Northwest Philadelphia Jews Aim to Create ‘Shtetl’ to Help Residents Age in Place

Dick Goldberg with his grandchild and wife, Deborah Weinstein (Courtesy of Dick Goldberg)

Like many synagogues, the Germantown Jewish Centre in Northwest Philadelphia is “a graying population,” said member Dick Goldberg. If you go to a Shabbat morning service, you will see “a lot of gray hair,” he added.

And it’s a similar story across Northwest Philadelphia synagogues such as Mishkan Shalom, P’nai Or and the Folkshul.

That’s why a group of Jews in the area are working to create “Shtetl 2.0,” as they call it.

This is not a Jewish ghetto living under a regime that discriminates against Jews, according to Goldberg. Instead, it emphasizes the positive aspects of the old shtetls of Eastern Europe.

“Shtetl 2.0 will reimagine intertwined, interdependent community in our 21st century NW Philly context,” wrote Goldberg in an email.

It will aim to provide services to older Jews. Those may include social programs, educational programs and aid programs to help people stay in their homes.

A late-October meeting at the GJC gauged interest, and 50 people showed up, according to Goldberg. A six-session online series about health care, housing and other life decisions is ongoing. In January, a planning meeting will determine what Shtetl 2.0 ultimately becomes.

“We’ll try and see who is interested and what aspects of elder years we want to tackle,” said Rivkah Walton, a planning committee member.

Goldberg said the goals are to combat isolation and help people stay in their homes. He senses that “people would like to stay in this community and stay in their homes.”

That was the concern most often expressed at the meeting in late October. Homes in Mount Airy, Chestnut Hill and other Northwest Philly neighborhoods “have a lot of stairs,” Goldberg said.

“As you get older, that becomes a tricky issue,” he added.

Goldberg, 76, has spent 27 years in his Chestnut Hill home. He’s been a member of the GJC for four years. He feels a connection to his community and synagogue, and he doesn’t want to leave.

Shetl 2.0 participants meet at an organizational meeting. (Courtesy of Rivkah Walton)

But even as a former marathon runner still in good health, Goldberg recognizes the challenges ahead. He may eventually need help with transportation and “end-of-life issues,” he said.

“We’re not saying, ‘I’ll handle things myself’ and being dismissive of outside help,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg expected 25 people to show up for the October meeting, but then 50 came. He thought 30 would sign up for the online class, but then 100 showed up.

Connections are already starting to form among the people involved, he said.

“Which is something we wanted to make happen,” he added.

The January meeting will formalize Shtetl 2.0 beyond a workshop series, according to Goldberg. But perhaps more importantly, people will continue to make connections that can help them. Maybe they can help each other with house projects. Maybe they can get together for Friday night dinners.

“Fighting isolation, having connection and mutual support,” Goldberg said.

Walton imagines the organization filling gaps where necessary. If someone needs a chair lift in their home, maybe Shtetl 2.0 does the research on who could build that. Perhaps it contacts a handyman to come help. It may also establish relationships with dealers and handymen to get discounts for Shtetl 2.0 members.

“Trying to age in place is very challenging,” she said.

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