Each year about this time, the Hebrew Home at Riverdale parties like it’s 1961.
That’s because it’s Grandparents Day, an annual observance credited to Jacob Reingold, the Hebrew Home’s late executive vice president, which has been celebrated at the nursing home every year since the Kennedy administration.
It’s not just the pony rides and inflatable houses that bring Zelda Fassler’s family up to the north Bronx on Grandparents Day, but the national observance also gives her family and others who make the journey to the Hebrew Home the opportunity to celebrate and recognize the value of the elderly to the community in the place where it all started.
“We all look forward to it every year, and everyone talks about it,” Fassler said.
Grandparents Day at the 5901 Palisade Ave., campus is a time of celebration, food, and more food, Fassler said. The Hebrew Home opens its doors to a number of families, including Fassler’s small army of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“The little ones like the pony rides the best, and the older ones like the food, and it’s just a very thrilling day,” Fassler said. “You can hear the music a half a mile away.”
This year Grandparents Day falls the day before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year. While Grandparents Day is typically a big celebration, the Hebrew Home must dial it back a bit this year so some staff members have time to prepare for the important religious holiday.
“Historically Grandparents Day — it’s a major event,” said Daniel Reingold, president and chief executive of the home, and son of the holiday’s founder. “We open our doors to the community and we have festivities and concerts. Last year was even bigger because it coincided with our 100th anniversary.”
A White House conference on aging inspired Jacob Reingold to start the observance in 1961, and two years later, it became an official holiday in the Bronx. By 1978, it became a national celebration.
Daniel, like his father, believes the elderly should be protected and revered.
“Grandparents unfortunately don’t get a lot of respect, and I think we have a lot to figure out in our society,” he said. “You see it on the streets and in supermarkets. We have a lot of work to do when it comes to respecting the older adults in our community.”
Like the Hebrew Home, Citymeals on Wheels takes no days off when it comes to serving senior citizens. Citymeals prepares and delivers more than 2 million meals for more than 18,000 elderly residents across the five boroughs, with more than 60 percent older than 80, and 23 percent over 90. These are people who typically aren’t able to leave their homes, and they don’t get many visitors.
Around Grandparents Day, however, Citymeals finds some extra volunteers, said its executive director, Beth Shapiro. The organization gathers thousands of school children and companies to create greeting cards — not just for Grandparents Day, but for other days throughout the year.
Citymeals has done more than its fair share locally. They have not only worked with the Riverdale Country School but have collaborated with the Hebrew Home and the Manhattan district attorney’s office on a training program that taught some of Citymeal’s 20,000 volunteers how to identify elderly abuse.
In Riverdale, Citymeals feeds about 200 people on a regular basis, Shapiro said, which is not an insignificant number.
“All donations go toward meal preparation,” Shapiro said. “We couldn’t survive without the support of everyday New Yorkers.”
In an age where grandparents don’t live in the family home, it’s easy for children to miss out on the wisdom the elderly have to offer, Reingold said.
Although Fassler doesn’t live with her family, she’s found an active and energetic world at the Hebrew Home, which she describes as atypical and positive. Even on regular days, it’s usually Fassler who has to hang up first when her family calls.
“I think it’s important that we continue living, and maybe I’ll be lucky and live another 10 years,” Fassler said. “We all have to go … but I also think there’s so much pleasure to be had.”