Some seniors at JCC East Bay are running their own programs

Many seniors in the East Bay look forward to JCC activities such as attending plays, getting together for a meal or playing mah jongg.

But a handful of seniors in the East Bay aren’t just attending these types of programs.

They’re actually running them.

The Jewish Community Center of the East Bay has a number of clubs and groups for seniors that staff members refer to as “peer-led.” In other words, it’s the seniors themselves who are forming the groups, doing the organizing, setting up the events — basically all of the behind-the-scenes work that one might imagine a JCC staff member doing.

“Our role,” says Sally Kaufman Flinchbaugh, the acting executive director of the JCC East Bay, “is enabling these peer groups to meet here or organize through us. Because these groups tend to be older adults, it gets them out of their homes and engaged — it’s fun, social and engaging.”

Because the members themselves organize these groups, there is a sense of ownership that keeps the participants involved. Moreover — and perhaps just as importantly — it’s a system that frees up staff during a time of tight budgets.

“For anybody, no matter what age, it’s very empowering,” Flinchbaugh says. “There is a huge social aspect and acknowledgement that all of these people are coming together — and they made that happen.”

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Frieda Pardo is the creator and coordinator of the Tuesday Dine-Around group.

According to Flinchbaugh, the volunteers organizing the groups get as much enjoyment out of an event as do the attendees.

“I don’t have a sense that it’s a burden,” she says, “because the people who attend their groups and events also become their friends. The peer part of it seems to be to be very strong — peer-led groups are formed because they identify what they need.”

One such need was the desire of seniors to go to the theater and to concerts. Thus, Le Club was formed by a small group of seniors.

The club is for people aged 55 and over, and it hooks them up with complimentary tickets — to events such as plays, concerts, museums and an occasional sporting event.

“The group has been operating for more than 20 years,” says Rosalind Layton, who runs Le Club along with Ethel Ruymaker.  “I’ve been involved for five years.”

To participate, JCC members pay $35 annually on top of their JCC fees. They are put on a list, and then when the club gets complimentary tickets to an event or museum, members get a call from either Layton or Ruymaker to see if they want to accept the ticket on that particular date.

“These are people would not be going to these events if they didn’t have the opportunity to have these tickets,” says Layton. “It certainly enriches their lives because they can go to many more events than they would otherwise. They appreciate it very much.”

One club at the JCC has been around so long that nobody can even remember when it began. But Pearl Pai, 95, doesn’t need to know when the Mah Jongg Club was formed to love it. She rarely misses one of the group’s Monday sessions.

“It makes you think a little bit,” she says. “We have different levels of skill and there are some who aren’t as familiar. You get to know the process.”

Another offering is the Bridge Club, which is open to all ages.  “It’s completely peer-led,” says participant Ethel Murphy. “We don’t need a director, because of the camaraderie the group has developed. Most bridge groups have a director who will rule when there is an infraction — but we work out our own infractions.”

They play Chicago style, Murphy points out, adding that they are always looking for new members at all skill levels.

Nearly everyone has the necessary skills to eat lunch, which is why the Tuesday Dine-Around group, launched by Frieda Pardo, has been a success. She began the group four years ago not only to partake in the Bay Area’s dining scene, but also to make friends after the JCC put the kibosh on day trips that she had helped organize.

“I decided in order to keep in touch with everybody, I would start a once-a-month, going-to-lunch group,” she says.

The group has eaten lunch at such area favorites as Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Garibaldi’s in Oakland and the Treasure Island Culinary Academy. Last month’s lunch was at Six Degrees in Albany, and the destination for this month is the Berkeley seafood restaurant Spenger’s.

“Many friendships have been made,” Pardo says. “It’s very congenial and people are so happy to see each other. It’s not only been social, but it’s been interesting to explore the different restaurants without going by yourself.”

Another popular group is the Yiddish group, which has been led by Alan Smith for many years.

“I set up the program for each meeting, which causes people to speak in Yiddish,” he says. “We ask questions: What kinds of things did you experience as a child? What schools did you go to? What kind of a seder did your parents have? … They’re questions of a general nature that would make people respond in Yiddish. The subjects range all over the map.”

All of these senior peer-led groups are having a ripple effect at the JCC.

“Our preschool does a big fundraiser, and now that’s all parent-led,” Flinchbaugh says. “It was started by a group of parents who wanted to do something together and wanted to do something for the school.”

That’s what a community center is all about, Flinchbaugh adds. “It enables people to recognize what they want to do, and it helps them do it.”

JCC of the East Bay offers many programs for seniors, some of which are organized and planned by other seniors. Information: call (510) 848-0237, e-mail laureng@ jcceastbay.org or visit www.jcceastbay.org/ jcc/older_adults.htm.