Serving seniors

A new Jerusalem Foundation program fills a social need among European seniors.

In the cramped social hall of the Evelina de Rothschild high school in Rehavia, at least seven languages are being spoken. Clustered around tables of coffee and pastries, men and women in their 70s and 80s murmur quietly to one another as they take in a performance by a local women's choir from Givat Mordechai. These are some of the last of Jerusalem's resident Holocaust survivors, enjoying the chance to converse with one another in the languages of their countries of origin - places they fled more than 60 years ago. They are taking in an afternoon musical performance and coffee house courtesy of Cafe Europe, a new social work program catering to the needs of survivors and their families. At a small table near the back of the room, set with coffee, cake and rugelach, German survivor Esther Golan is joined by Margaret and Pinhas Shechner, a couple who will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next year. Like many of those attending the day's coffee house, Margaret is not herself a Holocaust survivor; she and her family immigrated to Israel from England in 1955. Instead, she is here in support of her husband. Pinhas, born in Poland, lost nearly his entire family to concentration camps and rebuilt his life in Israel (where he met Margaret) from nothing. He is a quiet man and knows no English, Margaret's native tongue - although he readily converses with guests who stop by to greet him in Hebrew, Polish and Russian. His focus is on the music, and when the choir embarks on a rendition of "Eli, Eli," he hums along. Margaret and Pinhas are Cafe Europe's typical attendees: one survivor, accompanied by family - a husband or wife, children, occasionally grandchildren or nieces and nephews. Avia Bruckental-Friedlich, the Jerusalem Foundation employee who organizes and runs the weekly coffeehouse, says the turnout is a record for the program: nearly 30 survivors in a room of perhaps 50 or 55 people. More tables have to be brought in from elsewhere in the school to accommodate everyone. Golan, the German survivor, has come alone and seems pleased to be able to meet new people. Both her parents died in the Holocaust - she last saw them just before departing for England, via which she would arrive in Israel in 1945. When the music begins - renditions of "Ma'oz Tzur," "Hallelujah" and Purcell's "See the Conquering Hero," among other songs - she quickly shushes everyone at the table. There are some young children present at the coffeehouse, although they are mostly the children of women in the choir. Two, however, turn out to be the afternoon's second act: a juggling duo of friends who cannot have much more than 20 years between them. They wear sequined top hats and vests, and juggle bowling pins and rings. At one point the older of the two, whom Golan says is the grand-nephew of one of the survivors, does a handstand. Their performance is corny but very cute, and the audience loves it, clapping along even when they accidentally drop a pin or forget who is supposed to catch first during the tandem portion of their act. Bruckental-Friedlich says the Cafe Europe project extends beyond what meets the eye, including programs to stay in touch with survivors too sick to leave their homes, and to provide legal assistance to survivors having trouble obtaining their guaranteed financial compensation from the Israeli government. Although a number of foundations are involved in funding the overall initiative, primary funding and organization come through the Jerusalem Foundation - which, according to spokeswoman Liat Rosner, is spending money donated mostly by Germany. Seeing so many survivors in attendance at what was clearly meant to be a small event, and seeing how much they seem to enjoy the opportunity, it seems strange that Cafe Europe should have only been launched last December. Bruckental-Friedlich agrees. "Our society is obliged to give them this space," she says. "We should have been doing it in Jerusalem at least 10 years ago." Golan in particular seems happy that someone has finally started organizing social gatherings for survivors. "There are no community centers in Rehavia," she says. And though some survivors are able to travel to other parts of the city for social events, for many of them mobility is fast shifting from a given to a luxury. Having the chance to attend a concert near her own home has provided survivors like Golan with an opportunity they might otherwise have missed. So far, Cafe Europe's programming has consisted mostly of light entertainment fare, such as today's choir. But Margaret, who attends along with Pinhas nearly every week, says there have also been some lectures. She has no complaints about any of the events. "Our social meetings are what make Cafe Europe special," says Bruckental-Friedlich. "We want to expand from just gatherings to tours, workshops, crafts, computers - the sky's the limit." As the young jugglers conclude their act, the coffeehouse takes on a free-for-all feeling, with members of the choir spreading out among the survivors and their families and dancing to "Leitzan Katan Nehmad," which Bruckental-Friedlich, clearly a woman of many talents, accompanies on a flute. Volunteers circle the tables, packing up the remaining cake and coffee as the audience begins to file out. In the corner of the room, Talya, the choir's pianist, seems finally to have hit her stride. Early in the performance, as she attempted to introduce a few of the songs, she was rattled by wave after wave of frustrated demands for her to speak louder or get closer. But now she has attracted the attention of a single survivor, an elderly woman who has come to sit with her on the piano bench, watching her hands as she plays. "She told me she was probably the only attendee at Cafe Europe from Russia," Talya says later. "She wanted to sing a song in Russian - [to know] if I knew any. I played a song in Russian, and then another in Yiddish, and she started to cry. She said it reminded her of home." Cafe Europe is open every Tuesday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., on Rehov Ussishkin 38, inside the Evelina de Rothschild high school. Upcoming programs: March 10, closed (Purim). March 17, piano and bassoon concert with Emil Golod and Leonid Kramer. March 24, saxophone concert with Daniel Sinchock. For more information, call Avia Bruckental-Friedlich at 052-545-6069.