La Jolla Jewish community center builds a social hub for seniors

Accordionist Shalom Sherman performs during a Hanukkah celebration at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center.
Accordionist Shalom Sherman performs during a Hanukkah celebration at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla in December. Some of the center’s programs focus on Jewish culture, but the facility welcomes people of all backgrounds.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

At the Lawrence Family center, older adults can take classes, exercise and participate in a variety of organized activities.


Sitting around a record player earlier this month, a group of more than 25 older adults listened to a curated playlist from a collection of Yiddish music at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla.

As the vinyl records and CDs were changed between songs, a panel of singers whose recordings were featured during the event shared the history behind the tunes and the composers who wrote them.

It was a lecture-style panel, but the event was anything but dry. Members of the audience sang and clapped along to their favorite songs, then gathered in the center’s library afterward to socialize with their friends.

Educational and social events — like the Treasures of the Jewish Music Collection series — draw older adults to the Jewish Community Center, where they can engage more with the community and feel less isolated.

Women play pickleball at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla.
Sylvia Roth and Jackie Snoyman (both facing the camera) play pickleball with Arlene Cohen (left) and Shirley First at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in La Jolla.
(Nancee E. Lewis)

Eileen Wingard, who planned and moderated the music panel, grew up in a multigenerational, Yiddish-speaking home in Chicago, where her grandparents and great-grandparents often played Yiddish music.

Later in life, Wingard had a 37-year career as a violinist for the San Diego Symphony. In retirement, she continues to teach students how to play the delicate string instrument. Volunteering at the JCC by organizing the music collection at the Astor Judaica Library has helped the 93-year-old continue her passion for music.

“It’s given me some wonderful projects to work on that have enriched my life,” Wingard said.

Senior citizens have a variety of programs they can participate in at the JCC, including the Jewish Poets Jewish Voices series, in which poets recite their work, plus mahjong, bridge, Spanish and art classes, and technology discussions where they can learn how to manage emails, passwords and other tools.

There also are free classes offered online and at the center through the San Diego College of Continuing Education. This spring, the school will offer classes in classical music, consumer protection, pastels and drawing.

Neta Bourdas, Frida Grossman, instructor Renee Corwin and Rene McDaniel attend a basic drawing class at the JCC.
From left, Neta Bourdas, Frida Grossman, instructor Renee Corwin and Rene McDaniel attend a basic drawing class at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center.
(Nancee E. Lewis)

During the upcoming Tour of Hidden Gems, participants will go on a mystery bus tour of San Diego to view unique gardens and architecture.

And soon, seniors will be able to participate in a new series of classes to ease the transition from working life to retirement.

The idea for the center’s upcoming Retirement Academy stems from programs to support new retirees in Israel, which has a mandatory retirement age of 62-65 for women and 67 for men.

Melanie Rubin, the center’s director of senior and adult programs, said she noticed that as older adults prepare for retirement, they often talk about wanting to travel, bond with grandchildren or spend time in the garden, but a lot of differences aren’t discussed. New retirees may struggle with navigating relationship changes if their spouse is still working, or they may face changes to their social life without lunches with co-workers and professional networking events.

“You can become very easily isolated and depressed if there’s nobody to go out with for lunch or you don’t know what to do with your life,” Rubin said.

People who retired earlier than they originally planned due to a loved one needing caregiving, their own health issues or other reasons might find the transition especially difficult.

Volunteers Barbara Sutton and Diane Davis organize a cart of children’s books at the JCC library.
Volunteers Barbara Sutton, a retired librarian, and Diane Davis organize a cart of children’s books at the JCC library, which is open to the public.
(Nancee E. Lewis)

One recent factor contributing to early retirement is the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic changes that occurred because of it. The AARP Public Policy Institute says that from February 2020 to August 2022, 4.9 percent of men 55 and older and 4.3 percent of women left the workforce.

“For some people, when the pandemic hit, they were close to retirement age and they decided, ‘OK, I’ll just retire,’” said AARP senior policy adviser Jen Schramm.

The Retirement Academy, which will launch this spring, is supported in part by a $25,000 grant from the San Diego Seniors Community Foundation through its Empower San Diego Senior Centers campaign.

Joe Gavin, the foundation’s chief program and community engagement officer, said the Retirement Academy was selected for funding because discussions of retirement often focus on financial aspects but seldom dial in on the emotional or social shifts that occur.

While saving for retirement and spending one’s money smartly are key components of being retired, the wider focus is just as important for people entering a new life phase, Gavin said. In retirement, someone might choose to learn a new skill or hobby.

“There’s so many social drivers of health that affect quality of life that have gone unrecognized, that influence our lives,” Gavin said. “Yes, we can have financial security, we can have our physical health, but what about other things that really comprise a quality of life?”

Senior citizens participate in “Aerobics for Everyone” at the JCC in La Jolla.
(Nancee E. Lewis)

This is not the first JCC program that the foundation has supported financially. Gavin said it also provided funding for the center’s Hanukkah parties for seniors in the past two years.

The center’s intergenerational programming is a big perk in the way it can impact older adults, Gavin added.

“It really is a dynamic community center that we look at as a possible model for future development of intergenerational community centers in different parts of the county,” he said.

Rubin said the center’s intergenerational aspect contributes to the long-term mental health of the seniors who participate in programs there. Some programs, like the Hanukkah parties, bring children from the center’s preschool together with the older adults so they can connect with one another.

“The seniors just delight in seeing the younger kids,” Rubin said. “The seniors get to interact with the children, and it brings them joy and sometimes it brings them back to the nostalgia of raising their kids or their grandkids.”

Though some of the JCC’s programs are focused on Jewish culture, history and traditions, the center welcomes people of all cultures and religious backgrounds.

JCC member and teacher Lucy Toledano grew up in a multicultural household in Peru. Her mother came from a Catholic family and her father from a Sephardic Jewish one. Though she learned about both cultures growing up, her family didn’t practice either religion.

When she retired from a career as a high school and college Spanish teacher in Cleveland a decade ago, Toledano moved to University City and soon got connected to the JCC. A friend suggested it as a nearby place to connect with other seniors in the community.

“I liked the atmosphere inside. The people are very nice — I made my best friends there,” Toledano said.

Now it’s one of her most frequently visited places. Toledano teaches several adult Spanish classes there, uses the gym almost daily and hangs out in the JCC’s coffee shop after her workouts to socialize while grading her students’ homework.

“It’s wonderful, 100 percent inclusive,” Toledano said. “It’s helped me a lot to not miss my places, my friends in Cleveland because here, this place is full of good people.”

For more information about the senior programs at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center, visit, call (858) 362-1141 or email ◆