Holocaust survivors and their advocates at the Boro Park Y Senior Center in Brooklyn were breathing a sigh of relief this week — and congratulating one another’s activism — following the recent approval of the New York State budget that restores funding to 105 such centers citywide.
“In my 23 years here this was the most serious issue we’ve faced,” said program director Judy Liff, of the close call the center confronted when the city threatened massive shutdowns.
“We’re thrilled that the politicians decided to do the right thing,” said Simonne Hirschhorn, program director of Club Nissim, a day program for Holocaust survivors. It shares a building with the Boro Park Y Senior Center, but is funded by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. The two programs, while distinct, share many members, and serve a total of about 250 seniors daily.
The city’s Department for the Aging (DFTA) has dropped plans to close 105 centers, and spokesman Christopher Miller told The Jewish Week, “We’re very pleased that Title XX was adopted in the final budget.”
The budget battle in Albany that ended on March 31 with the passing of a $132.5 billion budget for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, involved debate over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed $25.2 million reduction of the Title XX money that funds DFTA senior centers.
Dov Hikind, whose Borough Park assembly district is home to two senior centers on the DFTA cut list said, “The restoration of Title XX is one of the only good pieces of news in this budget.”
Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Bronx), chair of the Assembly’s Committee on Aging, supported the restoration of Title XX, and told The Jewish Week that he now calls upon Mayor Michael Bloomberg to keep open the 105 senior centers that were on what Dinowitz called the “hit list.”
The director of the city’s Office of Management and Budget, Mark Page, told the City Council finance committee at a March 21 hearing that the city would use the entire amount of any Title XX restoration for the operation of the DFTA senior centers.
A recent article in The Jewish Week reported that many members of the Boro Park Y Senior Center and Club Nissim worried about the center’s closing, and the concurrent loss of the kosher lunch and other programs.
The hot lunch, sold to members for $1.50, not only meets government mandated nutritional requirements, but also relieves many seniors of the burden of cooking.
This is a benefit Rosa Emer appreciates. Emer, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, and a widow, has been a member of the senior center for 12 years. She cannot cook because of arthritic hands and lingering trouble with the shoulder she broke two years ago, and comes to the center daily to exercise, have lunch and see her friends.
Upon hearing of the threatened closure Emer called her local elected representatives. “I’m happy the center stayed open,” she said, “It’s like a family — beautiful.”
Sally Diamond, a Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia, has been coming to the Boro Park Y daily for seven years. A member of both the senior center and Club Nissim, she comes for the fitness classes, and to lunch with friends. In bad weather she relies on the van service the two programs share. Among the many who signed the petition protesting the shuttering of the center, Diamond said she had been upset about the threatened closures, and is proud of the success of her group.
Ellie Kastel, executive director of the Boro Park Y, identified a particularly moving facet of the fight by the seniors to save the center: the sense that they were being evicted from their home. “Being survivors,” she explained, many had “the sense of being a displaced person — again.”
She said that participating in the successful advocacy allowed her clients to feel that “they had worked for something, that someone listened to them and values them, and that the community wants them to stay.”
Kastel said that the Boro Park Y collected more than 1,200 signatures from seniors, their families and members of the community.
Among other senior centers on the DFTA cut list were eight run by the Jewish Association for Services to the Aged (JASA). Elaine Rockoff, JASA’s director of community-based programs, said that the organization is “very relieved and pleased” that the kosher lunch and other vital programs will continue, and that the seniors felt empowered by their activism. Many had participated in an advocacy-training program recently inaugurated by JASA’s Joint Public Affairs Committee (JPAC). Rockoff said that JASA generated over 4,000 letters, phone calls, and e-mails to local and state officials.
Judy Liff said that her clients at the Boro Park Y Senior Center are “very happy” that the center will remain open, and that the matter was such a popular one. “They felt good that seniors were an important issue to politicians,” she said.
Liff said the center is a major component in her clients’ quality of life. “There would be a tremendous decline in many if there was no center [to visit daily],” she said.
Margaret Freed, a member of both the senior center and Club Nissim celebrated her 98th birthday in January at the club. A Holocaust survivor from Hungary, Freed has lived in Borough Park since 1957. She comes to the center daily for a kosher lunch with friends, and for the lectures, arts and crafts, and exercise classes offered by both programs. Freed, who had worried about the center closing and signed a protest petition, is now happy that the center will remain open.
Judy Durst petitioned to keep the center open, and comes for lunch, to play Rummikub and to exercise. “Here, people come to have companionship and activities,” she said. Durst, a teacher with a busy work schedule, comes to the center when she can. She said of some of her peers, “If this place wouldn’t be open, people wouldn’t know what to do.”
Irene Friedman has been friends with Durst since they met as neighbors in Borough Park more than 40 years ago. They now lunch and spend time together at the center. “I play Rummikub because I want my brain to work,” said Friedman. A Holocaust survivor born in Slovakia, she is a member of both the senior center and Club Nissim. An active woman, Friedman walked 10 blocks and was the first to arrive at the senior center when it opened a day after the December blizzard.
Holocaust survivor Sara Sussman, a member of the Boro Park Y Senior Center, said she had called her assemblyman with her concerns, and is proud of all the activism by her friends. Sussman said it is important to associate with people, and she comes to the center daily for the “beautiful food” and to exercise and play bingo with friends.
“When you go to the center, you don’t feel so old,” she said. “How can you be thankful enough for such a thing?”