When a group of Essex County, N.J., residents got together with their local Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries and devised a program to bring joy and companionship to the high number of seniors in their area, little did they know that they’d strike a chord among Jewish communities across North America.
Almost four years after the founding of Smile on Seniors by the Lubavitch Outreach Center of Essex County, the program – which is known by volunteers by its acronym SOS – includes numerous affiliates in eight other states, as well as one in Canada.
According to co-creator Rabbi Mendy Kasowitz, the program’s success is due to its unique ideology of matching volunteers to specific seniors and creating “buddies” for life.
“People visiting seniors isn’t a new concept,” he explained. “But the way we do it, creating one-on-one relationships, has become contagious.”
Volunteers go through extensive background checks and meet with SOS staff and activity directors at assisted-living facilities for an orientation visit. Then they are matched to a senior with whom they share interests and a similar personality.
West Orange, N.J., resident Elizabeth Rosenkrantz volunteers at Brighton Gardens, where she has grown very close with her senior, 89-year-old Phoebe Lane.
“I might be doing a mitzvah,” she said, “but I’m the one benefitting from it. Phoebe and I have so much in common, even though we’re many years apart. She has a lot of wise things to say, and getting her perspective on events in my life is invaluable. I think SOS is a great program that’s added a lot to mine and my husband’s lives, my children’s lives, and Phoebe’s life.”
Chani Levertov, co-director of the SOS affiliate in Phoenix, Arizona, said that every match makes “a wonderful story.”
“It’s beautiful how people connect,” she related. “I get lots of phone calls from volunteers thanking me for letting them become a part of the program. They feel they gain even more than the seniors they visit.”
Echoing this sentiment herself, Levertov added that she has a “buddy” as well.
“I met this woman and decided I wanted to be her volunteer myself,” she said. “She’s 96 years old and very with it. She calls me and my family her adopted grandchildren.”
In West Orange, Phoebe Lane said that Rosenkrantz has become like a daughter.
“She and her husband are such wonderful people, I can’t praise them highly enough,” stated Lane. “They come with their children. She kisses me, and reads to me. SOS has helped me a great deal by referring Elizabeth to me.”
Rabbi Yosef Muchnik, co-director of SOS in Camarillo, California, said the program is still growing in his area, but volunteers already deliver freshly baked challah to approximately 30 seniors every week. His wife spends hours making the braided loaves.
“I love handing out those challas,” said Susan Amerikaner, a volunteer in the Leisure Village Senior Community. “I rarely miss a Friday. It’s so much more than just delivering bread. For some of these people, I’m the only visit they get in the month.”
Like the other volunteers, Amerikaner said she experienced firsthand getting back more than she gives.
“One of the men became like a surrogate father to me, and 93-year-old Rose is just an amazing person,” she explained. “Both of them are wonderful treasures. They are gifts to my life. Who could have known delivering challah would be so rewarding?”
Muchnik believes the program’s tagline says it all: Bringing a moment of joy to the life of a senior.
“Unfortunately, some of these seniors feel the main part of their life is finished. That they’re just living because they’re not dead,” said the rabbi. “But that’s not true! We can’t be with them 24/7, but we can show them they’re still important.”
Rabbi Yossi Hecht from Chabad of South Bay in Lomita, California, had an extensive program catering to seniors before SOS was established, but says the addition of SOS made his senior program so much bigger.
“The volunteers love it because it’s a commitment to care and share. The seniors love it because they enjoy people coming and spending time with them. They look forward to it every week,” he said. “The seniors’ families love it as well, because the more interaction their loved one gets, the better. It’s beneficial to the mental and physical health of the seniors when people visit them.”
Said Kasowitz: “A friendly smile can change a senior’s world, and that’s our way of making this world a better place to live.”
VIDEO: Cute video of seniors having fun