When he was a security guard at a fancy high rise on Bush Street, before he came to live at Menorah Park senior housing, John Hicks saw a lot of celebrities coming and going. One of them was the actor and director Clint Eastwood.
“He was a good person; he wrote me a note thanking me for taking care of his car. I still have it,” John says proudly.
These days, some of the most the important people in John’s life are those who break bread with him at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. The Kosher Lunch Program (KLP), funded by city government, a number of foundations and many individual donors*, provides a nutritional, low-cost kosher lunch for seniors, every day except Saturday. All dishes are glatt kosher and made in the JCCSF Community Table’s dedicated kosher meat kitchen under the supervision of the Vaad Hakashrus of Northern California.
John, who lost a lower leg to circulation problems years ago and lives on a limited income, takes up that offer five days a week.
“The food is great and gives me all the vitamins I need,” John says, who turned 70 last June.
As demonstrated by the dining room filled to capacity nearly every day, many share John’s opinion about the food.
“The quality here is excellent,” says Marcia Gruskin, a retired orthopedic nurse originally from New York.
“Everyone says this dining room is the best. The chef is absolutely fantastic,” says Rodica Feldman, who was raised in France, so she should know from haute cuisine.
“Not only that, they serve it very nicely. The food always looks appetizing on the plate.”
In 2012, the Kosher Lunch Program at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco provided over 15,000 hot kosher lunches to 787 unique adults aged 60 and older. It serves an average of 53 meals per day, (excluding Saturdays, select national and Jewish holidays), 52 weeks per year. For many participants, this is the only meal they will have that day.
But food is not the only nourishment that participants in the Kosher Lunch Program receive.
“Friendship, socialization and a safe and welcoming place to spend time are a big part of what draws people,” says JCCSF Adult Progams Manager Shiva Schulz, who has overseen the lunch program for the past 10 years.
Those who come to partake represent a very wide range of cultures and experiences; whether the diners find friends or just observe one another, they are in good company.
“Just like San Francisco, KLP users reflect a wide demographic,” says Schulz. “There are those individuals who are attracted by the Jewish traditions, Kashrut and ambiance and who have never attended another lunch program. We also serve survivors, émigrés, and a variety of Asian groups, baby boomers and caregivers of our participants. The Sheva Middot asks us to welcome strangers and KLP strives to live that philosophy every day.”
Rodica Feldman is someone for whom the feeling of being welcomed is particularly important. Born in Romania in 1933, her family soon immigrated to France, where after a few good years, they experienced the onset of the war and the German occupation. They barely escaped from the infamous deportation of Parisian Jews, and fled to a small town in the unoccupied part of France, where they struggled to survive. Rodica’s father was eventually deported to a labor camp, and much responsibility for the day-to-day survival of her mother and herself, fell on Rodica’s young shoulders.
“I lost my childhood to this,” she says matter-of-factly, “so when I say I have no country, I mean it, because I don’t belong anywhere. I don’t belong to France because I am very bitter about what happened.”
Today, with her red hair, petite frame and French-accented English, she evokes the great French chanteuse Edith Piaf, but prettier, with blue eyes that hold all her life experience like deep, transparent pools. She says that, indeed, she had wanted, after the war, to sing or act and to study theater, but in the end she had lost too many years of what should have been her education, and was intimidated.
“I got married, instead,” she recounts, to an oil businessman with dual French and American citizenship, with whom she had four children. He brought her to the US, and then a stint in Montreal, and back again to Los Angeles, before he died at the age of 60. That tragedy brought her to the Bay Area, where one of her grown sons resided. A second marriage also left her widowed, leaving her to reinvent her life, yet again.
“It was very hard,” she confesses. “You have to keep busy. When you are a senior, and if you are, on top of it, Jewish, you are invisible. You really don’t have a part in society. You have a lot of ideas, and the ideas you have are not silly or unimportant, but we do have them; we are people that feel and think, you know. But we’re not taken that way. So you need to go and keep busy and sometimes put your two cents.”
Rodica, who has been politically active throughout her adult life, started attending educational programs around the city, including a weekly meeting group for Holocaust survivors. And when she started coming to the Kosher Lunch program at the JCCSF, she quickly met a cohort of women who she found compatible.
“We became friendly right away; this is very unusual. When you’re 80 -- and some are over 80 -- you’re fragile, and it’s harder to make friends. Things happen to us but we keep in in touch and look out for each other. We call one another when we’re sick; we go to the events offered after lunch.
“It’s very important, the kosher lunch; it’s like something in a fantasy that is especially for us, the old Jewish women. I’m not kosher at home, but here, I love that it is kosher. And not only me - I’m speaking for all my girlfriends too. We like that it is kosher. It’s special. We feel special.”
Marcia Gruskin, who has been coming to the JCCSF since 1997 to use the pool and attend cultural programs, has had a similar experience. The friends she’s made through the KLP are people she also sees outside the Center. And while the JCCSF is clearly a multicultural community center both in the lunch program and in every other program, “I like to be someplace where I feel there’s a Jewish environment. It’s important to me,” she says frankly. Although the program clearly benefits all kinds of people, she adds, “as long as there’s even one Jewish person in this community that wants to come and have a Jewish meal, I think it’s very important that the program should continue.”
“It’s something special,” says Rodica, “This JCC: it’s a palace! You sit in the middle of the room downstairs, there’s the light that shines everywhere, and it’s beautiful. We are proud of this; proud to say ‘we belong here.’ And we need that.”
Jewish or not, all the people who come to lunch are exposed to celebrations of Shabbat and special Jewish holidays. (On Fridays, Maggid Jhos Singer's goal is to get everyone up and dancing before the meal -- with some success). From the annual daytime Passover Seder to a festive Rosh Hashanah meal and in some years a Purim extravaganza, participants enjoy special holiday menus and may dine in Kanbar Hall.
They also have the opportunity to attend one of many cultural programs offered by the JCCSF Adult Program, after lunch and at no cost.
“We are counted on by these folks to be here to provide them with not only a flavorful meal but also a place to be part of a community,” says Schulz.
John Hicks is one of those people who have staked a claim to this community. Texas-born and Seattle-raised, he left home before he was 18 and has worked in jobs ranging from pitching circus tents to projecting horror movies at a theater on Market Street. In his youth, John hitchhiked back and forth across the U.S. seven times and even joined the Navy, before this rolling stone came to rest in San Francisco.
Married once for a short time, he’s remained on friendly terms with his ex-wife and five step-children, but he lives alone in his wheelchair-friendly apartment. When one of the JCCSF security staff told him about the lunch program, he started coming. These days, he’s the unofficial greeter, arriving in the Atrium early in the morning, hours before the actual mealtime.
As many participants speak other languages, conversations can be limited. But “even if they don’t speak English we get along great,” says John. “I talk to them and they respond to that. They like it when I talk to them. Coming here,” he says, in the words of his favorite actor-director, “makes their day.”
For more information on the Kosher Lunch Program, visit : https://www.jccsf.org/give/give/support-our-kosher-lunch-program.
*Major funding for programs for older adults at the JCCSF is generously provided by the Brin Wojcicki Foundation, the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, Koret Foundation, the Maimonides Fund of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, the Newhouse Fund of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, the Safeway Foundation, the Department of Aging & Adult Services of the Human Services Agency of San Francisco, the Hal and Marlene Spitz Family Philanthropic Fund, and the UCSF Medical Center. Programs for older adults at the JCCSF are provided through the Richard & Rhoda Goldman Center for Adult Living and Learning, which was founded by a generous gift from the Richard & Rhoda Goldman Fund. The work of the JCCSF is made possible in part through the support of the Koret Foundation and the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.
Note: This article was updated from the original on May 30, 2014.