As the room of 30 or so elderly women disperses and the ladies make their way outside, S. decides to sit down and recharge for a few more minutes before heading out to catch the two buses she needs to get back home.
Despite the long commute from Katamonim to Mea She’arim, she rarely misses the four-days-a-week morning seniors’ program held at the Ezrat Avot organization’s Jerusalem Center for Senior Health and Life Enrichment.
Since 1976, Ezrat Avot has been caring for the capital’s elderly population, providing a slew of services including the in-house senior day-care center, a “meals on wheels” home delivery food service, the weekly distribution of hundreds of dry-food packages for impoverished seniors, and many other services.
According to executive director Naomi Sharabi – a long-time educator who founded the organization with her 106-year-old grandfather 36 years ago as, initially, a soup kitchen for those in Jerusalem’s Nahalat Tzvi neighborhood – the group’s goal is “to give the elderly community in Jerusalem the respect, love and attention that they deserve, so they will have a sense of independence and feel good about themselves in their later years.”
She says the lifeblood of the organization is the more than 100 volunteers who take on the responsibilities of mass food preparation and delivery, on which many elderly residents all over the city rely for sustenance.
“We prepare and deliver over 1,000 hot meals a week,” she says. “In addition, over 200 families a week come to our facility to pick up our dry-food packages. This would not happen without our dedicated volunteers, who represent 90 percent of this organization’s staff.”
Around Jewish holidays, she adds, the demand for dryfood packages surges to nearly 2,500 per week.
SARAH LAVIN, 23, who made aliya just seven months ago after graduating from Washington University in St.
Louis, is the organization’s volunteer-coordinator. She spends her days on the phone with dozens of men’s yeshivot, women’s seminaries, other educational institutions, and tourist groups interested in pitching in. She organizes the volunteers’ shifts and makes sure everyone knows when their help is most needed in the kitchen.
Lavin says the volunteers who come to the facility help with all aspects of the food preparation, from peeling huge quantities of vegetables, to packaging and even some cooking. However, the organization does have one master chef on staff who is responsible for quality as well as quantity, something critical with so many meals being prepared.
Sharabi’s son Sraya is also on staff, serving as the organization’s managing director. The executive director says she brought her son back to Israel from Florida to help run Ezrat Avot, needing an extra hand to accommodate the increasing demand for aid to the city’s homebound elderly population.
According to the organization – based on statistics from the Jerusalem Municipality’s Division of Strategic Planning and Research, along with the Central Bureau of Statistics – the country’s elderly population has increased over the past 50 years from 3% of the general population to 10%. In Jerusalem alone, there are more than 66,000 people over the age of 65.
Sraya, busy reviewing a comprehensive list of addresses for the week’s hot meal deliveries, says the country “has one of the lowest rates of institutionalized seniors in the world.”
“Even as people age,” he says, “they want to remain independent. It’s a way for them to maintain their dignity.
In addition, while there is a stigma associated with social clubs for the elderly, causing them to shy away from attending programs in community centers, nearly 60% of Jerusalem seniors complain of a lack of social activities geared toward their age range.”
As such, he continues, “not only do we go out into the community and visit these people in their homes – providing them with meals and checking on their well-being – but we offer them an alternative in our facility by providing them with well-organized activities, and... we give [the senior community] a chance to volunteer as well.”
One such senior volunteer is Naomi Chakshur. She has been commuting to Ezrat Avot from Pisgat Ze’ev four times a week for the past six years to assist in food preparation.
“This organization does amazing work, truly from the heart,” she says. “That’s why I keep coming.”
She refers to the group’s modus operandi as a “cycle,” where seniors not only come in to receive services, but also help out other members of the elderly population who need assistance.
According to Sraya, “while the government does offer assistance and services once an elderly person is physically disabled or immobile, Ezrat Avot fills the void for those who want to remain living at home, but want to stay active and perhaps need some help getting by.”
DITI LEVY, a 22-year-old college student studying special education, serves as the coordinator for the senior daycare center. The program, which runs from 9 a.m. to noon, is open to residents from all over the city, offering breakfast, an exercise program, art and cultural activities, ending with a hot lunch. Levy says that on average, between 30 and 40 (mainly women) attend regularly.
“Rain or shine, they come,” says the coordinator.
The organization started the center understanding how important it was for the elderly to maintain both their psychological and physical well-being through staying busy, and it provides them with opportunities for socializing.
“These people [in the center] are my family,” says S.
“Sitting at home all day, we would be ill, but here at the center, we’re busy and we feel healthy.”
Though it is already making major contributions to the lives of the capital’s seniors, Ezrat Avot’s vision is to expand its services and its reach. To meet this goal, the organization purchased a piece of property near Ramot on Golda Meir Boulevard, where a six-story building that will serve as the organization’s future home is under construction.
The state-of-the-art senior center, which is set to open in 2014, will offer a full-day care program six days a week.
In addition, there are plans for a specialized fitness center, a beauty salon, medical and dental services, dance studios, a concert auditorium and a swimming pool. Of course, the organization’s meal programs for the needy will continue as well.
Sraya believes the new facility’s location will be ideal in attracting seniors who are looking to get out of the house.
“The new building is adjacent to the Ramot mall, where there are 120 stores,” he points out. “When seniors leave their homes, we believe they will naturally want to see what else is out there and become attracted to what we can offer them. We also feel that visiting the center as part of their day – just like going to the bank, post office, or mall – will further reduce the stigma many seniors feel about attending organized programs.”
He adds that the new site is “in a highly central and high-traffic area where there is easy access to public transportation.
Not only will it be more convenient for people to arrive, but our food delivery operation will become more efficient.”
According to his mother, Ezrat Avot has raised over NIS 6 million in private donations to begin work on the project, but needs another NIS 10m. to complete the building.
Sraya says the organization is working around the clock to raise the funds.
“With God’s help,” says his mother, “this dream will become a reality.”