JFCS enriches lives of North Central seniors

Jewish living in the Valley has followed several geographic shifts, mirroring the general population migrations. One need only look at the location of “North” High School on Thomas Road – now considered to be nearly downtown – to see how things have shifted.

During the 1960s-1990s, a large segment of the Phoenix Jewish population lived in North Central and the Encanto areas, and the hub of the community was the Phoenix Jewish Community Center on Maryland and 19th avenues. There was a bustling senior department that provided kosher lunches and social opportunities for the many seniors who lived in the nearby apartments and homes.

The JCC closed in 1996. Programs were distributed around the Valley as best they could be while funds were raised to build the existing Valley of the Sun JCC in Scottsdale.

Sandy Reischfeld worked with the seniors while they were still at the JCC and moved with them to the next location – part of a strip mall behind the Christown Shopping Center on Montebello. But about four years later “light rail happened,” and the senior center became a light rail station.

“We knew we had to move but had no idea where. We needed to stay in the area to be accessible to the seniors who had come to rely on us for sustenance – both actual and spiritual,” Sandy explains. They were fortunate to establish a relationship with Beth El Congregation on Glendale Avenue and remained there until their move four years ago to Brookdale Christown, formerly (and familiarly) known as Chris Ridge Village, located on 19th Avenue, a few blocks from the original JCC location.

In the meantime, the JCC turned over control of the program to Jewish Family and Children’s Services, determining that JFCS was in a better position to continue and grow the program. It is now named the JFCS Center for Senior Enrichment.

The current population at this Brookdale site is more than 55% Jewish. It seemed like a natural when Ellie Schwartzberg, VP of older adult programs and Jewish community services at JFCS, contacted them about moving their programming to the facility. “Chris Ridge was very open to the idea and welcomed us with open arms. We’re very proud of this unique partnership,” Ellie says. She mentioned that more than 20 individuals from the former program have now moved to Chris Ridge because the senior center is located there. Funding for the center is provided by Jewish Family and Children’s Service, Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix and Area Agency on Aging.

While the center is nonsectarian and open to all, Jewish values are maintained and a special emphasis is placed on Shabbat and Jewish holiday programming. For Purim, for example, Rabbi Micah Caplan presented an interactive Megillah reading and residents enjoyed watching Israeli dancing, as well. Sandy is also proud of the large memorial board featuring individual memorial plaques; the board now hangs in the public hallway. “We began putting plaques on this (board) years ago. I’m so glad we were able to bring it with us and display it. It has great meaning to so many people,” she says.

Sandy believes this location is a real win-win. “We have access to all the facilities here and have space to offer several programs at the same time, to try to meet everyone’s needs.”

Tami Simmons has recently come on board to help with programming classes for the more than 100 seniors who participate. “Tami is a real find,” Sandy remarks. “She has a wide range of friends and contacts who are happy to provide quality programming for our folks here.” Tami is a native Arizonan who has long been involved with the Jewish community. She programs two to three classes four days a week from 10 am-2 pm. Classes range from the physical, such as exercise, yoga and Zumba, to crafts and cooking and often involve bringing in guest speakers and entertainers.

“It’s important to me that the classes be meaningful,” Tami explains. “There’s no point in just doing busy work. We want the participants to be engaged and excited about their choices.” There is also a computer lab with a number of computers that were donated by JFCS. Tami calls on her friends and others she knows to provide the guidance and teaching.

The center is also in charge of the lovely gift shop at the facility. The shop carries everything from daily necessities to fun gift items and includes some Judaica, as well. “We know how important the shop is to the residents, and it’s a nice revenue stream for the program,” Sandy says. “But it is difficult for us to find the volunteers we need to run it.”

In addition to needing volunteers for the shop, the center is also looking for fun programming ideas to bring in for the residents. Currently, on just one day, the schedule can include such offerings as basic chair exercise, Wii bowling, beginning Spanish, music and movement, computer help, stretch class and an open creative art studio for beading, crocheting and painting. Teachers receive a stipend.

The programs are open to everyone over 55, or younger if disabled, whether or not they live at the facility and whether or not they are Jewish.

“JFCS is open to all and we are anxious to get the word out that everyone is welcome here,” Sandy says.

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