By Jillian Maynard
Shai Erez moved from Israel to Youngstown four years ago to get her master’s degree at Youngstown State University. Almost as soon as she stepped off the plane, Erez got involved with Youngstown’s Jewish community.
Her goal: to make this unfamiliar country and city a home.
“Being of the Jewish faith gives you an international community, you can find people that you can relate to anywhere you go,” Erez said.
The easiest way to get involved and meet people? Lend a helping hand wherever it is needed.
“Being on the outside of the community really helped me see problems that needed to be addressed. The biggest one I saw was in the connection of the elderly Jewish community members to the rest of the community,” Erez said.
In order to fix this problem, Erez founded Youngstown’s Life Stories Project. She got the idea back in Israel.
“My mother-in-law volunteers with a program where elderly Jewish community members are interviewed and given a space to tell their story that is then transcribed into a short book for them to keep and share,” she said. “I knew immediately that this was something that would benefit Youngstown, as well.”
Behold, Erez’s brainchild, The Life Stories Project.
Erez said The Life Stories Project is a form of narrative therapy. It is around five to seven sessions (12 sessions in Israeli) where an elderly Jewish person describes their life from childhood to present day.
The interviewer records the meeting and transcribes that person‘s story into a short book for them to keep.
“Other nursing homes have this but without the therapy as the central focus and without a book to give to the participant at the end,” she said.
Erez targets people with all different needs to be a part of the program.
“Some haven’t participated in the Jewish community in years and this is a way to reconnect them,” she said. “Others are heavily active in the community and in temple. We always have a variety.”
However, the one control factor is that all the participants are at least 70 years old.
Erez originally started the project with no budget. The project is partnered with Americorp Visa and it took almost a year, including six months alone for the visa, to get the project off the ground.
In addition to this project, Erez works full-time as a social worker. The total number of people who worked hands on with this project with her – two. Herself and Liz Lehman, a graduate student at Youngstown State University.
“Liz does all the writing,” Erez said. “I love connecting and helping people, but I don’t have the writing ability to match it for this project. Liz has been incredible with writing the stories.”
Erez expects the project to expand next year. Her goal is to produce more stories involving more writers.
“We’ve received a lot of publicity for the Life Stories Project this year and tons of positive feedback. We’re hoping now we will receive grant money to expand the project. I want to produce 25 books in 2020,” she said.
“My favorite aspect of the Life Stories Project is the hard stories that participants choose to share when asked to talk about their lives,” Erez added. “I hear a lot of love stories, but the ones that really get me are the stories of survival. Some haven’t talked about these times in their lives ever, or in many decades. It’s amazing to see the weight that is lifted when they do.”
Erez believes her job is to listen and make people feel like they are heard.
“I’d never think to judge a participant of the Life Stories Project,” Erez said. “These people have lived full lives. A full life is usually never all good or all bad, but a mixture of both.”
Erez believes many elderly and adults aren’t in direct contact with counselors, yet they crave to have a connection with someone and tell their story.
“These people need to feel a part of something; like they belong. You don’t need to be Jewish to understand… only empathetic. The process is not complicated it is simple, yet the results are amazing,” she said.
A participant of the Life Stories Project, Sophia Kappon, had her story transcribed into a book she was able to keep. She is the daughter of Holocaust survivors and has lived eight years in Youngstown.
When I met Kappon, she greeted me with open arms and a kiss to both cheeks – aspects of a European heritage never forgotten.
Kappon is 72 years-old but has a bounce in her step and a warmth in her smile, one that is missing in most people half her age. Her joyful persona betrays a tough woman who has overcome more than her fair share of hardship.
“My grandparents, I never knew. Hitler made sure I’d never get to meet them” she said. “My mother, her husband and their baby were living in Romania when the war broke out. My mother’s husband organized for [my mother] to flee town on a train with a neighbor lady who had also just had a baby.”
Both Kappon’s mom and the neighbor lost their babies and never saw their husbands again.
Kappon’s father was a soldier who fought with the Polish and Russian armies against Germany.
“That is how he stayed alive during the Holocaust, by fighting” Kappon said.
Kappon’s mom worked in a kitchen serving soldiers in Poland where she would eventually meet her husband.
Kappon laughed and said, “When my dad asked my mother if she’d marry him, she told him no. My mother said she can’t marry him because she already has a husband and has no idea whether he’s dead or alive.”
Kappon’s father decided to help her mother and see if they could track down her husband. They found out he did not survive the Holocaust.
“My mother does find out that her other siblings had survived the Holocaust and relocated to Israel” Kappon said. “This made my mother extremely happy and eager to see them again.”
Kappon’s parents got married, her mother gave birth to Kappon and relocated to Israel when she was 2 years old to reconnect with her mother’s long-lost family. They lived in Israel until she was 13, then moved to the United States.
“My aunt sponsored us because all my sisters wanted to be together. Wherever one went, the others followed. My mother had four sisters and one brother,” Kappon said.
Until six months ago, Kappon had not told many people about her family’s history.
“Really, it’s all thanks to Shai,” she said. “We connected at temple and little by little she was able to get me to open up to her. She got me integrated into Youngstown’s Jewish community, then she invited me to be a part of the Life Stories Project. I’m 72 years old, and I now feel the most connected to a community than I ever have before.”
Kappon moved here from Florida eight years ago to take care of her sick ex-husband and daughter’s newborn baby. During those eight years, she said she was busy seeing to their needs that she didn’t get to go out and meet people in the area or connect with the Youngstown community at all.
“So, when my husband ended up passing away and my daughter didn’t need my help anymore, I felt alone. Shai and the Life Stories Project brought me into the Jewish community,” Kappon said. “The people here in Youngstown are so warm-hearted and nice, I can’t even begin to tell you. They even got me the place I am living now. I have to thank them for being there for me. I’ve never been a part of a Jewish community like this one”.
The Life Project will begin with its next group of participants this spring. The team will once again be Shai Erez, Liz Lehman and now, luckily, myself.
I am extremely thankful to both Shai and Liz for welcoming me to the project and allowing to come on as an intern and help their mission of transcribing amazing stories and bettering the lives of the Jewish community members in the city of Youngstown.