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Hanukkah at Aviv: Where children and seniors celebrate together

PEABODY — Even before Hanukkah began at sundown Saturday, there was already a lot of light on a quiet hill in Peabody. At Aviv Centers for Living, a Jewish-sponsored elderly complex where nearly 300 people live, reminders of the holiday of lights were everywhere.

“This is my second family,” said Ruth Silverman, 97, as she held a latke (potato pancake), and looked out at about 200 people gathered in a function room earlier that week. Silverman grew up in Mattapan and now lives at Aviv. She tapped her hand to the music, and then slowly began to smile. “This is wonderful.”

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The event was called Latkepalooza, and served as a microcosm of Aviv’s intergenerational programming philosophy. In one room, the teen band Sababa played Israeli songs; in the adjacent chapel, rabbis offered a Torah class; in another classroom, children made menorahs. And in another room, Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman, who leads Chabad of Peabody, showed children and Aviv residents how to make oil from olives for a Hanukkah menorah.

“This shows how ancient activities are still relevant in today’s world,” Schusterman said.

Since 1945, Jews have played a role in taking care of the elderly on the North Shore. That year, the Jewish Convalescent Home opened in Lynn. In 1972, it moved to the Jewish Rehabilitation Center for Aged of the North Shore in Swampscott. In 1997, the community helped create the Woodbridge assisted living center in Peabody that is now the Aviv site.

In September, the Swampscott center closed, and its residents moved to a new $35 million building on the Peabody campus. The new structure interconnects with Woodbridge and offers everything from skilled nursing care and rehab to specialized services for people with memory loss.

At the sprawling 22-acre suburban campus, residents have numerous choices of programs each day, ranging from exercise classes to movies. But Aviv also serves the entire community, and in the process brings in people of all ages for classes, performances, and daily programs. Teens who attend the Robert I. Lappin Youth to Israel trip meet here; high school kids study Torah with rabbis. The Jewish Heritage Center, which documents the history of the Jews on the North Shore, has an office at Aviv.

‘It gives me a lift to be with the children. I feel like they help me out. It brings me back to the days when I was raising my children.’

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Cantor Emil Berkovits also holds a study session every Friday before conducting a Sabbath service with residents. “We want to make sure these people are not forgotten, that there’s an outside world for them,” he said.

But, perhaps the centerpiece of the intergenerational mix is the North Suburban Jewish Community Center Early Childhood Program. The preschool, with its 58 children — ranging from infants to age 5 — moved to its new classrooms at Aviv in September. The full-time school, with a staff of 18, is based near the lobby that connects the campus and has built into its curriculum daily classes that include Aviv residents. Seniors read, sing, dance, exercise, and pray with children.

“It’s incredibly important that Aviv be a center for life, a center for learning, a center where elders and children can learn from each other,” said Stephen Neff, Aviv’s president and chief executive officer.

Last Friday, just before Hanukkah began, a group of residents gathered with the children to say a prayer while lighting the first candle of the holiday.

Ellie Noah, who is 69, held one of the candles as the kids sat around her.

“It gives me a lift to be with the children,” said Noah, formerly of Chelsea, who lives in Aviv’s assisted living building. Noah has two children and three grandchildren and volunteers a couple of times a week at the preschool, where she reads stories, plays games, and gives the kids snacks.

“I feel like they help me out. It brings me back to the days when I was raising my children. I feel very happy and content around the kids,” she said.

Susan Novak, the preschool’s director, said the placement of the school in the middle of an elderly residential complex helps kids develop sensitivity and respect for older adults.

“We told them this is our new family. We call them either ‘residents’ or our ‘new friends,’ ” said Novak, who has noticed how important the adults have become to the children. Already the kids and seniors have worked on several art and holiday projects. For Thanksgiving, they ate turkey together. And, on their own initiative, the kids decided to make as many holiday cards as they could this month for the residents.

Novak says that because of the intergenerational setting and programming, preschoolers have a better understanding of the process of aging.

Mary Freeman, a retired Salem teacher, called the need to be around younger people a natural desire. Freeman, who is 86, lives at Aviv with her husband and reads to the children every week.

“I love being with the little ones. They make you feel almost like a celebrity when you read to them,” she said. “They make you feel so welcome. They get up and clap when I walk in. when I leave they give me a hug. They’re like little dolls.

“I love their innocence. They tell you everything that’s happening in their lives and it has nothing to do with the story. And they can’t tell it fast enough. I get a lot out of it.”

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @WriteRosenberg.
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