Miami-Dade County

Bonding young and old through baskets, baking and storytelling for the Jewish holidays

Spending quality time: Volunteer Michael Levine visits with Belle Thweny, 93, as while delivering a food basket to her.
Spending quality time: Volunteer Michael Levine visits with Belle Thweny, 93, as while delivering a food basket to her. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Every year for Rosh Hashana — the Jewish New Year — hundreds of children, teenagers and adults pack about 500 blue bags with applesauce, Gefilte fish and Challah bread.

The families deliver their goodies to homebound seniors. For some who live alone, it is one of the few times a year that they get to have a conversation with children and young adults.

“It's not only the giving of the food — the distribution — they have to assemble the food, then they bring it to a senior or Holocaust survivor,” said Larry Lentz, vice president of marketing and communications at Jewish Community Services, which organizes the event. “We hope that the client invites the family in for two minutes or spends some time just generation-to- generation, so the kids can learn a little bit.”

The connection between the young and their elders is even more meaningful around the High Holy Days, which begin with Rosh Hashana on the eve of Sept. 13 and end with Yom Kippur on Sept. 23.

One of the measures of a society is not how you treat the strongest, it’s how you treat the most vulnerable.

Rabbi Frederick Klein, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami

“At Rosh Hashana we are asking God to be gracious with us for another year. If we are gracious with others, we have more merit,” Klein added.

Year-round, synagogues, schools and Jewish organizations host multigenerational programs that bring seniors and children together. At the Chabad of Greater Fort Lauderdale, Estie Chanowitz, who runs the pre-school, holds Baking with Bubby and Zaidy (Grandma and Grandpa), where seniors and toddlers bake the traditional Challah bread and make cards for Israeli soldiers. In Miami Beach, the Young Lions of Judah program pairs Holocaust survivors with 12 and 13-year-olds to impart their wisdom — and sometimes the seniors learn things, too —technology often first on the list.

The number of people 65 and older comprised 14.1 percent of the U.S. population, or about one in every seven Americans, in 2013, according to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Aging. By 2040, projections call for 82.3 million older people.

As the number rises, religious leaders say it’s even more important to pass down Jewish traditions and stories.

Temple Sinai of North Dade Rabbi Alan Litwak said the concept of venerating the elderly comes from the Bible.

"The old shall dream dreams and the youth shall see visions,” Litwak said, quoting the Bible (Joel 3:1). “From this, we see that Judaism recognizes the importance of anchoring one's life in history, traditions, and long-held cultural norms. … Survival is dependent on the visions of the future and the energy of our youth to bring it about.”

Haim Shaked, University of Miami’s director of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies, said sharing stories about the past with children is one of the most important commandments of Judaism.

“The tradition of telling your children and sharing with them is a very important element of the holidays,” he said. “It’s been done for generations.”

Milk & Honey

Belle Thweny welcomed the two strangers into her South Beach home and greeted them as if she knew them for years.

Her guests, Sari Levine, 28, and Michael Levine, 27, may have never met the 93-year-old Thweny before, but they were there with a mission: Deliver Rosh Hashana goodies and enliven Thweny’s Sunday morning.

“Oh this is wonderful," said Thweny, one of 550 seniors who received free holiday food as part of the Jewish Community Services of South Florida’s Milk & Honey event on Aug. 30. “They are so wonderful in giving us little, nice things for the Jewish holiday.”

Every year before the High Holy Days, hundreds of volunteers gather at the Greater Miami Jewish Federation headquarters off Biscayne Boulevard to stuff bags with treats for a sweet New Year.

“This is an amazing outreach effort for hundreds in our community to come together to make sure that our older adults have food for the holidays,” said Sylvia Goldsmith, executive vice president and chief operating officer at the JCS.

As Tropical Storm Erika threatened South Florida the last weekend of August, Michal Meiler, who volunteers with JCS, slipped granola bars, cups of chocolate pudding and crackers into an emergency hurricane kit. At a table nearby, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, put Gefilte fish and mandarin oranges into the bag while chatting with a rabbi.

“It’s not just a one-day job, but it gets people involved in community partnerships and actions to help those less fortunate,’’ she said.

This year, the volunteers also prepped and packaged emergency kits filled with water, a flashlight, and various food products that don’t expire.

“In a season like this season, where there’s hurricanes, you see that the seniors that we deliver to really don’t have resources,” said Meiler, 30. “This is especially rewarding because you get to reach out to a community that really doesn’t have as many services as other communities. These are seniors that live in their homes, that don’t really leave very often, and that don’t have a lot of interaction."

Joan Gross, one of the three benefactors donating more than $10,000 toward the Milk & Honey event, sat watching two of her four grandchildren while one of her sons taped boxes shut.

“This is a very emotional day for me,” Gross said, choking back tears. Her donation helped fund the seniors’ emergency kits. “If God forbid there’s a hurricane as there could have been, these people couldn’t get downstairs to get food or water they needed to survive.”

For Thweny, who has has received Rosh Hashana boxes from the JCS since 2011, having company made her smile.

For the past four years, Thweny, a retired factory worker from New York who moved to Florida nearly 45 years ago, has lived with her caretaker, Delane Jones. She plans to spend Rosh Hashana with her niece from Chicago at her home.

“Thank you,” Thweny said. “And may you all have a lot of naches [pleasure] because you all do such nice things.”

Young Lions of Judah

When Kyle Behar celebrates his Bar Mitzvah in October he will have an extra special guest — his new friend Fred Mulbauer.

Mulbauer is not like Kyle’s other friends. He’s 85 and a Holocaust Survivor.

Kyle met Mulbauer through the Young Lion of Judah Program, a partnership between the Jewish Volunteer Center and the Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach that pairs Bar- and Bat Mitzvah-aged children with survivors.

“It’s nice that I get to meet him and hear his story,” said the 12-year old as he walked around the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach with Mulbauer on a recent afternoon.

Mulbauer gave Kyle, his 15-year-old brother Cameron and his mother Pam a quick tour of the memorial, pointing out his parents’ names — Fannie and Zoltan Muhlbauer (He dropped the h when he moved to America) — on the memorial wall.

Mulbauer, who lived in Czechoslovakia, was about 13 when he was deported to his first concentration camp. It was 1943. When he, his mother, sister and father were brought to Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland, he and his father were sent to one line, while his mother was taken to another. His sister Lili was directed to a third line to go to work. She survived the Holocaust and died about 15 years ago.

Their mother did not.

“My mother died within hours,” Mulbauer explained to the boys.

He and his father were put to work carrying train tracks on their shoulders. The work proved to be too hard for his father. who was sent to the gas chambers.

Mulbauer eventually was sent to Buchenwald, a German concentration camp, from where he was liberated in April 1945. He was 14 and had typhoid fever.

“What did you do?” Kyle asked him.

Mulbauer was transported to a hospital in Sweden and spent two years there recovering. He then came to America with his cousins. The Hebrew Immigration Aid Society led him to watch school; he eventually became a watchmaker and opened his own jewelry business in New Jersey

In 1952 he married, and he and his wife Edith vacationed in Miami Beach. When she died in 2002, he moved down to Bal Harbour to enjoy his retirement.

While in the concentration camp, Mulbauer promised himself he would continue to share his story because “I couldn’t understand why the world wasn’t doing anything about it. It’s important for the younger children to know what happened.”

Mulbauer is one of about 25 survivors who participate in the program, said Sharon Horowitz, executive director of the Holocaust Memorial. “They develop real relationships that go beyond just a meeting.”

Kyle’s mom Pam, who volunteers at the memorial, said her boys have learned a lot by spending time with Mulbauer and other survivors.

“It is important that they know about their past,” she said.

When Kyle handed Mulbauer his black and green invitation to his Bar Mitzvah, Mulbauer broke out in a smile.

“It’s an honor to be invited,” he said.

Baking with Bubby and Zaidy

Martin Spiegler helped Shmuly Andrusier roll dough into the shape of a snake to make the Challah bread.

“Look at this,” said Shmuly, 6 as he held up the dough.

Speigler, 71, then helped his new friend braid the dough before baking it.

“It’s a pleasure to be able to work with the children” said Spiegler, an orthopedic surgeon.

While his 3-year-old grandaughter was in Camp Gan Israel at the Chabad of Greater Fort Lauderdale, Spiegler said spending time with all of the children is rewarding.

“It keeps you young,” he said.

The Baking with Bubby and Zaidy (Grandma and Grandpa) program is only one of the ways the Chabad mixes toddlers and seniors, said Estie Chanowitz, whose husband is the rabbi at the synagogue, 6700 NW 44th St.

The Chabad has embraced the concept so much that it is building an assisted living facility for 150 seniors next to the synagogue.

“There is a big disconnect between generations and we are trying to fix that,” said Rabbi Levi Chanowitz.

While the Chabad has held baking, music and arts and crafts programs for years, the idea of having seniors live close to the school is modeled after the Intergenerational Learning Center in Seattle.

Filmmaker Evan Briggs made a movie about the center, where a pre-school is located inside a senior care center.

Estie Chanowitz said so much can be gained by offering joint programming — seniors and toddlers can practice important motor skills through arts and crafts, exercise and music classes.

“We truly believe that the elderly are an asset,” said Estie Chanowitz. “They bring wisdom and can offer so much.”

At the baking event, Estie’s son Mendel Chanowitz, 5, sat next to his adopted Zaidy, Donald Seigel, and decorated a Star of David cookie with his help.

“What color should I do?” he asked.

Seigel, whose grandchildren live in another state, said he and his wife love attending events with the children.

And Mendel loved having them.

“They are nice to me and they help me,” he said.

This story has been updated to clarify the operation of Auschwitz.

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