At 82, Charlotte Muchnick performs acts of kindness — one stitch at a time.
She coordinates the Shul Stitchers at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, a group of about 30 people who knit blankets for those in need.
They knit together individually in their homes and as a group, meeting once a month for the past 15 years to put all the pieces together.
The stitchers work together in an assembly-line fashion, each contributing a piece of the puzzle. Some crochet small squares, others sew those together into panels, which are then sewn into six-paneled blankets, while still others crochet the edges using yarn or hand-stitching.
“There isn’t any piece that anybody has done that we’ve turned away,” she laughed. “It all goes into a blanket, and they’re all beautiful when they’re done.”
Muchnick often washes the blankets once they’re done before delivering them and sewing in the final touch: a tag that says “made with love from the Shul Stitchers of Har Zion Temple.”
“We just reach out to people who have a special need,” she said. “It’s something that has created a community of mitzvah-doers.”
They’ve donated the blankets to a variety of institutions and people, such as lone soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces, veterans, ill people and children in hospitals and shelters, and homeless people. They’ve also donated to HIAS and given some to the Jewish Relief Agency to dispense.
Muchnick said they try to distribute them every time they reach about a dozen or so blankets and hopes to donate twice as much before the holidays this year.
“The holidays can be very beautiful, and they can be very sad for a lot of people,” she said. They try to give to wherever they see a need.
Muchnick also co-chairs another organization at Har Zion, the Caring Connection. The group of about 30 do-gooders deliver meals to people who are in mourning or sick.
For all the mitzvot Muchnick does, she remains humble.
“I live a life of reaching out to people,” she said. “I think it’s important, especially now, because so many people are not connected — and they’re unhappy because they’re not connected. It’s just a human thing to do, and recognizing hurt in other people and trying to help them, it’s a good thing. It makes you feel good that you’re doing good.”
Muchnick added that supporting others builds community, and it becomes its own reward.
“It’s what I have learned by being Jewish. It’s a Jewish value that I value highly,” she said.
Muchnick recalled delivering blankets to people at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. when it was still open, and she met a young veteran who lost both his legs, so young he still looked like a teenager.
“I was happy that the blankets that we made would go to some people like him that could bring him some level of comfort,” she added.
But Sue Aistrop, director of community services at KleinLife and RSVP Philadelphia, said the whole face of senior volunteers is changing.
RSVP — the Retired Senior Volunteer Program — is federally funded by the Corporation of National and Community Service and sponsored by KleinLife. It provides community service opportunities for almost 1,000 55-and-over volunteers.
Although the title implies an older crowd, Aistrop said RSVP recruits more baby boomers, and “55 looks a lot different than it did back then” when it started 40 years ago.
The majority of issues they support relate to hunger, food insecurity and literacy.
“We try to address serious problems in the community and put our volunteers in those directions,” she added. “We’re going to try and place people where there’s a real need and they’re really going to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Aistrop said volunteers help in any way they can, whether filing papers or ushering at theaters. While still appreciated, she said baby boomers want to give back in more hands-on ways.
“Studies show that people actually physically feel better when they’re volunteering. It improves their health, it improves their state of mind, it improves their neighborhood. It’s just a positive way to finish your career,” she said.
“Baby boomers want to see more results from what they do. They want to feel much more engaged and needed. They want to share their thoughts on the best way it can be done. They want a much more complete commitment to the organizations that they’re volunteering for.”
Bob Slipakoff is a part of that baby boomer generation in RSVP.
The 64-year-old is a volunteer delivery driver for one of RSVP’s largest programs, Cook For a Friend, a Meals on Wheels-type of program that provides food to about 625 people each year.
Members of KleinLife and the community from across the Delaware Valley prepare the meals, some even with vegetables grown in a garden at KleinLife.
“I’m a lot younger than some of my cohorts at RSVP,” he laughed.
He delivers meals every Monday morning to, he says, “get the week off to a good start.”
“I think that I have a deep feeling for seniors who want to stay as independent as they can and who may or may not have loved ones nearby,” he added. “You never know somebody’s situation until you get to know them.”
Slipakoff has also tried to get to know the people he delivers to each week ever since his first day on the job two years ago.
Newly retired, he wanted to use his free time to go to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. on Yom HaShoah. However, he didn’t want to switch his new schedule with RSVP, so he stuck to it.
He ended up delivering to a Holocaust survivor and, he recalled, “instead of being in a museum, here I was with this extraordinary woman who endured so much.”
“This is living history, not just museums. In a way, bringing her a meal and giving her a little bit of sustenance, a little bit of strength… it felt great. That was just a great way to start it off,” he added.
Slipakoff goes the extra mile for the seniors he assists. He shovels their sidewalks, takes out their trash or simply talks to them on the phone whenever they need a friend.
“If I could interface with people,” Slipakoff said, “even just for the few minutes it takes, help them stay independent, give them a friendly face that they can count on every week… that would be helpful to them and also feels good to do that. You could call it a mitzvah.”
Rachel Kurland is this close to getting past the “knit one, purl two” stage.