It was just a few days before Tisha B'Av, the traditional fast day that commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, as well as other Jewish tragedies.
Rabbi Jeff Sultar told a group of seniors who are adjusting to the recent closing of the Stiffel Senior Center in South Philadelphia that the occasion is also about mourning personal loss — and finding a way to move on.
"It's important to mourn when it's time to mourn," Sultar said as part of a pre-lunch, Friday morning service. It's equally important that "we don't let the worst things that happen to us stop us from living a full life."
The Reconstructionist rabbi took part in the first of what is expected to be a weekly program at the Jewish Community Services Building in Center City. The Aug. 5 program — which also included lunch, a Klezmer band, an exercise class and a discussion session — took place exactly one week after the South Philly center closed its doors. It drew 67 seniors, all former members of the Stiffel Center.
In April, the board of the Klein JCC, which ran the Stiffel, voted to shut down the facility, citing a $200,000 annual deficit. A group of volunteers and supporters tried unsuccessfully to raise funds to keep it open.
Since then, the Klein and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia have been working to ensure that the 450 seniors who took part in Stiffel programs — including about 150 Jews — found other places to go during the day and have their various needs met.
The Center City program represents an attempt to keep some kind of cohesion for the Stiffel community — albeit once a week, instead of five days a week — and to ensure that the elderly residents still get a dose of Jewish content, officials connected with the program said. Three former Stiffel staff members are running the new program on a part-time basis.
Officials said the new format can accommodate about 100 people; it is not yet clear whether it will be open to seniors who were not affiliated with Stiffel.
As part of the welcome wagon, balloons were placed outside the Federation building, and some senior Klein and Federation officials put on aprons and served lunch.
Judging from interviews with a number of those who showed up, reaction was mixed. Many are still seething at the fact that the 90-year-old facility was closed. At the same time, many said they were enjoying themselves and appreciated the new effort. Most also said they had already begun spending time at other senior centers to replace their daily routine.
Just before lunch, South Philadelphia resident Nate Pepper helped the rabbi with the pre-meal blessings. While making his way through a plate of chicken-on-the-bone, green beans and potatoes, Pepper, who is in his 80s, said he knows a little something about taking lumps in life and going on.
"He don't have to tell that to us," he said of the rabbi's remarks. "You can't have your milk and cookies, too, you know."
Despite his anger about the closing of the Stiffel, he called the Federation board room, where the new program is now being held, a "nice, big place" and said that he and his sister, who lives in Northeast Philadelphia, plan to attend each Friday.
For some in attendance, the move to Center City will actually make it easier for them.
Arnold Lazar, for one, lives just two blocks away from the Federation building. He's glad he no longer has to schlep to South Philly but is "sorry that it will only be once a week."
During the Kabbalat Shabbat service, Sultar asked those standing for the Mourner's Kaddish if they wanted to say aloud the name of the person they were remembering. One woman said: the Stiffel Senior Center.