Jewish Care’s penpal project connecting the generations

03 Sep 2020


During lockdown, Jewish Care set up a pen pal project to connect young and older members of the community. Though not everyone is online the pen pals write to each other with the help of letter writing assistants to support the letters being sent by email.

In the case of one pair of pen pals, they have discovered they are related. Ninety-year-old Doreen Wejchendler from Gants Hill and 14-year-old actor, Aaron Gelkoff, from Chigwell, have been taking part in Jewish Care’s pen pal project.

Doreen says, “We’ve been writing letters back and forth and when Aaron told us he was in the shows my daughter realised the connection between our families and that we are distantly related.  I phoned up his grandfather, Barry, and know his great-aunt. It’s very nice that he’s writing.

Aaron is a student at West Hatch High School and lives in Chigwell. He has performed in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as Gavroche, in Les Miserable in the West End production, co-starred in Caroline, or Change and starred in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾.

He says, “I’ve been part of Jewish Care’s MIKE leadership programme at Redbridge Jewish Community Centre (RJCC) for a while, that’s where I heard about the pen pal project and I wanted to get involved. I know that going into lockdown must have been a real shock for people living on their own and they might have been finding it really difficult.

“I thought this was a nice way to make new friends and it’s a coincidence that our family are connected. I like keeping in touch and writing to Doreen and we talk about our shared interests, for example, we both spent our birthday in lockdown and we both have pets so I asked Doreen for a photo of her cat Charlie and sent her a photo of my cat, Roxy.”

Harrison, 12, has been writing to Aubrey Green, 85.  Harrison’s mum, Victoria, said, “We saw that Jewish Care were asking for volunteers to write to their members at the beginning of lockdown and thought it would be a great opportunity for Harrison to do something for the community. He understands how important it is to stay in touch, especially as Harrison has three great grandparents in their 90s. He has enjoyed sharing his lockdown stories and shared interests with Aubrey.”

Aubrey, says, "We've been writing to one another for a couple of months and it's lovely that a young person like Harrison is taking the time to write letters to someone of an age like myself. It's very important to stay connected and to keep a positive bright attitude, especially in these times. We chat about ourselves and he tells me what team he supports. It's a pleasure to do something like this."

Joyce and Claire with her two children are writing to each other. Joyce, 88 says, “It’s so nice of Claire to take the time to write to me, I’m sure she’s very busy with two children. The children are just adorable, they sent me lovely pictures they’d drawn which I have kept. Claire told me that her little boy was turning 5 soon, so I sent him a birthday card. I enjoy writing to them with the help of a volunteer, Joanne, who sends the emails. I was going to the supportive communities tea parties and to Redbridge Jewish Community Centre. I miss it and let’s all hope we get back together soon.”

Claire says, “It has been such a pleasure writing to Joyce and receiving her letters in return. She is so thoughtful and kind. For my son Alex’s birthday, she sent him a card and stickers via the community centre who forwarded it to me at home. She also included some stickers for my daughter Talia, so she wasn’t left out! I am so looking forward to the day we can meet in person for a cup of tea.”

Talia Jacobs, who has been volunteering with Jewish Care’s Six Sundays programme for a few years, joined the penpal scheme that began recently and is writing to Shirley Greenbaum, 87.

Talia says, “We’ve been writing regularly for the last couple months and it’s lovely to hear from Shirley. We let each other know what we’ve been watching on Netflix and exchange news about how we are finding lockdown. We’ve played Jewish geography and have found a nice connection through my neighbours. It’s been a great thing to do during these times as I can’t visit the residents with the Six Sundays programme at the moment, so it’s a good alternative way to keep on volunteering.” 

Before lockdown, Shirley went along to events like the local Jewish Care’s Supportive Communities tea parties. She now writes to Talia on her iPad, and says, “I like being in touch with Talia and hear her news. I’m pleased we have a local connection so that she knows some of the relatives who I’m talking about when I tell her about my family news. I like the tea parties too and still try to join on Zoom when I can. They were nice because in my younger days I used to volunteer and we worked hard to organise events for older local people so it’s nice to go along to them now.”

Alison Smardina, Jewish Care’s Supportive Communities Officer, says, “We’re so pleased that the pen pal project is connecting older and young people across the generations. It’s really important for us to remember that many older people are still isolated at home and while they can’t socialise at community centres and supportive communities tea parties, the pen pal project has been a welcome alternative way to stay connected to the community through Jewish Care.”

If you would like to be a Pen Pal or would like to receive letters please contact Dana at DKurlansky-Thom@jcare.org