Hebrew Home at Riverdale has captured its 100 years of history in one 400-square-foot exhibition.
Using a mix of photographs, letters and artifacts, the assisted living facility created a centennial exhibition, weaving pivotal times in American history against milestone moments in Hebrew Home’s history.
Perhaps one of the most poignant items in the collection is a letter by resident Shloyme Szenk. Using Hebrew Home for the Aged letterhead — the facility’s original name — Szenk wrote to his son living in Poland inquiring about his safety.
It was August 1939, the eve of the German invasion of Poland, and a few years after four-time Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens disproved Adolf Hitler’s rhetoric of Aryan supremacy in the 1936 Olympics.
“Since this letter (wound) up in the Warsaw ghetto, it probably means the son ended up in the Warsaw ghetto and probably perished during the Holocaust,” said Susan Chevlowe, Hebrew Home’s curator and museum director.
“It’s most likely because there were hardly any survivors. Our history is paralleling the history around the world.”
Even in its early days, Hebrew Home’s leaders raised funds to purchase larger accommodations, Chevlowe said. They saw early on there wasn’t going to be enough space to support the growing aging population.
One featured item is a an invitation to a summer board meeting on the Hebrew Home’s letterhead written in Yiddish. Enclosed was a book of raffle tickets in the amount of $3. Another showcased a letter opener that came with a 1934 fundraising appeal.
The facility was first located at East 105th Street and Madison Avenue in East Harlem as a shelter for elderly immigrants.
In 1951, residents and staff moved to 5901 Palisade Ave. in Riverdale, according to Chevlowe. Before the Hebrew Home arrived, the location was the site of the Riverdale Children’s Association, a place for orphaned African-American children, which closed a few years earlier.
Today, Hebrew Home has nearly 1,000 residents.
Work on the exhibition began nearly two years ago, as Chevlowe began looking through Hebrew Home’s archives. Chevlowe, staff members and an outside team of designers spent the past year working on and constructing the exhibition. An anonymous donor covered the unspecified cost.
The exhibition’s timeline also marked 1961, the year Hebrew Home founded Grandparents Day. Jacob Reingold, the home’s executive vice president and two-time member of the White House Commission on Aging, created the day, Chevlowe said.
During the 1980s, Hebrew Home opened a research division to “better under understand and address issues affecting older adults,” according to the introduction of the 1980s section. Among the important times of the decade were a growing AIDS crisis, calls for environmental protection, and on a lighter note, the debut of the NBC television comedy “The Golden Girls.” It featured four older women as its lead characters.
In addition to highlighting a century of events, Chevlowe hopes visitors will expand their outlook on how they view the elderly.
“There is a stigma in the wider world as to how people view older adults,” she said, adding that she hopes “to show that view is really changing.”
Hebrew Home positioned the exhibition outside of its Biederman Library, which provides easy access.
“We wanted to be local and global, so we looked for things that were happening near us, and we looked for things that were happening in the larger community,” Chevlowe said.
“We were not interested in capturing the most important event of a particular decade, but maybe what we thought would resonate with — events we thought would resonate with family, visitors and even our staff.”