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Saturday, July 11, 2020

Sixth Graders Find Ways to Connect With Senior Residents Despite Quarantine

“We tried to have FaceTime but unfortunately we have limitations.”

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In March, to protect its residents from the coronavirus, the Iranian Senior Jewish Center in Pico-Robertson, like many other homes for seniors, was forced to end all extracurricular programming with visitors. This included the monthly visits that started at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year with all 43 sixth graders from nearby Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am.

The program was a collaboration supported by the Better Together Program, which has made possible approximately 150 similar unions around the country since it began six years ago. Fortunately, the end of the physical visits has not meant an end to the connection.

The first time one of those sixth graders, 11-year-old Emma Steuer, visited the center last fall, she said she was nervous. “I’m not used to being with too many seniors, besides my grandparents,” the Beverlywood resident said. “I didn’t know what to expect or how to act.”

Pressman school Rabbi Chaim Tureff, anticipated students might be uncomfortable. After all, not only was there an age difference, and everything that comes with that, there was a language barrier because some of the center’s residents speak only Farsi. So, each month, before they walked to the center, the Pressman students had a grounding lesson. Sometimes the lesson was related to a holiday they might celebrate together.

“One of the lessons was about honoring people who are more senior than we are,” Tureff told the Journal. “How do we show them respect and do they deserve respect and where in Jewish text does it discuss honoring elders?”

With each visit, Emma grew more at ease, as did many of her classmates. They celebrated Sukkot and Hanukkah with the seniors. They played volleyball together —  modified, of course. And the students listened to their stories and memories about life in Iran, something Emma said she especially appreciated.

“A few students were so plugged in, it was incredible,” Tureff said. “You can see in their expression, in their voice.… They were really present.”

During three of their six visits, the Pressman students were joined by members of the Los Angeles-based band Distant Cousins. Singer and guitarist Duvid Swirsky is married to Pressman middle school counselor Shira Landau, and the band had worked with Pressman students in the past, including performing a song with them and students from Islah Academy, a Muslim American community in South Los Angeles, at an L.A. Clippers game in January. That went so well, Tureff said, it seemed like a “great opportunity” to work with them again. “Music is a great way to cross cultures” and “bridge the two communities,” he added.

Distant Cousins was supposed to join the students on two additional visits that had to be canceled after the outbreak of the coronavirus. Fortunately, they had made enough headway to complete the project. The uplifting, toe-tapping pop song the tweens wrote, performed and recorded with the center’s residents and the band is called “It’s a Miracle.” The lyrics are in English and Farsi.

Before COVD-19, the plan was for the students and seniors to gather in June to watch the premiere of the “It’s a Miracle” music video, which a Pressman staff member is in the process of editing. Unfortunately, that won’t be happening. But Tureff is hopeful they can find some way to share the video with the center’s residents this summer and maybe do Zoom meetings as well, at least until they can resume in-person visits.

“We tried to have FaceTime but unfortunately we have limitations,” said Ilana Tazdi, the center’s executive manager.

Since their last in-person visit in February, each Pressman sixth grader has penned three letters to the center’s residents. The most recent batch was delivered earlier this month, along with 80-plus plants — one for each resident. The plants were the request of the center’s staff, who suggested that watering and caring for living plants would give the seniors hope.

According to Tazdi, the letters from the students have been very well received. But she admits the residents “would prefer to talk to the kids. Having them here with the seniors was such a blessing,” she said. “It’s a fresh exchange. They got this energy from them.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Rabbi Tureff is Pressman’s head of school. 

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