This photo is from Marcia's 99th birthday party.
Marcia and Lucille, two life-long friends who have attended the brunch for many years both turned 100 this year and planned to attend together. This photo is from Marcia's 99th birthday party.

For the first time in 19 years, the annual Bessie Spector Oldest Jewish Americans Brunch will take place in spirit rather than in person.

They represent the “greatest generation” of Americans, who lived through the Great Depression, World War II (including some who survived the Holocaust), the civil rights era, the Vietnam War, the Great Recession.

They are not about to be held back by COVID-19, even though the way we honor them has to change.

For the first time in 19 years, the annual Bessie Spector Oldest Jewish Americans Brunch will take place in spirit rather than in person. This year, Detroit’s most senior Jewish citizens will receive a special tribute package by mail.

“We always give out certificates signed by the governor,” said Leslie Katz, director of Friends of Jewish Senior Life, which coordinates the event with JVS, Jewish Family Service, the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

This year, she said, the group will mail the certificates, along with a customized letter, a list of seniors being honored, a large-print jumbo word-search book – and a copy of this article.

Katz and her committee, headed by Julie Zussman of Huntington Woods and Sharon Alterman of West Bloomfield, have about 120 people on their list, but they are eager to hear about others who should be included. The only criteria are to be 95 or older by the end of 2020, Jewish and live in the greater Detroit area.

The annual program started in 2001 when the now-defunct Coalition on Jewish Eldercare Services invited people over 90 to a luncheon in May, which is Older Americans Month. They urged attendees to bring friends and family as well. That first brunch was an intimate event for about 20 honorees, held at Fleischman Residence.

Word got out. In subsequent years, so many seniors wanted to attend – and so many friends and family wanted to join them – that the event was moved to the Jimmy Prentis Morris Jewish Community Center in Oak Park, then to Handleman Hall in the West Bloomfield JCC and finally to Congregation Shaarey Zedek, the only venue big enough to accommodate the crowd.

The organizers also limited the size by raising the qualifying age to 95 instead of the original 90. Still more than 400 attended last year, including more than a dozen honorees over age 100.

In 2005, the event was named in memory of Bessie Spector, one of the original honorees.

Spector’s granddaughter, Joan Chernoff-Epstein, said Bessie enjoyed the annual brunch immensely until she died in 2005 at the age of 102.

Chernoff-Epstein, of Birmingham, said her grandmother “kept the most beautiful home; she made the most delicious blintzes and banana cake that anyone ever tasted.”

Chernoff-Epstein remembers when Carol Rosenberg, then director of JSL’s forerunner, Jewish Homes and Aging Services, asked Bessie to share a special memory. Her grandmother mentioned the first time she saw her husband getting out of the shower.

Committee member Joyce Weingarten of West Bloomfield said her grandmother, Fannie Whiteman, also attended one of the first luncheons. Weingarten later accompanied her husband’s grandmother, Belle Rosender, and her father, Louis Berlin, who attended the last three brunches.

“He was so proud to be there,” said Weingarten. “He would sing to the music and even got up and danced.”

Berlin died in April, and Weingarten said she will miss attending the brunch with him when it resumes, hopefully next year.

Julie Zussman of Huntington Woods, one of the event chairs, said she feels like she’s “late to the dance,” because she started attending the brunch in 2017. Her father-in-law, Milt Zussman, was her “ticket” to the event, she said. Last year, the family had four generations there. In addition to her and her husband, Rick, Milt’s guests included his grandson Adam Zussman and Adam’s daughter, Delaney.

Milt, now 98, spends much of his time in Florida but always made it back to Michigan for the brunch.

“He has driven himself to every brunch and only wants us to meet him there,” said Zussman. Milt says what he likes best about the event is that his son picks up the tab.

“It’s such a simchah!” said co-chair Sharon Alterman. “Families really look forward to it, and honorees’ children and grandchildren come from all over the country to attend. It’s so feel-good!” The event is usually held around Memorial Day to make it easier for out-of-towners to come.

As soon as the mailing is complete, the committee will turn their attention to planning next year’s event, with the hope that such a gathering will again be feasible. They already have a theme: “Our Classics: The Greatest Generation.”

To add someone to the honoree list, or to make a tribute gift recognizing someone being honored, contact Leslie Katz at lkatz@jslmi.org.

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