Roving Readers supply books and cheer to homebound

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Erna Pinto, a survivor of the Westerbork Nazi transit camp in Holland, volunteers by visiting another Westerbork survivor at San Francisco's Jewish Home for the Aged. While there, she reads to her in Dutch.

"I heard her name, and I said, `I know her,'" said Pinto, a volunteer with the Roving Readers program of San Francisco's Jewish Community Library. "It had been 55 years."

Her client, 91, deaf and legally blind, is talkative and far from sedentary. A survivor of several camps, including Westerbork, she had requested a Dutch reader.

"I enjoy visiting her, and I'd go more often," said Pinto, "but she's so busy from all the activities in the Jewish home."

The Roving Readers program, which celebrated its first anniversary in the fall, brings Jewish books, magazines, music, video and conversation to housebound or elderly patients. Under the guidance of the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education's Jewish Community Library, volunteers make two visits a month to their clients.

Twenty-eight volunteers — among them engineers, teachers and business people — have been trained for the program so far, said Susan Jacob, volunteer coordinator. Most have already been matched with a client, usually with promising results.

The next training session will begin Monday, Jan. 25. (For information, call Susan Jacob at (415) 751-6983, ext. 126.)

Carolyn Lustig, 86, a resident of San Francisco's Menorah Park, said the sessions are a welcome diversion. Her reader brings videos and large-print books. Isaac Bashevis Singer stories, which she finds "clever and amusing," are a particular favorite.

A volunteer for more than 20 years herself, Lustig said she truly appreciates the pleasant attitude and conversation her reader brings to the meetings.

"We talk about current events or personal things," she said. "After you've been with someone awhile you can talk about personal things."

Her reader, Marcia Kasabian, said she finds the meetings heartwarming. Lustig "has a real joy that young people often miss."

Volunteer Batya Billinkoff said she sometimes spends hours with her client, reading or just talking.

"We're growing on each other," she said. "It takes a while to find out what the person really wants."

For her, as well as for others, the books are more of a conversational tool than anything else. "Whatever I read is a good jumping-off point for what's on her mind, what memories of her childhood it evokes," she said.

Billinkoff views sessions with her client as an opportunity to take part in a living history. "You recover part of the Jewish living past by talking to them."

Jacob agrees that engagement with another person is what matters most. "Some clients need to be read to, and some would be insulted if you tried to read to them," she said.

For Adele Donn, who runs a Yiddish conversation group, being a reader has given her an unexpected perk. "It's opened up my own communication with the library," she said, adding that the library shelves are filled with a host of materials, everything from cookbooks to Talmud to poetry. "There's so many great things here."

Head librarian Jonathan Schwartz created the program in concert with Rabbi Eric Weiss of Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. They modeled the program after Friends for Life, which provides similar services to housebound HIV patients.

"We're not only spreading Jewish culture," Schwartz said, "we're also acting on Jewish ideals: working for the community, taking care of those who are less fortunate. That to me is what Judaism is really about. Some clients are extremely isolated and our Roving Reader is their sole contact with the Jewish community."

Said Weiss: "The wave of the future is for agencies to come together like this. Neither agency could have done this on its own."

He also emphasized that the purpose of programs such as Roving Readers is to "help people in their brokenness to become whole."

Another goal, Weiss added, is to provide a "spiritual component" to the training of volunteers. "People volunteer to satisfy their own spiritual hunger. In performing these acts of lovingkindness (gimilut hasadim), they're doing mitzvot that use their entire bodies — showing up at the door, reaching out to people."

Peter Tardos, another volunteer, can vouch for that. He spent a year bringing books to a housebound patient with back trouble and to the client's young daughter. "Maybe that's how I got my backache," he joked.

The program is funded by the Friends of the Jewish Community Library and by the Alexander M. and June L. Maisin Foundation of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund.