Sam and Risa Kritzstein always looked forward to the programming provided by Jewish Family & Children’s Service’s Senior Enrichment Center. It was free of charge and held at The Palazzo where the couple lives. Non-residents were also free to attend. After the coronavirus pandemic shut down in-person events, people — seniors in particular — began social distancing and felt the loss of the services.
“JFCS before the pandemic supplied most of the activities we always looked forward to — Jewish-oriented stuff and a wide range of people they would bring in for activities,” Sam Kritzstein said. “There’s a cadre of Jewish people living at The Palazzo. It was the kind of thing that brought us together and made us feel more Jewish and kept that spirit alive.”
Jennifer Brauner, the center’s director, felt the loss as well. “I decided that I had to come up with a quick solution because the seniors are now being isolated and don’t have any mind-stimulating activities and programs available to them anymore because they’re in lockdown,” she said.
So the virtual senior center began Monday, Nov. 2 with weekly programs including yoga and creative writing classes and Shabbat observance. Once a month, Rabbi A. Nitzan Stein-Kokin of Beth El Phoenix will lead the service while the three remaining Shabbats will feature special guests from the community willing to volunteer their time. In addition, the Heard Museum will share examples of artwork, the Arizona Jewish Historical Society will lead book club discussions, and musical programs will be available through the Phoenix Conservatory of Music.
Brauner will engage seniors in less structured ways as well. She is starting an online “schmooze parlor” where seniors can come together and socialize, talk about their favorite books, what they’re reading or even which Netflix show they’re currently binge watching. Brauner wants to give seniors back the day-to-day casual interaction she said is crucial for socialization.
But it’s a lot of work to convert in-person programs to the virtual world.
“It’s a startup, in a sense, so I’m building it from the ground up,” she said. “At the beginning there’s going to be more work involved with working out all the kinks to it, and I’m trying to find the best way to make it easy and user friendly for this population.”
The hope is that even once it’s safe for people to gather in person, the virtual option will be available for people who have difficulty getting out or live far away.
“When Jennifer called, it was like a breath of fresh air,” Kritzstein said. “We never did anything on Zoom, so the virtual part is going to be a new experience for us. The people that are going to participate, having been locked up in their apartment for the last eight months, are much more interested in doing this as a group.”
To that end, he pointed out The Palazzo has a large room with a flat screen TV where people will gather in comfortable chairs spaced apart — except for married couples who will be allowed to sit together. He will bring his laptop and log on for the group.
Risa Kritzstein thinks being in the same room will be a highlight. “We can all be together and enjoy ourselves and enjoy the program and that leaves room for discussion after,” she said. “That’s a huge need, and we are all extremely serious about following the rules 100%”
She is also part of a Yiddish-speaking group at The Palazzo, and while they kept in contact since the start of the pandemic, the virtual senior center will allow them to do more. “Our club it’s really Yiddishkeit,” she said. “We like music and art things, a mix of intellectual pursuits. Jennifer runs a great program and she’s putting together almost what she gives us in person. This is a godsend.” JN
For more information about the virtual programs, visit facebook.com/JFCSCSE.