Simy, a 75-year-old woman who was "well off" financially until four years ago, found herself alone and virtually penniless when her husband of 50 years dumped her for their 20-year-old housekeeper.
"I couldn’t believe he would throw away 50 years for a young kid," she says of her husband, a retired engineer. "And she had an infant. … He’s 85 years old!"
Kicked out of her Queens home, Simy found a room in a private home on Long Island. "My Social Security payment covers the rent," she says.
Simy then sought help from a Jewish organization. The Jewish Association for Services to the Aged in Forest Hills provided that relief, and it transferred her case to its Smithtown office when she moved to the Island.
"Helen Beegel at JASA’s Smithtown office has been wonderful," she says, referring to her social worker. "And I have no words to express how grateful I am to another Jewish organization and everyone there for what they have been doing for me."
Simy was speaking of M’Yad L’Yad (Helping Hand), an organization founded by the Suffolk Jewish Communal Planning Council last November. The council and JASA are members of the UJA-Federation network.
Simy, who in February had open-heart surgery, said a volunteer couple at M’Yad L’Yad had sent her cans of food and clothes. "That was very nice of them, and the clothes fit me beautifully," she says. "They sent me skirts and blouses and T-shirts. The only thing I didn’t get were shoes because I didn’t send them my size. I need shoes but I am not going to send them my size because they are doing too much.
"I wrote to them to say how appreciative I was, but words could not convey how I felt. … I used to be well off and now I’m in this situation. But I have God with me. He opened the door and now I have this help."
Renay Weisberg, coordinator of M’Yad L’Yad, says the organization now helps 23 Jewish families and individuals, all but one in Suffolk County. She says 17 were referred by JASA, with the others from other referrals. Each family or individual is linked to a volunteer family, but neither the volunteers nor the recipients know the other’s identity.
"The idea is to have a hands-on, personal relationship with the people they sponsor," Weisberg says. "But all communication is done anonymously through us."
Sponsors send packages to their family or individual from one of six private mail centers in Suffolk. The sponsors write a code number on the package; the postage center has the corresponding name and address.
Weisberg says the organization has about 10 sponsors waiting to be paired with needy Jewish individuals or families. Sponsors are asked to send packages four times a year to coincide with the major Jewish holidays.
"Helping Hand has made a big difference in the lives of our clients," says Sheila Siegel, project director of JASA in Suffolk County. "The letter writing has been especially meaningful for them.
"One of our clients is a widow with three children. When her sponsor sent her a comforter and bed linens, she started to cry to me that this was the first time in years that she had new linen on her bed. A lot of these people are marginal in terms of finances.
Beegel, the social worker, recalls that when Simy received the package of clothes from her sponsor, "she came into my office elated and saying that she felt like a little girl again. She was beaming."
Another recipient, Jean-Paul, 66, says he lives in a federally funded senior citizens complex after finding his business dry up almost overnight. He says he was self-employed performing trademark investigations until the Internet made what he did easily accessible.
"I have two engineering degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard and I’m so ashamed [of my life now] it’s not funny," he says.
Jean-Paul says he was living in a home on the Great South Bay when "the floor fell out from under my feet." In debt, he was evicted from his home when it was repossessed by the bank. And when he could no longer avoid auto insurance, he sold his 1972 Impala convertible for $300.
"I became totally broke, eating up my savings trying to stave off the bank from taking my house," he says. "I called JASA when I became homeless."
Jean-Paul says that with the help of Rabbi Steven Moss, spiritual leader of B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale and an intern at JASA, he was able to clear up many of the parking summonses he received before he sold his car. And he says M’Yad L’Yad has been helping him for the past six months.
"They are sending me the most useful food and department store gift certificates," he says. "I need a pair of shoes, so with a gift certificate I can go to the mall and buy one."
But Jean-Paul says he must travel about 45-minutes by bus to reach the mall and that he feels isolated at the senior citizen complex.
"I have no family and my one wish is to see people on weekends, so they can get me out of here once in a while," he says. "On weekends I sit on a bench and watch while everybody else is picked up by somebody. I have nobody and that is psychologically very hard."
Siegel says Jean-Paul’s loneliness is compounded by the fact that he is the only Jew in the senior complex.
"He feels isolated, especially from his Jewish roots," she said. "It’s the Jewish connection that is so important to him. He’s a religious person and it’s difficult for him to be surrounded by people who are not Jewish. … But there is no way to move him. He was very lucky he got in where he is. There is a long waiting list."
Weisberg says students at a Hebrew school in Suffolk will soon begin writing to the M’Yad L’Yad recipients, using the same code numbers sponsors use.
"This project will hopefully relieve some of the loneliness these people feel," she says, adding that she would like to interest other Hebrew schools into doing the same thing. "The people at JASA tell me their clients are thrilled with the idea."
Siegel notes that many of the seniors have "lost their own children and are alone."
Beegel adds: "It gives them hope. It shows them that somebody cares about them and that they are not alone."