Beyond grief: Peninsula group helps with the next steps

“Picture this, if you would — a window. Creeping through the window is the sunshine with a big burst. It’s a new day we’re having to start,” says Norma Slavit, describing the logo of the widows and widowers group she helped found.

The group, which formed less than a year ago and meets at the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos, is not for grief support, she says. Rather, the members are there for cultural, social and intellectual enrichment.

That’s not to say grief doesn’t exist. When she lost her husband, Herb, three years ago, Slavit sought out several groups specifically to help her heal. After all, she and her husband had been very happily married for 47 years. But after joining several grief-support groups, she was ready to take the next step.

“At some point I was ready to move on,” she says.

She looked for something more social, but couldn’t find it in her local Jewish community.

“Are widows and widowers falling through the cracks? It seemed to be so at the time.”

Though many Jewish organizations were encouraging or sympathetic, “I didn’t find that any were ready to pick up the ball and champion the cause, so to speak,” recalls Slavit.

So, in an act that she says took a lot of “chutzpah,” she decided to champion the cause herself.

Slavit met with administrators from the trio of organizations on the Levy Family campus in Silicon Valley — the Jewish Federation, Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center, and Jewish Family Services. Vickie Epstein, the JCC’s director of program services, recalls that before the meeting, the thinking was that such a group might best be served by Family Services, because of what they assumed would be a grief-support component.

It quickly became clear, though, that this group should have a different focus — “this need to bond with one another and appreciate that they’d all come from sort of similar places,” Epstein says.

“Ultimately what they were looking for was social, educational and cultural stimulation that they could all enjoy together.”

After the meeting with Slavit, Epstein says they decided the JCC was the place from which to launch the group. To help publicize the new venture, Slavit, who used to work in public relations communications and marketing for the Albert L. Schultz JCC in Palo Alto, wrote an article in the federation’s Jewish Community News about her experience as a widow, inviting others to join her group.

“After it was published, the phones started ringing,” Slavit says. “Several people said, ‘Oh, my goodness, you just wrote about me.’ So it hit the heart of people who were in the same situation that I was.”

Starting with a handful of people at the first meeting last September, the group has since grown to 15 to 18 participants per meeting (some coming from as far as Santa Cruz), and an “interested” list of almost 50.

One of the first things Slavit and her founding board — Amalia Arndt, Lillian Lesnick, Bea Shtulman and Debbie Matsumura — didwas to survey potential members as to what they wanted. They found people were really interested in cultural events — things to stimulate them intellectually and socially.

And, indeed, the group’s meetings reflect that. After a brief business meeting, planned by different members each time, the group hosts such activities as speakers, musicians, even a Chinese movement lesson and upcoming luau. The group has also spurred offshoots — some members have taken up walking, others go to the opera and still others joining forces with a Cupertino seniors’ group for bus trips.

“I encourage — really, really encourage — people to bring [suggested] events, as if we were a clearinghouse,” Slavit says. “The interests are varied. People are feeling comfortable now; they don’t want to go to these places alone.”

Slavit also encourages members to share passages from Jewish publications they may subscribe to at home, such as the Jewish American Congress newsletter or the Forward.

“I think it’s important for us to know what’s happening with Jews around the world,” she says.

In fact, the group is intended to enrich its members — most of whom are in their 60s to 80s — mind, body and spirit.

Meetings often start with someone briefly reading some uplifting spiritual passage, perhaps a psalm or a proverb. “That sets a good tone, a haimash tone,” Slavit says.

Also, “A very important goal is to make everyone feel needed and welcomed.” To that end, she and other board members try to personally welcome everyone “who comes through the door, because it’s so important to feel that your input is important, that you’re not just another person.”

Richard Wedge, who lost his wife six years ago, says that getting together with other people “who have perhaps experienced similar situations in their lives, who have lost a loved one” was one of the draws for him.

Board member Lesnick, whose husband of 47 years died four years ago, also acknowledges this draw. “We’re all widows and widowers. As a result we seem to have a lot more in common than just joining a regular group.”

That being said, all concur the focus is not on grieving. Instead, Wedge says he’s spending his time now on living well. “I’m more interested in that, quite frankly, than anything else.”

Ultimately, Slavit says, “Most of these people are trying to move on.”

Reflecting on the group’s logo, Lesnick agrees. “We all want to have that sunshine in our lives.”

The widows and widowers group meets 1:30 p.m. at the Addison-Penzak JCC on the third or fourth Wednesday of each month. If interested, contact Norma Slavit at (408) 253-7200 or Amalia Arndt at (408) 996-1324.