By Alex Putterman
HARTFORD — More than 50 years ago, Mary Eisenberg discovered Judaism. Now, a half-century later, she embodies one of its core principles.
Essentially irreligious in adolescence, Eisenberg’s religious awakening began while she attended college at the University
of Hartford. There, she made a habit of visiting a friend’s house for Friday night Shabbat dinners and trailing that friend to synagogue on Saturday mornings. She involved herself in a Jewish social scene, began dating (and eventually married)
a Jewish man. She officially converted to Judaism at the age
Decades later, after a life of learning to read and write Hebrew, raising two Jewish sons and visiting Israel, Eisenberg is embracing the Jewish concept of tikkun olam.
Now 71 and living in Hartford, Eisenberg graduated on June 5 from Leadership Greater Hartford’s Third Age Initiative, a program that, since beginning in 2001, has offered leadership experiences to participants ages 48 to 88, in the context of community service. A year-long program, Third Age Initiative is “designed to help older adults discover their passions, their interests on how they can give back to the community,” particularly in the city of Hartford, explains Third Age Director Doe Hentschel.
Eisenberg’s Third Age team chose to spend their year at Hartford’s Burns Latino Studies Academy, a K-8 school Eisenberg described as “in need of some lifting.” There, the eight-person group strove to increase parental involvement in the education of their children and enhance the all-around lives of the less-privileged families attending the school. Eisenberg orchestrated a coupon swap, in hopes of enhancing financial literacy. Others in the group coordinated an after-school program that emphasized healthy habits, and a celebration was organized for parents to meet the school’s new principal.
Despite being less experienced than others in community service organizing and admittedly nervous upon entry into the Third Age Initiative, Eisenberg was a star of her group, coming forward with ideas and gaining confidence in herself throughout the process.
“It was such a thrill to work with her,” said Margi Nareff, also a Jew-by-choice, who worked with Eisenberg on the coupon program and whom Eisenberg describes as a mentor. “Not only to see the coupon club gain traction and become popular right away with the parents but also to see how she thrived on making this happen.”
Eisenberg said her Jewish values and identity as a minority motivated her desire to help those in a position she says she, as a Jew, could relate to.
“I felt that when I retired I wanted to give back,” Eisenberg said. “Not only to my community but to people who were less fortunate because I know Jews have been struggling and are a minority group themselves.”
Carin Buckman, a spokesperson for Leadership Greater Hartford, said what makes the organization special is how it unites participants with wildly divergent religious, ethnic, socioeconomic and professional backgrounds.
“We have a retired tax attorney who is working beside a struggling Puerto Rican poet in the ghettos of Hartford,” Buckman says. “And it’s that one-people, diverse element that makes “the program so compelling.”
While Leadership Greater Hartford is not a Jewish organization, Buckman attributes its substantial Jewish participant base to an emphasis on diversity.
Despite having graduated from Third Age, Eisenberg’s team will maintain its presence at the Burns Academy with the goal of educating the school’s current parent body, who can then educate future parents – and perhaps stem a cycle of poor attitudes toward education.
“As we have seen progress in what our team has done,” Eisenberg says, “it’s motivated us to want to do more. And when you see the rewards of something that you’ve been behind, I think you just want to keep continuing.”
In fact, Hentschel says, at least three quarters of Third Age graduates remain involved in the community several years later. Hentschel believes that, as the baby-boomer generation recedes into retirement and life expectancies swell, older people are capable of serving their community – as opposed to being served by their community.
“The focus in the past for programs addressing the needs of older adults tended to focus on what I call the frail and the poor elderly,” the 70-year-old Hentschel said. “The idea that older adults have something to give back, that they can serve the community, is an idea that’s relatively new.”
Eisenberg praises Leadership Greater Hartford and the Third Age Initiative, for sparking in her a sense of importance and accomplishment.
“It’s so rewarding,” she says, “especially when you know that you personally have been behind an idea that became successful.”
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