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Stiffel Seniors Hope for Miracle

May 11, 2011 By:
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Seniors enjoy Friday lunch at the Stiffel center in South Philadelphia. Photo by Greg Bezanis

The closing of the Stiffel Senior Center in South Philadelphia seems nearly to a done deal, but some of the seniors who think of the place as a second home are holding out hope for a miracle.

During a May 6 community meeting attended by about 200 people, the septuagenarians and octogenarians offered boos when officials spoke about the closing, and hearty cheers when a last-ditch fundraising effort to save the center was mentioned.

Raechel Hammer, a vice president at the Klein JCC, which oversees the Stiffel, told the audience that they'd get at least a month's reprieve. On April 12, the Klein board voted to close the facility -- which has a $200,000 deficit -- on June 30. That date has been extended to July 31 at the earliest, in order to give the transition effort more time, she said.

Roughly 400 people, including about 150 Jews, are currently served by the center. The plan is for four other senior centers in the immediate area, as well as Klein JCC in the far Northeast, to absorb the seniors and provide many of the services currently handled by Stiffel.

"It's not something anybody wants to do, it's something we have to do," Hammer told the assembled group, adding that she was moved by the devotion that many of the seniors have shown toward the facility.

The building, now owned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, opened as a Jewish education center in 1928, in the heart of a thriving Jewish community. The Jewish presence in the area has declined to a small number of elderly Jews, and the center has expanded its scope to serve other ethnic groups.

As evidence of the array of groups the center now serves, a Vietnamese translator spoke throughout last week's meeting in order to inform the sizable South Asian community now at Stiffel.

Officials from Federation and the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, both of which fund Stiffel, also briefly addressed the audience.

Managing Logistics, Emotions

The meeting did attract at least one politician.

Vern Anastasio, a Democratic candidate for Philadelphia City Council, was in the audience and told several people that if he wins the May 17 primary, he would work to somehow raise money to keep the center open. (He's in a four-way race to represent the 1st Council District.)

The Klein's Hammer gave some specifics of what the future will hold. She said that the Klein would fund kosher meals for Stiffel seniors who want them at the other centers: the South Philadelphia Older Adult Center, the Philadelphia Senior Center and the Marconi Older Adult Program-FELS South Philadelphia Community Center.

None of those currently provide a kosher-meal option. It's not clear if the fourth site, St. Charles Senior Community Center, will offer that service.

The Klein is also committed to delivering kosher meals to homebound citizens in South Philadelphia, she said. It will also fund holiday programming and meals, though the locations haven't been worked out.

Hammer also said that social workers with the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia will be on hand, starting this week, to help seniors manage with the logistics, as well as the emotional difficulty, stemming from the center's closing. (Seniors can call Judy Woloff, at 215-468-3500, to set up an appointment.)

Separate groups made up of Stiffel members and volunteers are each trying to raise money to keep the center open, but so far, neither group has actually met or come up with a plan, said Susan Hoffman, site director at the Stiffel.

Hammer, who has met with the seniors committee hoping to save the center, said it would take more than a one-time donation, but rather a sustained funding source to maintain the center and pay for badly needed repairs.

More likely, she said, the amount raised by the committee would ensure that some of Stiffel's programming, like a Yiddish culture club, could survive at other facilities.

Harry Azoff, a South Philadelphia resident and one of the leaders of the fundraising committee, said that any option that fails to keep the center open is a bad one.

"This place keeps everybody alive here," he said, adding that he's worried that some longtime participants might ditch the opportunity altogether, and stick to their homes and just watch television, rather than go to another center.

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