Elana Minkove decided a few months ago that she wanted to use her graduate degree in social work to do some good works in her spare time.
Niti Minkove, her mother-in-law and the director of volunteers at the Bronx Jewish Community Council, suggested Elana perform those virtuous deeds in Co-op City. That Bronx area is where Betty Katz lives.
Under the aegis of the Bronx council’s Making Memories oral history project, Elana, 29, drives every other week to see Katz, 96, and interview the nonagenarian in her apartment about her life. She also takes Katz on shopping trips and helps with various errands like reading letters.
“I do the reading, she does the educating,” said Elana, who lives in New Rochelle.
UJA-Federation on Monday officially launched a program that will make hundreds of such pairings in the next year between a Jewish senior citizen and a younger volunteer.
The group kicked off the Companions: Donating Time to Neighborhood Seniors program with a ceremony at The Jewish Museum attended by UJA-Federation leaders, representatives of some 60 participating agencies, government officials and several elderly-volunteer teams.
Operating initially on a three-year, $250,000 annual budget, Companions will match isolated Jewish seniors in the New York area with volunteers, help coordinate the volunteers’ training, expand the extant visiting programs of agencies like the Bronx JCC and evaluate the volunteers’ effectiveness.
Companions is the largest “friendly visitors” program for the Jewish elderly in the United States, according to Marc Utay, chairman of the philanthropy’s volunteer and leadership development division.
He said the program was inspired by UJA-Federation’s 2002 Geographic Profile, which reported that about 25,000 elderly Jews live here by themselves without any family member less than two hours away.
“I don’t think anyone understood [the impact of] these statistics,” Utay said. “With nobody within two hours, you’re really on your own. There is a presumption that most of these people had someone who could come visit them.”
Utay called the new initiative “a comprehensive approach to the issue of isolation” in New York’s elderly Jewish population.
“This is not an attempt to reinvent the wheel,” he said, citing the visitation projects sponsored by such organizations as Dorot and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which with the Bronx JCC is among a half-dozen agencies taking part in the Companions pilot project.
Susan Kohn, executive director of UJA-Federation’s volunteer and leadership development division, said the philanthropy is hoping to raise awareness of the problem in the Jewish community.
“We’re building on the strength of the [social work] network as it exists,” she said. “This is a formalization of the strengths of each of the agencies.”
Citing UJA-Federation’s financial resources and network of lay and professional leaders, Utay said “none of these [agencies] are capable of looking at the problem in a comprehensive nature. Companions brings economy of scale to the process.”
“The advantage will be that not everyone [in need] knows of Dorot,” which is based on the Upper West Side, he said. “We have people spread out in a lot of areas.”
Companions will be publicized in local synagogues and Jewish community centers, and by government agencies that serve the elderly. Jews 65 and older who are frail and living near the poverty level are eligible. The requirements for volunteers are simply to be “ready, willing and able” to serve, Utay said.
The program is hoping to attract 800 to 1,000 volunteers in the next year. Volunteers who speak Russian and Yiddish, the primary language of many of the area’s isolated Jewish seniors, are particularly needed.
Local agencies will match up volunteers and seniors. The volunteers will visit — at home, in nursing homes and hospitals, in senior centers — at least four times a year, often before holidays, often keeping in touch by phone between visits. Other duties might include escorting the elderly on cemetery visits and celebrating birthdays, in addition to obtaining oral histories — which is what Making Memories volunteers in the Bronx have been doing for several years.
Elana Minkove visits Katz for two hours at a time. They’re on a first-name basis, despite an age difference of nearly 70 years, Elana said.
“It’s a friendship,” she said.
Elana talks to Katz about Jewish life in New York in the early 20th century, and about changes Katz has seen in her lifetime.
“I’ve learned a tremendous amount from her,” Elana said.
The conversations “make me feel good,” Katz said. “Most of my friends are already gone.”
Long widowed and retired, Katz has lost most of her eyesight and some of her hearing, but boasted that “I have all my marbles.”
Elana said she looks forward to the bimonthly visits and will encourage her friends to join her as volunteers in the Companions program.
“It’s a wonderful experience,” she said.
For information on the Companions program, call Lori Strouch Kolinsky at UJA-Federation at (212) 836-1874, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.