Stories to tell: New group at Kol Shofar offers people a place to open up

Patricia Garfield isn’t Jewish, but she has found comfort at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

Garfield, who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is the author of “Creative Dreaming,” is part of “Telling Our Stories: Gatherings for Seniors,” a monthly, nondenominational, guided group discussion held at the synagogue.

“My late husband was Jewish,” said Garfield, 74, who lives in Tiburon and still teaches in the older adult program at Dominican University in San Rafael. “When he died six and a half years ago, I missed the intellectual input. This group has provided me emotional support.

“I have written over 10 books,” she continued. “I’ve traveled around the world. But no one recognized that I need support. This group is a chance to share and not have demands on my time.”

Al Stark, trim and tanned at 82, said he most enjoys the richness of the conversations that take place when the group meets. “I like sharing, seeing people and getting different perspectives. I find it very enlightening.”

Gail Cohon Stein, a Mill Valley psychologist with a master’s in counseling, has led the group since January 2008, and she recognizes how vital her mission is.

“I have a strong feeling for seniors to be heard,” said Cohon Stein, 71, who has worked in the past for Jewish Children and Family Services in Marin. “Families are busy and everyone is busy. This is a place for people to share stories.”

Sharing stories, personal and professional, tackling controversial subjects, or musing on some long-ago memory easily fills the session’s 90 minutes. Attendance averages between six and 15 people.

“The turning point in the group, for me, came when I was voted down,” Cohon Stein mused. “Everyone wanted to talk about the economy and I wanted to talk about something else. After that, people really started to open up about their stories and lives.”

The group’s most recent gathering was on Jan. 20, the day of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, and the focus of the discussion that day was understandably one-sided. Everyone said they were blown away by the magnitude of the day — and the events in Washington, D.C., stirred historically significant memories for some group members.

Walter Monasch, 85, who fled with his family from Nazi Germany in the 1930s, vividly recalled an experience he had in a restaurant in Virginia in 1943 when he was in the U.S. Army.

“We were in Virginia for brief field training,” he remembered as if it were yesterday. “I noticed that the cooks couldn’t come into the restaurant to eat because they were black. As soon as I found out, I put my coffee down and walked out.”

Being able to share their stories and their opinions is what sustains the members of the group — along with giving (and receiving) intellectual stimulation and emotional support.

“We often look at seniors as stereotypes: That they’re old and they’re not interesting anymore,” Cohon Stein said. “When you have a chance to hear everyone’s stories, there’s such richness, such dimensions that open up. When one person tells a story about something in their life and another person tells a story, you start to see them in a much deeper way.”

“Telling Our Stories: Gatherings for Seniors”
takes place the third Tuesday of every month at Congregation Kol Shofar, 215 Blackfield Drive, Tiburon. Information: (415) 388-1818 ext. 18 or [email protected].

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.