NEW YORK—For 90-year-old Erika Ben-David, Thanksgiving had not been worth celebrating just a few years ago. Since her son moved out of state, Ben-David, like so many other seniors, lives alone with no immediate family in the city.
In 2000, she needed hip surgery—and then another hip surgery. For the next eight years, Ben-David underwent five surgeries—twice for her hip, twice for her brain, then back surgery. Cooking a feast for herself was the last thing on Ben-David’s mind.
But on Sunday, she was able to have a Thanksgiving meal with her visiting son.
She and hundreds of seniors shared a lively banquet with music, dance, and friends—old and new. Volunteers of all ages prepared and served the banquet meal at the Congregation Rodeph Shalom on the Upper West Side.
For 34 years, the nonprofit DOROT has been organizing these banquets for seniors.
“I love it—the friendliness of the staff, never a bad word. I always have a nice time,” said Ben-David, who lives on the Upper West Side. She was introduced to DOROT in 2008 and has been attending the banquets every year since.
DOROT provides social services to the elderly, and takes an intergenerational approach. A core part of the organization is a program that brings thousands of volunteers—often students—from other organizations and schools to visit the elderly in their homes.
It has given Ben-David the chance to go to concerts and lectures, and have conversations about anything and everything with the youth who visit her, she said.
“They saved my life,” Ben-David said. “Really.”
Senior citizens make up nearly 1 million of the city’s population, and more than half of them live alone or with one other senior according to a 2013 Center for Urban Future report.
“There are so many people who don’t have an opportunity to meet and spend time with people of different ages and of different ethnicities,” said Mark Meridy, DOROT’s executive director.
About 275 seniors of different backgrounds attended the banquet and volunteers as young as elementary school students handed out breads and dishes. Another 255 seniors meal packages delivered to their homes by volunteers from a dozen more organizations DOROT partnered with.
“We’re about helping to address the issue of social isolation among older adults,” Meridy said.
For seniors who both live alone and are homebound, they may have no one to ever talk to.
The volunteers spend at least an hour at the homes of the elderly, who may be too frail to attend the banquets. Over the years, there have been volunteers who have become banquet attendees themselves, and attendees who now have their banquet meal delivered.
“It’s so beautiful, it’s so compassionate—and you know what? It’s so edgy,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. “DOROT understands inter-generational, and DOROT has universality without walls.”
A generous donation of chicken one year gave way to the idea of holding a Thanksgiving feast, and it has grown to an annual event shared by hundreds since.
“I think it is wonderful,” said Carol Mills, an attendee of the banquet. “It’s a fabulous organization that is very helpful to seniors, very good to seniors, and very generous.”
Mills goes to DOROT programs every Monday and Thursday—exercises, museum trips, and parties.
“I like the camaraderie of everybody and the closeness. I like that people can get up and enjoy themselves, people who are lonely can get out and be with other people. It’s called mix-and-mingle,” Mills said.