In all his 92 years, Jerry Schneider had never done much volunteering. The retired accountant never considered himself much of an outgoing person. Plus, he was quite devoted to his wife of 50 years, Francine.
But then Fran needed more help than Jerry could provide, so she moved into the Hebrew Home on Palisade Avenue, ultimately living out her final weeks before passing away in late 2008.
For the next few years, Jerry found himself in deep mourning. But in the midst of that, he started remembering his times at the Hebrew Home — not just visiting his wife, but getting to know other residents there. How sometimes a simple hello or asking how they were doing could make a world of difference.
“You’d see a lot of people who were alone,” Jerry said. “Very lonely. You could just tell.”
Schneider, who’s lived in his West 232nd Street apartment for more than 60 years, remembered on one of his visits a woman whose daughter visited every Saturday — only to leave after an hour because she had a nail appointment. The lonely mother had no other visitors.
“That infuriated me,” Jerry remembers. “But Fran said, ‘Don’t say anything.’ But one day I did say something to the daughter — in a nice way.”
Jerry encouraged the younger woman to spend more time with her mother, and the daughter not only listened, she started bringing more family members along on her weekly visits, and no longer bolted for the door for an early salon appointment.
“The mother was very happy,” Jerry said. “That’s all I cared about.”
A few years after Fran died, Jerry’s son Mark brought up the story about how he helped that mother at the Hebrew Home, suggesting his father get out and do something — like volunteer at the home. Jerry hesitated at first, but knowing his son couldn’t always make the trip back to Riverdale from his New England home to keep him company, Jerry took the advice. And coming to the Hebrew Home has been a regular part of his life ever since.
Duties of a Hebrew Home volunteer are simple: Regularly visit and chat with specific residents. But it can be more demanding than that at times, said Josephine Catalano, Hebrew Home’s volunteer services director.
Volunteers can ultimately become responsible for the emotional well-being of those they visit by fostering relationships and spending meaningful time together.
Many volunteers are drawn to the role. Friendly visitors, as Jerry is described, make up nearly 20 percent of the home’s more than 300 volunteers — all of whom dedicated more than 44,000 hours of time last year.
Jerry is one of the stars of that rich volunteer corps, Catalano said.
“He makes my job easy,” she said. “He’s a beautiful soul who comes to share himself.”
Throughout his eight years volunteering at the Hebrew Home, Jerry has befriended many residents. In particular, he has formed a brotherly bond with David Oscar, 87.
Jerry visits Oscar twice a month, often reading newspapers aloud to him because of Oscar’s bad eyesight. When the weather permits, Jerry leads Oscar and some other residents outside to enjoy the home’s scenic view of the Hudson River.
Jerry and Oscar have become good friends by talking often about their life experiences.
“I found it very easy to speak with Jerry because he speaks slowly and clearly,” Oscar said. “He pays attention to what I’m saying very much, and so consequently we developed sort of a camaraderie.”
With only five years separating Jerry and Oscar, they can easily bond over their similar view of Judaism, their families, funny stories from their old jobs — Jerry as an accountant and Oscar as a teacher — and the fact that they’ve both lived in New York most of their lives. Like Jerry, Oscar has no immediate family living in New York, so the friendship has made both resident and volunteer feel less isolated.
Those conversations also inspired Oscar — who identifies as gay — to start an LGBTQ support group at the home.
“I really found my voice through Jerry because he was so tolerant and so responsive to anything I said,” Oscar added.
Volunteering also changed Jerry. Getting to know the residents has transformed him into an outgoing person.
“Being here has opened me up,” Jerry said. “I was never this talkative, I must admit.”
He got to know many of the people and staff members back when his wife was a resident, and his friendships with them have only grown stronger in the years since. The Hebrew Home has become Jerry’s second home.
Even with recent shoulder issues and the need for a little help walking around the vast campus, Jerry has continued visiting Hebrew Home residents every week. For him, the emotional gain from volunteering outweighs any physical pain.
“It’s opened me up to talk with them,” Jerry said. “So it’s helped me, too, by helping them.”