Like the original troubadours of the Middle Ages, who went from town to town throughout Europe bringing music and joy to eager audiences, the Jewbadors, a Monroe Township-based group of senior citizen entertainers, are fulfilling a similar mission today.
Unlike their medieval predecessors, however, the Jewbadors, who range in age from late 60s to mid-90s, work without pay.
“Our goal is to provide a community and educational service that conveys the joy of humor and the poignancy of Jewish music and culture to audiences of all ages,” said Jerry Katcher, 82, the group’s founder and one of its vocalists.
Noting that the focus is on a traditional repertoire presented through stories, songs, and “shtick,” Katcher added, “We always appear before nonprofit organizations.”
On Wednesday, Dec. 9, the Jewbadors will make their debut at the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County in Freehold, with a holiday program featuring such songs as “Oh Hanukka, Oh Hanukka,” “Who Can Retell?,” and “Ma’oz Tzur.”
“Our intention is to teach and tell the story of Hanukka,” said Katcher. “We try to include an educational element in all our performances.”
Katcher, a former corporate executive with the Pathmark grocery chain, launched the Jewbadors in 2011, along with four fellow residents from The Ponds community in Monroe.
In addition to Katcher, here are the troupe’s original members:
Myra Cohen Klenicki had worked for the Israeli consulate in New York and also sang and acted professionally. She is the artistic director and scriptwriter for the Jewbadors and also plays guitar, sings, and acts. In addition, she is the founder and director of the Bimah Players Community Theater — a Shabbat-observant troupe located at Monroe Township Jewish Center-Congregation Etz Chaim.
Jonathan Schwartz is a former actuary who chanted Torah for several years at Congregation Beit Shalom in Monroe Township.
Gloria Fink used to teach grade school and now acts, sings, and plays tambourine for the group.
Jack E. Gelfand, 96, the Jewbadors’ oldest player, is a World War II veteran who flew B-26 bombers. Self-taught on guitar, an instrument he first picked up 81 years ago, he had a long career as a professor of economics at the university level. He is now the lead guitarist, lead vocalist, and principal translator for the group, which performs in Hebrew, Yiddish, and other languages, as well as English.
There are other participants, too.
Ed Lazarus, a former printer, was a member of The Ponds’ board of directors. He has been a Jewbador since 2012.
Later that same year, Jerry Yochelson, a retired computer specialist who also continues to give private music lessons, became the group’s violinist and clarinetist. He is the only Jewbador not living in a retirement community; he has a house in Cranbury. Together with Gelfand, he is responsible for composing original songs and providing all of the troupe’s musical arrangements.
Elaine Schaffer and Phyllis Cassell, both residents of Monroe’s Concordia community, are the newest members of the troupe. Schaffer, a soprano, actress,and dancer, signed on in 2013. During her working years, she was a Weight Watchers lecturer and area manager.
Cassell joined the group earlier this year. She was once the administrator for the Materials Science and Engineering Department at Rutgers University. With the Jewbadors, she plays guitar and sings.
“We don’t actively recruit new members,” Katcher said. “But if we hear — or hear about — someone who is talented, we are open to grow.”
When the Jewbadors perform, they wear the colors of Israel, blue shirts for the men, white tops for the women, said Katcher, who grew up in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section, where, he said, “there is a shul on every block.” He and his wife — they have been married more than 63 years — moved to East Brunswick in 1969, and to Monroe Township in 1995.
The Jewbadors, said Katcher, “try to practice once a week, schedules permitting, and we give several performances each year. We are entirely self-funded and accept no payment for ourselves.”
The Jewish Heritage Museum is asking for a small fee to defray its expenses. Seats are priced at $7, discounted to $5 for museum members.
Katcher expressed appreciation to the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ for providing access to a new sound system. “We applied for an Opportunity Grant, and the following arrangement was set up: Federation purchased and owns and stores the system, but we, as well as other area organizations, can borrow it and use it when we need it,” he said.