(From left) Josef Paldus-Farmwald with his Moldaw buddies, Manny and Bee Cherkas, Jan. 18, 2023. (Photo/Sarah Sherwood)
(From left) Josef Paldus-Farmwald with his Moldaw buddies, Manny and Bee Cherkas, Jan. 18, 2023. (Photo/Sarah Sherwood)

Buddy program between Hausner teens, Moldaw seniors is a ‘win-win’

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For Josef Paldus-Farmwald, an eighth-grader at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto, there’s one hour every other Wednesday that he eagerly awaits: His time with Manny Cherkas, his 91-year-old friend at the Moldaw Residences, a senior living community less than a mile from Hausner.

Josef and his classmates each were assigned a Moldaw “buddy” at the beginning of the school year. Every other week, the students and their buddies get together — either at Moldaw or Hausner — and engage in an activity, such as playing board games or celebrating a Jewish holiday.

The activity on Jan. 18, when J. was invited to observe, was a show-and-tell of favorite books, with two students and two or three Moldaw residents at each table.

The students had small notebooks in front of them in which to jot down notes and reflections from the interactions. That’s because the kids are beginning to write short stories and essays about their Moldaw buddies to enter into the Better Together National Essay Competition.

Better Together provides grants to Jewish day schools, JCCs, Jewish youth groups, synagogue religious schools and Hebrew classes at high schools. The nonprofit — which has an informational video on YouTube featuring the actress and “Jeopardy!” host Mayim Bialik — has been supporting the Hausner-Moldaw partnership since it began four years ago, and the essay competition is a requirement of the grant.

“It’s not just us going and doing it and having fun, but it’s also having some reflection on it,” said Maia Elder-Kadar, a Jewish studies and Hebrew teacher at Hausner who leads the Hausner-Moldaw partnership. “It’s a win-win.”

Iby Heller, 92, has been a participant for two years. She said she most enjoys the “enthusiasm” she sees in the way her eighth-grade buddies interact with her. Even a simple game of Candyland leaves a lasting smile on her face.

“I think, as an older person, I could use some enthusiasm, and I get that when I come and I meet with the two of you,” Iby told Hausner students Yuval Weissberg and Ezra Rosenberg. “I want to thank you for that.”

Yuval, 13, said meeting with his Moldaw buddies is an amazing opportunity.

“Getting the chance every two weeks to be sitting in front of somebody and talking to somebody from a different generation … it’s special for me,” Yuval said, adding that he loves time with his grandparents, but they live in Israel and he gets to see them only a couple of times a year.

Iby enjoys sharing the experiences she had when she was their age and reflecting on the hardships she faced as a youth in Belgium. One memory she shared: When she missed a day of school for a Jewish holiday, her Hungarian-speaking parents would tell her teachers she was observing a “Hungarian National holiday,” so as not to disclose that she was Jewish, out of fear of antisemitism at the time. Her family fled to England during World War II, but one set of grandparents in Czechoslovakia were murdered by the Nazis.

Getting the chance every two weeks to be sitting in front of somebody and talking to somebody from a different generation … it’s special for me.

Ezra, 14, said hearing Iby’s stories lets him  “see the world from a different perspective.”

These meaningful bonds have blossomed during each of the four years the Hausner-Moldaw partnership has existed, according to Arielle Hendel, Moldaw’s community development director. Hendel and Elyse Gerson, Moldaw’s executive director, came up with the idea for the partnership, and Hausner jumped on board.

Typically, Hendel said, the buddies exchange phone numbers or email addresses at the end of the school year, so they don’t lose touch. However, this year, “they didn’t even wait until the program was over,” she said. “We have several residents and students who are emailing this year during the program in between weeks that they do not see each other.”

Manny’s wife, Bee Cherkas, 86, still corresponds by email with one of her teen buddies who moved to Israel.

When the buddies got together on Jan. 18, Josef took his usual seat at a table next to Manny, Bee and his classmate, Miles Miller. Because the foursome has grown close, Josef felt comfortable sharing the somber news that his 87-year-old grandfather had died just three days earlier.

“I had my grandpa for a very long time,” said Josef, 13, who was named for him.

Josef said his conversations with Manny — on topics such as how he cleared land mines during his 1955-60 service in the Israel Defense Forces — helped him better connect with his grandfather, whom he visited in Canada over winter break.

“I talked to my grandfather about that, and that brought up something I never knew about him,” Josef said. “He was actually in the anti-aircraft division for the Czech Republic.”

Meanwhile, Josef has been sharing stories with Manny about his grandfather’s historic contributions to the field of quantum mechanics, which in turn led Manny to open up about his time working with the very first computers as an engineer at NASA.

Josef and Manny said they each consider the other a true friend, noting that their friendship won’t end when eighth grade is over and Josef goes off to high school.

“I would be happy to spend any time, any extra time with you,” Josef told him.

Miles, 14, has an equally strong bond with Bee, and he’s even offered to dog-sit for Bee’s daughter at some point.

Next year, Miles plans to attend Kehillah Jewish High School, which is across the street from Moldaw. Asked if he plans to spend time with Bee and Manny when he’s at Kehillah, Miles replied with a grin: “As long as they let us.”

Jew,  Jewish,  J. The Jewish News of Northern California
Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.