Erel Arnold, who graduated from Jewish Community High School of the Bay last year, heard about the opportunity to call senior residents through his sister, a junior at the high school. (COURTESY ARNOLD)
Erel Arnold, who graduated from Jewish Community High School of the Bay last year, heard about the opportunity to call senior residents through his sister, a junior at the high school. (COURTESY ARNOLD)

Jewish teens and quarantined seniors find companionship over the phone

When the Jewish Community High School of the Bay started to shift its classes online in mid-March in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Roni Ben-David still wanted students to engage in some sort of service opportunity, even if it had to be virtual.

At the same time, the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living had recently closed its doors to visitors to protect its seniors, leaving residents of the facility with close to zero interaction with people on the outside.

So an email went out to students at the San Francisco high school, asking: Would you be interested in having a phone call with seniors once a week?

“I got a great response,” said Ben-David, who teaches Jewish ethics and is director of the school’s social justice and inclusion. “I got students to sign up right away.”

Since then, nine high schoolers have participated in the program, phoning residents for 30 to 45 minutes at a time when both the young and the old are feeling isolated.

Sophomore Hana Skigen said she immediately signed up because of her past work with seniors at Jewish Family and Children’s Services and Rhoda Goldman Plaza, another Jewish senior living facility in San Francisco.

“I think it’s so sad that they are being isolated,” Skigen said. “They are the most vulnerable. I may not be afraid [of Covid-19], but I know seniors have to be a lot more cautious.”

JCHS had its students go through a small training before making their calls. It included a list of do’s and don’ts, and reminders to speak slowly and clearly and make sure the conversation is reciprocal.

On March 27, Skigen made her first call to Judith Birnbaum, a 76-year-old resident. They found out they had some things in common: Both have a passion for San Francisco and are big fans of jazz singers Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.

“She seemed very lonely, honestly,” said Skigen, who has spoken with Birnbaum twice. “I’m even lonely not being able to see my friends. Talking to her was nice even for me.”

Birnbaum felt the same. “They’ve been very nice,” she said. “I would tell her about my family. And she would talk about her family.”

Solidarity in a time of crisis can just be the most nourishing, sustaining thing

JCHS sophomore Annabella Mazer said she was motivated to participate because many seniors live in her Oakland neighborhood. Mazer was linked up with Ellen Hinkle, and the two spoke about their shared love for the ocean and animals.

“We bonded over that,” Mazer said.

The phone calls provide a nice break from her day-to-day routine at home, Mazer added.

“Even with my family of five in the house,” Mazer said, “it can get isolating.”

She also said her phone calls with Hinkle are a good complement to her work with NCSY, a Jewish youth group that is committed to themes of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and chesed (benevolence), Mazer said.

“It’s nice,” she said about conversing with seniors. “Just having a chance to do some good, I think, makes me not as lazy.”

Since the onset of the pandemic, similar programs have cropped up in other states, with younger Americans reaching out to seniors in a variety of ways. In Wilmette, Illinois, for example, children from two Catholic parishes are making phone calls to seniors. And around the country, students have become pen-pals with older adults, exchanging handwritten letters.

The student phone calls may be doing more than just providing company. A study in 2012 found a link between loneliness in seniors above 60 and poor health outcomes, including an increased risk of death.

“I just think solidarity in a time of crisis can just be the most nourishing, sustaining thing,” JCHS teacher Ben-David said. “And I think the students see that. This is exactly the opposite of what they’re being told to do, which is socially distance themselves. This is an opposite action, to reach out and think of others. It gives [students] a sense of purpose.”

Erel Arnold, a 2019 graduate of the school, heard about the opportunity to call seniors through his sister, who is a junior at JCHS.

Forced to return home from his gap year in Israel, where he was participating in a program that had him working with seniors, Arnold said he wanted to continue that type of work. He was connected to Steve Heffner at the S.F. Campus for Jewish Living, and the two talked about Heffner’s career as an accountant and business owner.

“He made a life for himself with his business,” Arnold said. “I asked him what message he would have for today’s generation. [It was] ‘the most important thing is to work hard.’”

Arnold said that Heffner invited him to visit once the pandemic is over.

“I wanna do that,” Arnold said. “Definitely.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is a staff writer at J. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ggreschler.