A Club Of Their Own
Staff Writer
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The gym at the Boro Park Y is downstairs, but in a cramped social hall on the second floor early one recent Thursday morning, a group of seniors is shvitzing with Zalata. Zalata is a perky blonde from the former Soviet Union, a gymnast and dancer who’s sitting at the front of the room wearing a colorful jogging outfit, leading a round of calisthenics and stretching exercises.   They are several dozen senior citizens, all women — the youngest is 65; the oldest, 96 — seated on rows of plastic chairs across the room, swinging light weights and tugging on ropes to Zalata’s directions. It’s exercise time at Club Nissim. All the elderly people working up a sweat this morning are Holocaust survivors, members of a group that was formed six years ago to give the seniors a daily place to meet friends and work out. “They wanted to have a good time and do things and get out of the house,” says program director Simonne Hirschhorn. The group’s original name was the Adult Day Program for Holocaust Survivors. Too dull, the members thought. Irene Friedman, a native of Slovakia who spent World War II in hiding, suggested “Club Nissim” — nissim means “miracles.” “Because we lived with miracles,” she says. “They wanted a name to highlight that they are here, that they are not victims,” Hirschhorn says. Club Nissim, funded by the Claims Conference, UJA-Federation and the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, offers four days a week (it’s closed on Fridays) of lectures and films, field trips and sing-alongs, birthday parties and holiday celebrations, health screenings and exercise. And a chance to socialize with peers from a common, European background. “Do you want more fun and laughter in your life?” a Club Nissim flyer asks. “It’s a blessing that we have where to go,” one of the women in the social hall declares to no one in particular. “This is my second home,” Friedman says. Like many of the other members, she looks forward to the daily exercise. “That was one of the things they requested,” says Hirschhorn, a native of Sweden who has guided the club’s activities since shortly after it was founded with 150 members. Now it has more than 1,000, nearly all of them women, mostly sheitel-wearing residents of Borough Park and other nearby haredi communities. “People keep coming back — they keep bringing their friends,” Hirschhorn says. “They drag each other. “There are some who come only for the exercise,” Hirschhorn says. “They feel more alive, they feel happier, they feel younger.” Zalata and the club’s other physical exercise instructor put the members through a real workout, an hour of lifting and moving. “I do what I can,” says Miriam Berkowitz, who just turned 96. “It gives me a lot of pleasure.” Club Nissim, says Hirschhorn, is the only-such group for Holocaust survivors in the New York area that offers an intensive array of daily activities. “The emphasis is on having fun and doing things,” she says. The members’ Holocaust background is an unspoken presence. “Some people never want to talk about it. Some talk about it very frequently. We don’t bring it up very much.” The activities are therapeutic, but no formal therapy is offered. At Club Nissim, Hirschhorn says, the members are “among other people who have been where they were and understand what they went through.” The members shmooze in Yiddish and Polish and Hungarian and Czech and the other languages they spoke as children. A handful of women from the former Soviet Union, Holocaust survivors who came to the U.S. after the USSR broke up, also come. “Good morning, young ladies,” Hirschhorn says, opening the day’s program. First she passes out books of Tehillim (Psalms), which the women recite in Hebrew. Then a misheberach blessing for ill friends, some announcements, and a corny joke by Hirschhorn. “Laughter therapy,” she calls it. After the exercise, a video of a recent field trip — a party, and a march across the Brooklyn Bridge — is screened. Then a few women step across the hall for a memory game, patterned after the old “Concentration” TV show. Members arrive throughout the morning. Club Nissim offers activities for members who show early stages of dementia. As much as possible, they are included in general activities. “We don’t try to stigmatize anybody,” Hirschhorn says. The group issues a monthly newsletter, and recently published “Living History,” a collection of 13 members’ oral histories edited by Hirschhorn. New members, often accompanied by their children, show up every day. “They have a variety of activities,” says Rochelle Kalisch, who came with her mother, Adele Goldberger, a former resident of Forest Hills, one recent morning. Her mother, “a very social person ... needs [more] social interaction.” The club, Kalisch says, is “very sensitive” to the unique needs of an aging population. “It’s the biggest gift they can give.” Kalisch says her mother will participate in Club Nissim’s exercise program. “I can not stress how important it is.” The members, aware of their physical limitations, “tend to be careful” during the workouts, Hirschhorn says. They know not to push themselves too far, she says. “These are people who are survivors.” For information about Club Nissim, call Simonne Hirschhorn at (718) 438-5921; the e-mail is clubnissim@earthlink.net.

Last Update:

10/13/2009 - 11:54

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