November 21, 2018

Loss turns to gain with young at heart

After her mother passed away a little over a year ago, Ofra Bennun watched her father slowly begin to decline. After 62 years of a loving marriage, it was hard for Israel Knan, 83, to be alone. 

So Bennun made sure that he wasn’t, creating a 60-plus club for Israeli seniors like him. A year later, the Tarzana-based group, now called Young at Heart, is thriving with more than 200 members, who gather for everything from bridge classes to Friday night dinners to out-of-town trips. 

“If not for this club, I don’t think my dad would have survived,” said Bennun, 50, who runs the club on a daily basis. “He was heartbroken after my mom passed away. They had such a unique relationship. He loved her so much, and it was very difficult for him not to have her in his life anymore. Sometimes, he comes over to my house and he is tired and this hurts and that hurts and then, he goes to the club, and he is so energetic and happy and full of life.

“He is the one who began the tradition of Friday night dinners,” she continued. “We have about 50 members who come each Friday, bringing in home-cooked meals and sitting together for a wonderful potluck dinner and Kabbalat Shabbat.”

Bennun, a hairdresser in Woodland Hills, admitted that not only has the club helped local seniors like her dad, but it’s also given her a new purpose in life. 

After her daughter left home to enroll at American Jewish University, she said, “Even though it’s a short distance drive from home, the fact that she moved out … to the dorms left us with an empty nest, and it was hard. Thanks to the club, I started doing things I never imagined I would be able to do. I started speaking in front of people, I organized trips and events, my life got filled with so many activities and excitement. The love and support I’m getting from the members is so great. It’s very fulfilling.”

Bennun moved to the United States with her parents from Holon, Israel, near Tel Aviv, when she was 16 and joined the Israeli Scouts, or Tzofim, which had just opened its first branch in Los Angeles. After graduating from high school, she went back to Israel to enlist in the army and later helped establish a kibbutz in Ramat Hagolan. When she moved back to L.A. a year and a half later, she married an Israeli man and had her daughter Eden, now 20. (Now separated from her husband, she’s recently started a support group for divorced women at MATI, the Israeli Community Center on Ventura Boulevard, where Young at Heart is based.)

For years, Bennun worked mainly as a hairdresser, taking care of her parents and small family; there wasn’t much time left for anything else. Although very friendly, Bennun said she’s always been kind of shy. Now her phone constantly rings as she gets requests and questions from Young at Heart members who range in age from 60 to 90. 

“I just love them so much. If I could, I would just move in the club [headquarters] and take care of them 24/7,” she said, smiling broadly. 

Members of the club — widowers, divorcees, couples and singles — are thankful for what Bennun has done for them. 

“We turned [out] to be one big family. I made new friendships with people I had never met before,” said Jacob Atia, 59, a Young at Heart member since it began. The divorcé travels twice a week to the club’s headquarters from his home in North Hills. 

“I especially enjoy our Saturday dinners and trips together,” he said. “We’ve been to Solvang, Santa Barbara, Ojai, [the J.] Paul Getty museum and other places. Since the club has opened, I feel less lonely. It’s such a great place to hang out.”

Bennun can attest to the results, too.

“Many of them didn’t have any place to go and hang out with other Israeli seniors, and now they have such a place. Many new friendships started here. They arrange meetings and trips together not only as part of the club, but outside of it,” she said. “A group of 20 members, who met at the club, just took a cruise together to Alaska. It’s wonderful seeing them getting together, celebrating the holidays, playing games, chit-chatting, which they like to do the best.

“There is such a homey feeling in the club. My dad is so proud of me. He always has tears of excitement in his eyes when he comes to the club. And as for myself,” she continued, “it gave me so much self-confidence knowing that I did it. I know that they are very appreciative of what I did for them, but they don’t know that I got so much more out of it.”