Friendships and fresh food are always available at J Cafe

Friendships and fresh food are always available at J Cafe

From stuffed cabbage and brisket to companionship and security, J Cafe at the JCC is a space designed to make older adults feel at home while getting them out of the house.

Sandwiched between classrooms and windows overlooking an aquatic center is the heart of senior life in Squirrel Hill, as each day, more than 125 Allegheny County residents between the ages of 60 and 104 frequent J Cafe, a station-based eatery at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.

The pop-up restaurant, located within Levinson Hall, affords camaraderie to elderly denizens of the county, some of whom travel more than 40 miles for lunch.

“I come every day. Almost,” said Morris Hundley, of Tarentum.

Although “parking is a little shaky” and the trip is long, the 72-year-old returns daily to a familiar space with friends.

Situated beside Hundley was Point Breeze resident Julie Murphy, 69. For the past five years, she and Hundley have sat together in the bistro-like setting.

“We’re missing one of our companions,” said Murphy, acknowledging an empty chair at the circular table. “If somebody is missing, we question where they are.”

Such sentiment drives friendships throughout the program; members and staff look out for unexpected absences or even changes in behavior, said Amy Gold, information and referral specialist at AgeWell at the JCC.

J Cafe volunteers set up salads and oranges as they wait to serve the diners. (Photo by Lauren Rosenblatt)
Aiding the enterprise are a steady corps of volunteers, who serve food and converse with seniors. While many helpers are teenagers who attend local schools — including the Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh, a local school which provides young people and their families with a “specialized continuum of services,” according to its website — the volunteers range in age from 16 to 104.

“I’m happy when people come, and it feels good helping,” said Bela Skotnevskaya, 83. Hailing from Belarus, Skotnevskaya has volunteered for 15 years at J Cafe.

The opportunity to converse with fellow seniors provides myriad benefits as well.

“Studies have shown that getting out, interacting, and socializing really helps older adults remain independent and at home for much longer,” Gold noted.

In addition, according to the National Institute on Aging, socialization improves a wide range of health biomarkers in older adults, reducing the risk of developing depression, Alzheimer’s disease, high blood pressure and various other conditions.

Fran Cohen enjoys an apple as part of her lunch at J Cafe. Cohen said she has made quite a few friends at J Cafe and enjoys that there are several options for lunch each day. (Photo by Lauren Rosenblatt)
Even before the doors open at 11 a.m. and the sound of metal silverware clattering on ceramic plates fills the room, the retractable walls reverberate noise.

On most days, eager eaters arrive early, cluster in a nearby vestibule and share updates. As the doors to Levinson Hall unlatch, a volunteer greeter welcomes patrons, marks attendance and collects a nonmandatory $1.50 donation. This “suggested” amount lowers barriers to seniors who experience financial difficulties, explained Sybil Lieberman, director of AgeWell at the JCC.

J Cafe was “designed so any senior could come in with dignity and get a meal,” Lieberman noted. “It is in keeping with our mission of ‘caring for those who cared for us.’”

Those who qualify for the reduced fee must reside in Allegheny County, be older than 60 and register with AgeWell at the JCC. Non-county residents and younger lunch goers pay a higher sum, said Lieberman, who noted that caregivers and grandchildren often attend in tow.

Along with J Cafe, AgeWell at the JCC offers numerous programs to eligible seniors, including lectures from local physicians, film screenings and outings to Phipps Conservatory, Fallingwater and other area attractions.

“I love to come to the Jewish Community Center. I like their programs, the exercise and yoga, and years ago I used to do swimming,” said Marilyn Friedman, 84.

“I just went to an exercise class and I come in here starving,” said Murphy.

From left: Rose Stone, Betty Jean Merbis and Adalyn Baraff share a table at the J Cafe as they enjoy a spaghetti lunch. (Photo by Lauren Rosenblatt)
What they and every other J Cafe patron can expect is a nutritious, tasty and strictly kosher meal prepared on-site, explained food service director Tony Rodnicki.

The high quality of each dish is apparent, remarked multiple attendees.

“It’s the best food in the city for a senior program,” said Murphy.

T’andrew Vaulicisco, 71, agreed.

“The first time I ate here, I was amazed at the food. And I’m like, ‘This is really good. Probably a freak accident, so I’ll come back,’” the Mount Washington resident recalled. “So I came back, and it was good too.”

J Cafe was redesigned after AgeWell at the JCC received a state grant in 2010 from the Pennsylvania Department of Aging, according to Lieberman. The innovation grant helped fund a complete redesign of the eating area, add multiple stations to increase choice for diners and allow J Cafe to go “environmentally green.”

Since that time, a steady stream of satisfied seniors, like Manny Kolski, have continued to enjoy J Cafe and auxiliary activities. The 103-year-old Holocaust survivor who regularly sports suspenders and a blue baseball cap bearing “Pittsburgh” above its brim, said he has been coming to the cafe for 15 years.

“This place is wonderful. It brings people out that would be home in bed,” said Adalyn Baraff, 96.

Her friend and tablemate, Rose Stone, 91, agreed.

“You can see people, you’re not stuck in the house, you can talk to them. When you get to be 90 years old, you need friends, and this is where you find them.” PJC

Jonah Berger can be reached at, Lauren Rosenblatt can be reached at and Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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