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( There’s something funny about Don Rickles, 82, headlining at the first annual Smile on Seniors “Joy and Laughter” event on June 29 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

The impact the program, conceived by Chabad-Lubavitch, is having on seniors across North America is no laughing matter. S.O.S. of West Orange, NJ, has 100 volunteers visiting seniors residing in 40 nursing homes. Rabbi Mendy and Altie Kasowitz of Lubavitch Outreach Center of Essex County initiated the program when the hours they’d need to visit all the ailing or lonely seniors in their community exceeded the hours in the day.

“Everyone needs a buddy,” said Mrs. Kasowitz, “that’s understood. What surprised me was how many people were looking to volunteer for this kind of activity. S.O.S. draws all kinds of people to participate. I never have to ‘push’ the program.”

Zvi Rosengarten, who visits a senior residence near his home in West Orange, NJ, on Shabbat, jokes, “‘Smile on Seniors’ should be named ‘Smile on Zvi.’ It makes me feel so good about myself and it makes the seniors so happy.” He joined up last year after filling in for a volunteer who couldn’t make it one week.

“I went once and I was hooked. When you are visiting senior citizens you are visiting your future, it is something everyone can relate to,” Rosengarten told

When Amy Durschlang spends time with her “buddy” Molly, she knows she is going to hear about Molly’s beloved late husband and the home she used to live in. Her reminiscences are bittersweet. “When I am there, Molly doesn’t feel alone,” said Durschlang.

Loneliness can have serious health consequences for the elderly, and its effects are the subjects of a growing number of research studies. Blood pressure levels in lonely seniors were found to be as much as thirty points higher than non-lonely people in a study conducted by the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. Depression and isolation can change eating habits of the elderly, bringing on obesity or, conversely, geriatric anorexia, according to the American Psychological Association.

That may be why nursing homes and assisted living facilities bring out the welcome mat for S.O.S. volunteers. The recreation director at a home visited regularly by S.O.S. buddies sees the program as such an asset that she asked the Kasowitzes set up a booth at the home’s open house for potential clients.  

One of S.O.S. most senior volunteers, Jacob Koltun, 83, captures how S.O.S. fits into the fabric of  Chabad-Lubavitch programs. Koltun, a Holocaust survivor, attended Rabbi Kasowitz’s Jewish Learning Institute course on the Holocaust, and grew to feel at home enough to step foot in the Lubavitch Center synagogue, something he had not done since leaving the camps. At the synagogue, he heard announcements about S.O.S. and got so involved that Koltun is the S.O.S.’s honorary president.

Durschlang has a similar story. She attends Chabad lunch-and-learn courses, and Friendship Circle volunteers visit her children with special needs each week. Joining S.O.S. as a volunteer is one way of passing kindness onward.

Spreading goodness is part of the S.O.S. vision. Board members and volunteer coordinators from the group are hard at work on projects that will enhance the S.O.S. experience. One of their newest ideas is a traveling library that will allow S.O.S. buddies to share uplifting Jewish books with their seniors, keeping the good feelings going until the next visit.

As the new ideas take shape, S.O.S. of West Orange shares them with its eleven affiliates. That’s because the program Rabbi Kasowitz heads was started with seed money from the Rohr Family Foundation. As an idea incubator, the programs that work in NJ are replicated, refined and expanded upon from Oxnard, CA, to Yardley, PA to Montreal.

“To know that hundreds or thousands of seniors will be affected, and that more Chabad centers will be adopting this model to connect their communities with seniors in need of a buddy is inspiring.” 


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