The first time Adele Weitz laid her eyes on the Hebrew Home, it was more than 60 years ago. At the time, she was heading to the mountains with her husband and didn’t think too much of what was in front of her.
“This place was only a little place,” she said. “We didn’t think it was ever going to be anything.”
Today, the 101-year-old has been a resident of the Hebrew Home at Riverdale for three years, never expecting that once small institution someday would become home for her and nearly 1,000 others.
It all began as the Hebrew Home for the Aged of Harlem in 1917, a Jewish-based organization born out of a synagogue. Its goal was to help older adults who were homeless with nowhere to go.
By the late 1940s, the organization realized not only was it outgrowing its Manhattan location, the Jewish community was slowly moving north into the Bronx, and it became obvious the Hebrew Home needed a place to grow.
They found that place in 1951, taking over a small facility that until recently served as home of the Colored Orphan Asylum — later renamed the Riverdale Children’s Association.
With that, the Hebrew Home at Riverdale was born, growing into a care hub for older adults regardless of background or religious beliefs.
Over the last 66 years, the facility has consistently grown, evolving into RiverSpring Health to accommodate an additional 11,000 older adults around the city. Not only residents have roamed the halls of the Hebrew Home, but also some of the country’s biggest leaders like late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy and brother Bobby, as well as former president Bill Clinton and last year’s Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
The Hebrew Home was even the birthplace of Grandparent’s Day in 1961.
“What started as a small little shelter has now turned into not only one of Riverdale’s jewels, but also perhaps one of the greatest national leaders in the field of care for older adults,” said Dan Reingold, the Hebrew Home’s chief executive and president.
But behind the glamorous visits from prominent political figures comes a lot of hard work to constantly innovate a home for older adults.
Reingold, who has led the Hebrew Home since 1990, said he doesn’t look at daily obstacles as challenges, but more as opportunities. According to him, the “greatest opportunity is to anticipate the changing needs of older adults.”
“We don’t really stand on our laurels, we don’t sit back and pat ourselves on the back,” Reingold said. “We look at ourselves as whatever things we’re doing good, we could be doing great. Whatever we’re doing great, we should share with other people.”
Throughout his tenure, Reingold has been instrumental in developing initiatives ranging from art programs, finding love at an older age, combatting elder abuse, and more.
Over the last 27 years, he’s learned a lot, including the realization he doesn’t always have all the answers.
“The start of wisdom is realizing what you don’t know,” he said. “When things get tough and when the challenges become a little daunting, I get up (out of my office and some of us) do rounds together, and we chat with the residents, and we’re reminded about why we’re here and why we’re doing the work we’re doing.
“People might look at the Hebrew Home as an institution. I look at the Hebrew Home as a community. And it’s a community of people.”
One thing Reingold felt many might find surprising is a study the Hebrew Home conducted a few years ago that showed the biggest fear of older adults wasn’t dying or growing old — They were afraid of being alone.
It’s hard to be alone in a facility as large as the Hebrew Home. And getting old is something celebrated every day, especially for the 34 residents like Adele Weitz who have crossed the century mark.
Henry Nusbaum is one of them. At 103, he stays active by spending time with his friends and taking a medieval history class at the College of Mount Saint Vincent. In fact, he was just in The Press last month talking about that very program.
“I like being involved and I think that’s the only way to really enjoy life,” Nusbaum said. “It’s not to get off into a corner and give up on everything. I’ve never been that way. I’ve always been in the midst of action and I prefer that.”
When it comes to the Hebrew Home’s next 100 years, Reingold said he can’t look that far ahead. Instead, he must focus on the now, especially as baby boomers begin to retire.
For now, plans to celebrate the first 100 years include a permanent exhibition in June, 100 podcasts featuring people discussing how age inspires them, and a celebration dinner in November.
“We’re always thinking about the next thing,” Reingold said. “Even as we perfect what we’re already doing.”
“We’ve never lost sight of our mission to take care of the less advantaged, of the poor. I think that the founders of the Hebrew Home from 1917 would be very proud that we’ve used our creativity to make sure that we continue to respond to the needs of poor older adults, not just older adults.”