‘Adopt a saba'

The project is still growing, and the support it receives is the backbone for further success moving forward.

Participants – young and old alike – at the program’s end-of-year celebration at the Hebrew University last year (photo credit: Courtesy)
Participants – young and old alike – at the program’s end-of-year celebration at the Hebrew University last year
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As interest in the elderly community in Israel grows in the legislative arena with new initiatives to promote quality-of-life improvements, the Adopt a Saba (grandfather) project has been working for the past five years on relieving some of this population’s solitude.
There are more than 800,000 elderly people – childless, housebound, Holocaust survivors and others. Many of them suffer from loneliness and need human company. Adopt a Saba was established to deal with this alarming phenomenon and to strengthen the relationship between the young and the elderly.
The project started in Jerusalem and now operates in two additional cities, Beersheba and Rehovot. During the project, a university student meets once a week with an elderly man or woman to relieve some of their solitude.
“The idea came to my mind after arriving in Jerusalem and moving into my first flat with roommates,” says Gilad Gosher, one of the founders of the project.
“I discovered that even though I liked having roommates, I needed a place to escape to when the flat became overcrowded. Thinking about the elderly and their need for company, it occurred to me that a weekly meeting in the house of a “grandma” or “grandpa” could fulfill both of our needs. Both sides gain a new friend, and the student gains a second home in Jerusalem.”
Yuval Tarrab, a 24-year-old chemistry and cognition student and a volunteer in the project, says that the minute she met Yaakov, 98, she fell in love.
“He lives just a few blocks from where I live, and his life story is amazing. He received a scholarship to study in Bezalel [art school] when he was in high school in Germany, so he is a real “Yerushalmi” from a young age.”
The connection they made was so strong that Tarrab continued volunteering for another two years, and decided to expand her work with the project. Now she is in charge of recruiting new volunteers.
“After getting the job, I kept meeting with Yaakov. I don’t miss any of our weekly meeting where we go to museums, talk about his art, have coffee and mostly enjoy spending time together. All of my friends know about Yaakov.”
After researching the inter-generational issue and realizing how many elderly are suffering from loneliness, Gosher knew something had to be done.
“This issue needs to get some attention; more needs to be done to raise awareness,” he says.
Adopt a Saba is the largest volunteer-based project organized by the Student Union of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Accompanied by social workers from NGOs and government agencies, the project identifies elderly people in the community that are interested in taking part in this experience.
“We have improved professionally with a part-time social worker who gives aid to the elderly and to the students,” says Gosher about the progress the project has achieved.
Beyond its regular activities, the project takes part in additional social activities in the city, such as the Forum of Holocaust survivors, meetings and events on the occasion of Independence Day and the Day of Good Deeds.
“This project really helped me feel more connected to the city and I know I will leave my mark here. Getting to know the people living in our communities makes you feel more at home. That is what the project gives the students; for the elderly it gives some relief and the opportunity to share their story,” says Tarrab.
Gosher adds: “The project is in a period of expansion to new cities and new university campuses. This momentum requires us to find new financial resources to move toward our vision: for every campus to have its own Adopt a Saba project and provide a solution to hundreds of solitary elderly across the country. I hope that we can extend our reach and get to a more diverse population, like Arabs in east Jerusalem for example, and to more cities in Israel. I would like the project to expand beyond just a single kind of activity, and offer more one-day volunteer opportunities, allowing more people to take part.”
Gan Lomnitz, a pre-med student, has been volunteering with the project for three years, visiting with Michael, a Holocaust survivor who is mostly confined to his house.
“In the beginning I came to Adopt a Saba because I thought it was important for the young generation, like us students, to be more active with the older generation, but after I started meeting with Michael I realized it benefits me as well.”
Lomnitz explains how the connection he made with Michael enriched his life as a student in Jerusalem and in general.
“I barely knew my own grandparents on one side of my family before they died, and I have a grandmother in Argentina who I don’t have a deep connection with. After three years with Michael, I feel that I have that bond that I was missing.
“When we first started our weekly meetings three years ago, it was because Michael wanted to learn how to use the computer, and mostly how to use Skype to talk to his kids and grandkids overseas.”
There are a variety of activities the pairs are encouraged to do, such as learning how to use the Internet, recording life stories, engaging in music, culture and the arts, and of course, face-to-face discussions.
Usually this leads to a special personal relationship between the student and the elderly.
“When we first started our meetings, Michael would tell me some stories about his life and how he survived the Holocaust. With time, he felt more comfortable with me and our connection grew stronger.”
Although the relationship is designed to ease the loneliness of the elderly, the student volunteers gain a lot, feel that the relationship is significant, and frequently continue the relationship beyond the scope of the project.
The connection the students gain with Jerusalem is also an important aspect of the project. “The stories Michael has told me about Jerusalem in the 60s and the days that he made aliya are priceless,” says Lomnitz.
“I really feel that I’m part of a community – and not the student party-type one, but the real Jerusalem experience." Adopt a Saba is supported by JDC-Eshel, the Ted Arison Foundation and the Hebrew University Student Union. With additional support from other foundations this past year, the project awarded each couple (student and elderly) vouchers for dinner for two people at a local restaurant so the student and elderly can go out once in a while. It gives them an activity to do while meeting and not just staying home, another way to spend time together.
The project is still growing, and the support it receives is the backbone for further success moving forward.
“The value of the connection the students form with the city of Jerusalem and the elderly that live there is incalculable. We hope that this bond will strengthen and continue to grow here and in other cities,” say Yair Bar and Lora Busharia, this year’s project managers. 
www.ametzsaba.org; ametz.saba2015@gmail.com