An interview with Mel Van Emmenes

TELL US ABOUT YOUR NEW ROLE AS JEWISH SENIOR SERVICES COORDINATOR FOR CHABAD OF THE SHORELINE? I am excited about this new project! Rabbi Yossi and Rochel Baila Yaffe approached me about reaching out to a segment of the Jewish population on the Shoreline that sometimes feels isolated and forgotten–our seniors. We plan to provide more opportunities to involve our seniors in Jewish community life. Our goal is ambitious but important. And my role is to coordinate a variety of social, learning, cultural and religious activities to move towards that goal. 

WHY IS THIS A GOOD FIT FOR YOU? A good fit? It is a perfect fit! Two years ago, I emigrated to the Shoreline from Cape Town, South Africa. I hoped for an opportunity to work with Jewish seniors, and now I have it. In South Africa, I earned a bachelor’s degree in social work and a graduate degree in clinical social work. Before emigrating to the States, I was a social worker for the Cape Jewish Seniors Association in Cape Town, where I established a satellite office for Jewish seniors. Now, the opportunity to collaborate with Jewish seniors on the Shoreline offers new challenges with, I believe, great rewards. 

WHAT STEPS HAVE YOU TAKEN TO START THIS AMBITIOUS PROJECT? We began by creating a database of senior centers, independent and assisted living facilities, health and rehabilitation centers, adult day care centers, and residential housing for seniors on the Shoreline. To date the database consists of 62 facilities. I then reached out to the appropriate staff at each facility to assess the needs of their Jewish population. Currently, I am continuing my communication with them and establishing relationships that will benefit both the facilities and their Jewish residents/attendees. 

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST PROGRAM ON THE SHORELINE? Shortly before Chanukah, we visited over 50 facilities and made personal contact. We gifted each facility with a beautiful metal LED Menorah and Chanukah decorations to increase Chanukah spirit and awareness. During Chanukah, we conducted follow-up visits to some of the facilities to deliver Chanukah gift bags–including fresh kosher sufganiyot (Chanukah doughnuts). We made sure to remember the staff, too! I have met some of the seniors, and they are lovely. Current COVID restrictions have limited my ability to personally meet more, but I look forward to better days ahead. 

WHAT ARE YOU PLANNING NEXT? Our primary immediate goal is to recruit volunteers interested in developing long-term relationships with seniors. The view is to reduce isolation and to increase socialization for Jewish seniors, whether in their own homes or in assisted living centers. The volunteers will phone, Zoom and (when able) visit seniors in person on a weekly basis and build meaningful relationships with them. This is just the beginning. I am looking forward to what lies ahead!