By Rachel Knopp
On the 13th anniversary of B’nai B’rith’s Resident Leadership Retreat, 28 seniors joined together at Perlman Camp in Lake Como, Pa. with the intent to bring a greater sense of community back to their homes. These representatives came from the 38 low-income senior housing facilities from across the country that B’nai B’rith proudly supports.
As the largest national Jewish sponsor of federally subsidized housing for the elderly in the United States, B’nai B’rith has become a key advocate for low-income seniors on Capitol Hill. However, experiences like the Resident Leadership Retreat remind us that our residents are their own best advocates for their communities.
Janel Doughten, associate director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services, reminds us of the importance of our resident leaders. “Unlike staff and the board of directors who go home at the end of the day, our residents call these facilities home at the beginning and end of each day. The goal is to help create a sense of community among the residents.”
The safety, security, and peace of mind that B’nai B’rith buildings have brought to residents lives were frequent topics of discussion between attendees. One resident from the B’nai B’rith building in Tucson, Ariz. said that finding his current building brought him out of homelessness. Many others shared in the sentiment including Bobbie Rudolph, from B’nai B’rith Apartments in Allentown, Pa., “I no longer have to worry about being evicted, due to not being able to pay my rent. The B’nai B’rith and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Supporting Housing for the Elderly Program allows seniors to retire and live with dignity.
With this in mind, it becomes clear why the resident leaders are so invested in strengthening their communities. Some representatives are long-standing officers of their building’s Resident Council, while others are self-proclaimed activists who demonstrated leadership by starting a recycling bin, like Liam Flanagan who lives in Covenant House, which is located in Brighton, Mass. Despite the range of displays in leadership, each representative arrived to Camp Perlman with an open mind to learn from one another.
Diane Daria, also from Covenant House, regards her building as providing a “built-in community.” Many of the seniors in B’nai B’rith housing facilities have lived alone for many years, like Daria. Before moving into her building, she lived by herself in a little bungalow located in the suburbs of Massachusetts. Now, Daria has the opportunity to connect with the over 250 residents that also call Covenant House home.
Still, Daria recognizes her responsibility to foster community. In addition to taking Russian and cultural classes to connect with her neighbors, she is an impassioned member of the newly-formed Residents Council. Throughout the retreat, Daria connected with other resident leaders to brainstorm ways to engage more residents.
During the day that focused on diversity, the group suggested ways to have more inclusive programming so that they can cultivate a community of acceptance within their buildings. While many buildings offer English as a second language classes, the group felt native-English speakers would benefit from Spanish or Russian as a second language classes as well. One resident, Jerry Fiman, of Covenant Place in St. Louis, shared his initiative to have a representative from each of the distinct cultural groups of his building acting as active members of the Residents Council.
The spirit of open-mindedness was exemplified that same night during a Havdalah ceremony to conclude the celebration of Shabbat. Most of the resident leaders are not Jewish, yet they approached the HaMotzi blessing that preceded each meal with respect and curiosity. Each resident leader placed their hands around the flame of the Havdalah candle, following a considerate discussion of interfaith values that morning. The culture of acceptance that was felt throughout the retreat is undoubtedly an integral part of their communities back home.
When the Resident Leadership Retreat concluded its week of living and learning, many expressed the instilled sense of confidence that the retreat provided. Helen Jordan from Pasadena, Texas expressed how the retreat not only fortified the beliefs she already had, but the curriculum gave her a means to implement them. A key component of the retreat was to harness this feeling of empowerment so that residents can serve as advocates once they return.
The retreat included an advocacy session led by Evan Carmen, B’nai B’rith assistant director for Aging Policy: “The goal of the advocacy session is to educate B'nai B'rith Housing Network residents on the best ways they can engage with their elected representatives; this way their members of Congress are aware of the issues which are important to them.”
One of the attendees, Martha Boyle, has confirmed a meeting with Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) Boyle plans to discuss with him about rental subsidies as it relates to affordable housing for seniors.
For many of the resident leaders, a week at a sleep away camp tucked away in the Poconos Mountains provided an escape from their regular routine. For most low-income residents, a week of vacation has been an unavailable luxury to them for years. For others, the space to learn in a classroom environment was a reminiscent change, found to be invigorating.
From my perspective as a member of a younger generation, I am inspired by the commitment to learn and make a difference that I see in the generation before me. The leaders who I grew to regard as friends are the same leaders who pushed forward for the social changes I enjoy today. Since then, they have not quit moving and shaking. I regard the B’nai B’rith facilities across the country as a new ground for these leaders to make their mark.
Rachel Knopp is a student at The George Washington University studying International Affairs and Conflict Resolution. She is an Intern at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy in Washington, D.C. In the spring of 2017, she studied Anthropology and Spanish in Cusco, Perú. Prior to interning at B’nai B’rith, she interned at The Israeli Embassy to the United States and the Israeli Mission to the United Nations
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