilities.

To make staying in touch easier during the pandemic, CJE SeniorLife created a dedicated Cyber Club landing page for its live Zoom programming, along with important information and resources related to the COVID-19 crisis. In response to requests from community members, the organization made instructional videos on topics such as how to order groceries and borrow library books online. The agency is also livestreaming its programming into its nursing home and assisted living facility.

“We shifted quickly and were up and running in a week and a half,” Samatas said. “Technology is a key to bridging this gap. It has been a blessing to be forced into this. It helps solve a lot of the isolation issues. We are actually seeing more people joining our programs now because with them being online, we don’t have to deal with transportation issues.”

The silver lining of the COVID-19 crisis is that it has incentivized Jewish federations and their agencies to develop additional ways to sustain their communities, said Dayton’s Marcy Paul. Once the pandemic has subsided, Paul foresees moving into a hybrid model of program delivery that will combine virtual outreach with in-person programming.

The shift to online communication also has provided seniors with the motivation to learn new skills and overcome their isolation.

“I hope, like everyone else, the pandemic is over soon,” said Helene Gordon, 63, of Englewood, Ohio, who recently joined a birthday party via Zoom. “But I feel these skills are so important to keep individuals connected.”

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