Gideon Fruchter knows the value of having a chat.
He gained that knowledge after seeing the benefits of his sons’ long-distance talks with their grandmother and witnessing the ill effects of elderly people living alone. To promote those benefits and reduce that isolation for others, Fruchter, an Israeli who lives in Princeton, founded HaVeDa, Hebrew for “chit chat.”
The program is designed to create ongoing conversations between American-Jewish youngsters and elderly Israelis who might enjoy and benefit from a connection with kids.
When his family lived in Herzliya, Israel, and his sons were small — Shai is now 14, Itai, 16 — they had quality phone calls with their grandmother, who lived in Hong Kong. “Before that,” he told NJJN, “I didn’t know that kids could establish such a long-distance conversation with an older person.”
And when he delivered food to elderly people in Herzliya as a volunteer, he saw “all these homebound people…living alone, and I thought they could use the social interaction” of regular calls.
When his family was in Austin, Texas — they lived there for several summers so his sons could attend a literary camp run by the independent bookstore BookPeople — he tested his idea by making a phone match between one of his boys and a woman in Herzliya. He then initiated a pilot project in 2014 with sixth-grade students at the Austin Jewish Academy.
From this first organized stab at HaVeDa, Fruchter learned there were downsides to trying to set up group schedules: The seniors found it hard to hear the students when they were all conversing in the same room, and the retirees often had varied schedules so it was hard for them to commit to a preset time.
So he decided one-on-one was the best way to proceed.
The project was in abeyance while Fruchter was preparing for his family’s move to Princeton, which, he said, was motivated by the desire he and his wife, Pia, shared to provide an “adventure for the kids.”
Fruchter owns Kooly Ltd. and S.I.F.L. Ltd., which market and distribute products for heavy vehicles, like trucks and trailers, and agriculture infrastructure projects, like greenhouses. He also conducts real estate business in Israel. His wife owns Stella Cove, a children’s beachwear company.
Fruchter’s approach is to match up students and seniors based on Hebrew and English fluency and availability. A participant signs up for five weekly calls of no more than 15 to 20 minutes each, then can decide whether to continue, switch partners, or leave the program.
The first HaVeDa match in New Jersey is between Dor Zakut, an eighth-grader at Princeton’s John Witherspoon Middle School, and Sara, a 79-year-old Israeli living in Ramat HaSharon.
A sabra and fluent in Hebrew, Dor admits that after six years in the United States, he has “a slight American accent” when speaking his mother tongue. Although he goes to Israel every summer and speaks Hebrew with his family at home, he told NJJN, “I don’t practice long conversations much.”
Dor told NJJN a little about his conversations with Sara. They “learned a lot about each other by talking,” Dor said. They both like to eat out, and she told him about some “amazing restaurants” in Israel, and he told her about Kyoto, a high-end Japanese restaurant in Tel Aviv that his father, Yaron, helped design.
But Dor has also learned something from Sara that he will take into the future. “At times I didn’t know what to talk about, what topics of conversation, and she helped me lead a conversation,” he said. “That’s a good attribute of a person — to be able to lead a conversation.”
Commenting on this unexpected benefit, Fruchter noted that with kids today communicating largely through digital media, they have forgotten “how to speak, especially on the phone.” HaVeDa gives them an opportunity “to speak with someone with whom they have very little in common, and find what they have in common,” and thereby improve their skills in listening and asking questions.
Dor recommended the experience both to Israelis in the States who want a chance to use their Hebrew and to Americans whose Hebrew is not as strong, because generally the seniors can speak English and can help them along.
To help both the youngsters and seniors to break the ice, Fruchter created a list of leading questions, which have evoked surprising responses.
Fruchter first talked about a 12-year-old boy speaking to his partner, a Holocaust survivor. The boy asked her, “If you could go back in time, where would you go to?” and she responded, “I would go back to the concentration camp and say goodbye to my parents before they were taken by the Nazis.” When he apologized for asking the question, she reassured him that after she had come to Israel she married, had children and grandchildren, and had “a full and happy life.”
“It was really moving for him — to see that after all she had gone through she had managed to rebuild her life and was so positive,” Fruchter said.
Another question, “If you would write a book about your life, what would be the title,” led one elderly woman to say she would call it “Mom, Where Are You?” because she was adopted as a child and never learned the identity of her birth mother.
Fruchter is now looking to spread the word. He has a continuing program in Austin, a student volunteer at the Charles E. Smith School in Rockville, Md., and ongoing conversations with Golda Och Academy in West Orange and Ravsak, a community day school network of 135 schools.
“The idea behind HaVeDa is it is not a lesson,” Fruchter said. “There is no homework, no pressure. The idea is to make it as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.”