Recipients just have to open the book and watch and listen to the program, personalized to the theme of 2022: 20th Century Folks.
In non-pandemic times, those honored at the annual Bessie Spector z”l Oldest Jewish Americans Brunch were surrounded by up to 450 peers and generations of family members and guests in ballooned-filled halls at galas with live speeches and musical entertainment. Since 2020, the event that welcomes those 95 years or older has continually upped its distanced planning from mailed recognition letters and online festivities to this year’s unique blending of both.
In lieu of an in-person gathering, the 200 honorees of the 2022 celebration will receive gift bags highlighted by an Heirloom video-book that looks like a small, hardcover picture- book, but instead of photos, contains a video presentation created for the occasion. Recipients just have to open the book and watch and listen to the program, personalized to the theme of 2022: 20th Century Folks. No on-and-off switch, no WIFI, no smartphone, no computer necessary. And that was a big part of the attraction for the planning committee: for honorees to be able to view the video, tech-free, without devices.
Another appeal was the fact that Heirloom not only has local roots, but its inspiration came from a resident at Jewish Senior Life (JSL), one of the event’s partnering agencies. Created by siblings Ashley Bloom Kenny and Zack Bloom, who grew up in West Bloomfield, the idea for the business was sparked by their relationship with their grandmother, Fran Penskar, who has lived in the Meer Apartments in West Bloomfield for nearly 20 years.
“When the pandemic hit, we saw how isolated my Grandma Fran was, unable to receive visitors,” said Kenny, a documentary film producer who lives in Washington, D.C., and has produced documentaries including those for National Geographic and The Atlantic. “Without a computer, WIFI or smartphone, she didn’t have the means to receive life-affirming videos of my two little boys; Liam had started reading and Jack had just started walking. We knew we had to find a way to share these special moments and so we created Heirloom, a vehicle for sending unique, custom videos in a (rechargeable) video-playing book, by mail.”
Kenny and her brother, who works in the tech and start-up industry in Austin, Texas, launched Heirloom in February 2021.
At 94, Penskar, not quite old enough to be an honoree of the event that is marking its 20th anniversary, is an active senior. “They call her the ‘mayor of Meer’ because she likes to help run the place, opening the doors for the beauty shop, organizing movie nights and running the library,” Kenny said. “Heirloom video-books quickly became a game-changer for my grandma. We noticed a rise in her spirits, now able to experience the joy we all get from sending around and receiving videos of our loved ones. She shares her video-books with everyone. It’s her form of a ‘brag book’ and she says she watches them every day.”
A Look Back and a Thank You
For personal use, Heirloom provides custom video-playing books for occasions like birthdays, weddings and surprise announcements, with videos uploaded to the company’s website.
For honorees, the video, created by Brett Panter of Eventive Studios in West Bloomfield, includes an introduction by Jo Strausz Rosen, JSL executive director of development, along with photos from the archives at Jewish Federation and Temple Beth El, including extraordinary moments of the time, well-known Detroiters, business scenes, Jewish landmarks and gatherings of individuals, many of whom, no doubt will be recognized by the honorees.
The video-book also includes greetings from Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein and Matt Lester, president of Jewish Federation, one of the event’s partnering agencies, whose message speaks to Federation’s pride in supporting and working closely with local agencies to serve and support our older adults and how our community “truly treasures our seniors,” and the inspiration they bring.
Members of the family of Bessie Spector can be seen and heard reciting the Shehechiyanu, with the Blessing for the Elders given by Congregation Shaarey Zedek (CSZ) Rabbi Aaron Starr. The 1931 jazz tune, “As Time Goes By,” is performed by CSZ Hazzan David Propis, including the addition of some of his own clever lyrics, and group-Zoom rendition of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Hatikvah” is sung by 11 community cantorial soloists and cantors.
“My brother and I feel honored to be playing a small role in delivering such a meaningful video to all of this year’s honorees,” Kenny said. “Heirloom’s mission is to make it possible for everyone to send meaningful videos to the people they love. During a time when gathering to celebrate isn’t possible, we are thrilled to be able to help make a virtual ceremony possible for so many worthy Jewish seniors in our hometown of Metro Detroit.”
Honorees will receive the video by Friday, May 27, during Older Americans Month, with the hope that they will view it simultaneously that day at noon, for the first time of many. After that, the video will be available on the JSL website (www.jslmi.org/oab) and then saved to YouTube. Gift bags, which will be hand-delivered locally and mailed to out-of-town honorees, also include a certificate of recognition signed by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, along with a notepad and a chocolate treat.
Celebrating From Near and Far
For Joyce Berlin Weingarten of West Bloomfield, co-chair of the event with Julie Zussman of Huntington Woods, finding a way to keep it going, even in distance-mode, was paramount. “I attended this celebration with my grandmother, Fannie Whiteman z”l, who was part of a small group of original attendees at Fleischman Residence,” Weingarten said. “I later attended with my husband’s grandmother, Belle Rosender z”l. In more recent years, I attended with my father, Louis Berlin z”l, who loved celebrating and being a part of this community. With all the difficulties of the past two years, the committee was committed to honoring and recognizing our oldest Jewish Americans at their homes with a very special gift. We want to continue to let our greatest generation know that they are our community’s treasures.”
Zussman, too, has attended past brunches with her family. “My first participation was being a ‘table captain’ in 2016,” she said. “This was the first year my father-in-law, Milt Zussman, was eligible as a 95-year-old. We enjoyed three years of beautiful brunches at Shaarey Zedek, where he always arrived before his family — driving himself! The past two years have been a change, but the right thing to do. The personal delivery of the gift bags has been warmly received from both honorees and their families.”
This year she says, Milt, who is 100 — and one of 34 centenarians being honored this year — will be a long-distance honoree, from his home in Longboat Key, Fla. “I hope this is the last year of not celebrating in person,” Zussman added. “We are running out of amazing ideas to honor this generation in the way they need to be honored.
“They love the camaraderie of seeing friends and the fellowship of their community. When I spoke to one of our centenarian honorees this year telling her we wanted to protect them and would again be celebrating virtually, she said, ‘Julie, we have been vaccinated and boosted to be able to celebrate together. We are ready!’”
The celebration is sponsored by the family of Bessie Spector and community supporters and held in partnership with Jewish Senior Life, Jewish Community Center, Jewish Federation, Jewish Family Service and JVS + Kadima.
“The Jewish community has been recognizing our greatest generation for 20 years,” said Leslie Katz, director of FRIENDS and Jewish Enrichment at Jewish Senior Life. “Our honorees look forward to each year’s festivities. Whether we’re celebrating together in person, or safely at home, they remain the inspiring pillars we look up to and honor.”
Honorees are members of the Detroit Jewish community who are 95 years or older. To submit the name of an honoree or for information, contact Leslie Katz at firstname.lastname@example.org or (248) 592-5062, or access the website at: www.jslmi.org/oab. Deadline for submission of honoree names is Wednesday, May 25.