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To address feelings of isolation and loneliness among older adults, NY group creates innovative approach

PLAINVIEW, N.Y. — Nora Leeds had lived alone for many years in her Long Island home, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that she started to feel isolated.

She was used to working in a large office with coworkers, but then her work went fully remote. For four months, Leeds, now 69, could not see her daughter. She became increasingly depressed.

“I felt like my whole world was falling apart, like I no longer had the skills to interact with people because we were told to stay at home,” Leeds said.

Leeds hardly represents a unique case. While the pandemic exacerbated the social isolation of older adults, even before Covid-19 older Americans were experiencing an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation. Nearly one-quarter of American adults age 65 and older are considered to be “socially isolated” — a circumstance in which a person has few social relationships and infrequent social contact with others. Feelings of loneliness — a subjective state that someone may feel regardless of their social contacts — are rising among older adults, too.

Both social isolation and loneliness are correlated with negative health outcomes, and older adults tend to face these challenges more acutely because they’re more likely to have their social interaction impaired by hearing loss, not working, mobility problems, chronic illness or the death of a spouse or friends.

It’s a growing problem nationwide but in particular in New York, where the share of older adults is surging. Between 2011 and 2021, the number of New Yorkers over age 65 grew by 31 percent, and the number of older adults in the state living in poverty increased by a staggering 37 percent, according to the Center for an Urban Future.

This is the challenge that UJA-Federation of New York sought to address when it launched a pioneering program in April 2021 called Isolation to Connection, which aims to identify isolated older adults and connect them to social activities, community programs and services. Now operating in all the JCCs on Long Island and one in Westchester County, Isolation to Connection helps people over age 65 connect with each other and with resources either at the JCC or at their home. The program coordinates social outings, local community programs, exercise classes, support groups, transportation and psychotherapy sessions, among other things.

When Leeds reached out to her local JCC, the Mid-Island Y Jewish Community Center, for help dealing with her isolation, staffers with the program swung into action.

“I was at a very low point when I called the Y JCC. I told them I needed help,” Leeds said.

A “connection specialist” from Isolation to Connection quickly put Leeds in touch with a social worker, who helped Leeds by encouraging her to focus on things to look forward to — anything from a trip to the supermarket to a dream trip to Ireland. Last March, Leeds finally went on her long-awaited Ireland trip, and she recently attended her first in-person connection event at the JCC.

“The pandemic laid bare the issue of loneliness across our community, particularly among older adults,” said Eric S. Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation. “Now we’re leading the way in creating a sense of belonging and connection for people who may otherwise feel unseen and forgotten. When we see an emerging communal need, we look for opportunities to leverage our partners and offer a scalable solution — that’s always been UJA’s unique role.”

One of the most important elements of the program is the connection specialists at each JCC, whose role is to connect the older adults to resources based on their individual needs.

Saralee Baim, a Long Islander in her late 70s who recently had lost her husband, went looking for help to work through her grief and deal with a troubling medical diagnosis. (Bonnie Azoulay)

“The smiles and conversation make a significant impact on the health of this vulnerable population. This program really allows the participants to get life-altering services,” said Rick Lewis, CEO of the Mid-Island Y JCC. “UJA-Federation’s support of our JCCs has empowered us to serve our community on a deeper level in combatting loneliness.”

When Saralee Baim, a Long Islander in her late 70s who recently had lost her husband, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2022, she went looking for a program to work through her grief and deal with her new illness. Her daughter called the Mid-Island Y JCC and put her in touch with the Isolation to Connection specialist there, Puja Malhotra, who connected Baim to a support group for people with Parkinson’s.

Baim began coming to the JCC four days a week and soon joined its bereavement group, a swim class for people with movement disorders and a support group for those with early-stage memory loss. Malhotra also helped Baim find a dentist and therapist.

“I needed support,” Baim said. “I really tried to focus on the help I can gather here. The JCC is the focus of my help. It’s provided me with opportunities I’d generally hold back from based on my personality.”

Even though Baim, now 79, lives with her daughter and a grandchild, she felt she needed to be with people who understood what she was going through. Once a month she attends a JCC dinner at a nearby diner with other people from the Parkinson’s group.

Healthcare experts say that addressing the isolation of older adults is critical to their health and wellbeing. Just as a physician might offer a medical prescription to someone in need of one, Isolation to Connection aims to give older adults a “social prescription” — a way for them to connect to other people, activities, and services that address their social, practical and emotional needs.

“Social prescribing is a way that many lonely, depressed, anxious people can find local solutions to feel better,” said Dan Morse, the Cofounder of Social Prescribing USA, which encourages doctors to “prescribe” activities such as art, nature activities and volunteering to isolated patients as a way of bolstering their health.

Northwell Health, which is New York State’s largest healthcare provider, is now referring patients to Isolation to Connection. Northwell doctors who see older adults at their clinics have told UJA that while they can address their patients’ medical issues, they need programs like Isolation to Connection to deal with patients’ feelings of isolation — which sometimes are the main reason for their visit to a health clinic.

Ultimately, UJA hopes it can make Isolation to Connection into a statewide program, expanding the social prescribing movement in New York in partnership with other funders.

“There’s a significant demand for the Isolation to Connection program, indicating just how endemic loneliness is among the older population. We want to bring connection specialists to every neighborhood and community around New York,” said Sepi Djavaheri, UJA senior community mobilizer. “We’re just getting started.”

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Top official says White House antisemitism strategy is ‘under pressure’ due to Israel-Hamas war

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Biden administration’s plan to combat antisemitism is “under a lot of pressure” because of the sharp rise in antisemitic incidents since the launch of the war between Israel and Hamas, a top White House official said.

Neera Tanden, President Joe Biden’s top domestic policy adviser, held an online briefing with national Jewish communal leaders on Wednesday, about one month after Hamas’ Oct. 7 invasion of Israel. She said the landmark strategy Biden launched in May to combat antisemitism created what she called a cross-department “architecture” to track and respond to reported incidents of antisemitism, especially on college campuses, but that that system is now being strained, she said.

“Unfortunately, that architecture is under a lot of pressure now with the rise of events” since Oct. 7, Tanden said. “The last several weeks we have seen, on campus and off, a real rise of targeting of Jewish people and antisemitic slurs, actions, threats of violence.”

Jewish watchdogs have recorded a spike of antisemitic incidents worldwide and in the United States since Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists invaded from the Gaza Strip, killing 1,400, wounding thousands, taking more than 200 captive and sparking an Israeli counterattack in Gaza. The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza says more than 10,000 have been killed in the fighting.

This week, a Jewish man died after being wounded in an altercation with pro-Palestinian demonstrators this week near Los Angeles. Jews have also been assaulted and faced death threats on college campuses.

“We continue to see an alarming trend of antisemitic threats and attacks targeting Jewish communities across the country,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters just before Tanden’s briefing. “Disturbing acts like ripping down posters of Jewish hostages held by Hamas, vandalizing Jewish institutions, threatening to commit acts of violence against Jewish students, Jewish faith leaders and Jewish communities inflame tensions, stoke fear and are completely completely unacceptable.”

In the webinar, Tanden said the White House was aware of how deep fears are running among American Jews. “We understand that people are scared in this moment, people are scared who have gone their whole loves without being scared,” she said.

Just before the briefing, Jewish organizational leaders met with the top two U.S. law enforcement officials,  Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Chris Wray, to ask for greater protections against antisemitic harassment since the launch of the war, especially on campuses.

“We are comforted by the very active focus of the Department of Justice and the FBI in investigating and prosecuting the tsunami of increased cases since October 7 of hateful crimes against members of the Jewish community,” said William Daroff, the CEO of the the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in a text immediately after the meeting ended at noon.

The meetings are among a flurry of efforts by American Jewish organizations to back Israel, fight antisemitism and advocate for the hostages. Jewish organizations are planning a mass rally next week in Washington to galvanize support for those goals.

Tanden said she and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona had met with Jewish students on campuses recently. “We spent a significant time hearing from kids, honestly, who are being threatened for who they are, for being Jewish,” she said.

On Oct. 30, Jewish leaders had a meeting with Cardona, days before he warned federally funded colleges that they could lose funding if they failed to address harassment of religious and other minorities. Shelley Greenspan, the White House Jewish outreach director who was on the webinar, said the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights complaint form now had “antisemitism” designated as an area of harassment.

“There is an actual dropdown, so if you feel like you are being targeted at a university, you can actually click it’s because of antisemitism,” she said. “The department will then investigate.”

Other organizations represented at the Justice Department meeting included the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee and Hillel International. Julie Fishman Rayman, the AJC’s managing director, said in an email that Wray also addressed FBI involvement in efforts to release the more than 200 hostages held by Hamas.

Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s executive director of public policy, said Jewish officials who spoke to the Justice Department officials stressed the threat to Jewish students on campus.

“We asked them to surge more resources into law enforcement agencies to protect our communities,” he said in an email. “And we asked for a zero-tolerance policy — especially toward campus incidents. Federal authorities properly charged the student who made death threats at Cornell with a federal crime; that needs to be done across the board with others who act against Jewish students.”

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With the Jerusalem Biennale canceled due to war, participating artists mount 3 exhibits in New York

(New York Jewish Week) – Every two years, hundreds of artists from all over the world flock to Israel for the Jerusalem Biennale, an art festival that celebrates contemporary Jewish and Israeli artists from all over the world. 

Due to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, however, the 2023 festival, which was originally supposed to open Thursday, has been tentatively postponed until next spring.

Many of the artists are mounting their shows in their home cities instead. At least five of the Biennale’s exhibits are scheduled to open this week in three continents — North America, South America and Europe — as a satellite version of the festival. 

On Thursday, three of the exhibits — “Activate,” “The Seventeen” and “Hallelujah” — will open in New York City, where more than a dozen artists who are featured in the Biennale call home. 

The Heller Museum at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in partnership with the Jewish Arts Salon and the American Sephardi Federation, will host two of the Biennale exhibitions, “Activate” and “The Seventeen.” They will be on view for free at the museum’s East Village location for the next week. 

The Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan on the Upper West Side will host a third exhibit, “Hallelujah,” in partnership with the Biennale. The Upper West Side building’s Laurie M. Tisch gallery will show the work beginning Thursday through Dec. 17.

Founded in 2013, the Biennale takes place across the city of Jerusalem and centers contemporary artists whose work references Jewish and Israeli experiences. This year, the Biennale was prepared to bring more than 200 artists to Jerusalem to host 35 exhibitions across the city under the theme of “Iron Flock,” which aims to “identify, through the eyes of curators and artists from all over the world, the movements, ideas, people, and moments that have become our unsaleable cultural assets,” as the Jerusalem Biennale’s website describes it. 

“The Jerusalem Biennale became like a pulse, beating steadily every two years. Since 2013, without exception and despite the many challenges, the Jerusalem Biennale has created a platform for contemporary art at the very center of the Jewish world. Until now. It’s as if the heart skips a beat,” Rami Ozeri, the festival’s founder and creator director, said in a press release. 

“But even now, after the unspeakable pain of October 7, we have witnessed a huge outpouring of solidarity from around the world,” he added. “Within weeks, our friends and partners have succeeded in mounting in their own cities the exhibitions created for the Jerusalem Biennale. We will continue to nurture the ties of art and culture between Jerusalem and the world today more than ever.”

At the Heller Museum, “Activate: A New York Women’s Perspective,” curated by Israeli artist Hadas Glazer, showcases the work of six New York artists — Siona Benjamin, Goldie Gross, Ronit Levin Delgado, Joan Roth, Chelsea Steinberg Gay and Yona Verwer — who explore “the complexities of life as a woman today,” according to a press release.  

Also at the museum, “The Seventeen” spans the 40-year career of Brooklyn-born artist Archie Rand. Curated by Samantha Baskind, the exhibition continues the artist’s explorations of “the Bible and Jewish texts in serialized paintings conceptually informed by twentieth-century culture,” according to the Jewish Art Salon website. 

Meanwhile, at the JCC, “Hallelujah” will showcase Israeli artists currently living in New York who have created art about their experiences as immigrants to the United States. On view will be works by Noa Charuvi, Hirut Yosef , Yehudit Feinstein, Yuli Aloni Primor, Gal Cohen, Ken Goshen, Gabriela Vainsencher and Maya Baran. 

Other exhibitions that were intended for the Biennale will be mounted at the AMIA Art Space in Buenos Aires and the Jewish Museum of Casale Monferrato in Italy. 

Ozeri said in a press release that more of the exhibits will open around the world in the coming months as a plan is made for the Biennale to take place in Jerusalem next year. “This heart will always keep beating,” he said. 

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Brazil police arrest 2 men allegedly plotting terror attacks targeting Jews

(JTA) — Brazilian police have arrested two men and are looking for 11 others reportedly involved in a terror cell plotting attacks aimed at Brazilian Jews.

The group is suspected to have ties to Hezbollah, the terrorist group based in Lebanon that is currently trading fire with Israel at Israel’s northern border. Details on the alleged plot were scarce, but the O Globo newspaper reported that synagogues were among the group’s targets.

One suspect was arrested on Wednesday after flying in from Lebanon to Brazil’s biggest airport, in Guarulhos, near São Paulo. Police are searching São Paulo, the Minas Gerais state and the federal district around the country’s capital Brasília for others.

Police said the charges of “creating or belonging to a terrorist organization and carrying out preparations for acts of terrorism” carry sentences of 15 and a half years in prison.

Over 100,000 Jews live in Brazil, mostly in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The Confederação Israelita do Brasil, or CONIB, an umbrella group for Brazilian Jewish federations, congratulated police for breaking up the terror cell and expressed “enormous concern” about the situation.

Jewish communities around the world are on high alert in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks and Israel’s subsequent war in Gaza, and police in several European countries say they have interrupted or tracked plots against Jewish targets over the last month. But even before October, a report published in April found that antisemitism in Brazilian schools had spiked over the past three years. Police are also cracking down on local neo-Nazi groups that have grown in size and influence in recent years.

Hezbollah has been known to have a large presence in Latin America for decades and has been tied to multiple terror attacks in the region, including the bombings of Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 in 1992 and the attack on that city’s AMIA Jewish center that killed 85 in 1994.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said Brazilian police worked “in collaboration with Mossad and its partners within the Israeli security community, as well as other international security and law enforcement agencies” in making Wednesday’s arrests.

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