JCC hosts Life Stories Project

story tease




Florine Fish Rusnak, 80, of Poland, couldn’t wait to receive the book about her life story.

“When I look through the book, I’ll laugh and I’ll cry,” Rusnak said.

On Monday night, more than 150 community members gathered at the Jewish Community Center to see the finished products of the Life Stories project.

Shay Erez, Youngstown Area Jewish Federation outreach coordinator, and Liz Lehman, an Americorps VISTA volunteer, spent the past few months interviewing 11 senior citizens in Youngstown’s Jewish community and formatting the interviews into autobiographical books that are 20 to 30 pages long, including pictures from participants’ lives. Each participant received their own book.

“It’s been fun, mostly a joy,” Rusnak said. “I’ll let my kids pass it around, and then it will be on a shelf in my home, and I’m sure I’ll pull it down to look at it many times.”

Julia Rusnak, Florine’s granddaughter, said it was a special project.

“She remembers everything,” she said. “It’s nice that it’s all going to be written down somewhere. I’ll be able to pass it along to my kids someday. That history is really important, especially in the Jewish community.”

This was the pilot year of the project.

The idea originated from a similar project Erez’s mother had done in Israel. Her clients found it therapeutic to talk about their lives, and their families loved having the stories documented.

When Erez began working for the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation four years ago, she knew she wanted to emulate that in Youngstown.

“It’s like a dream come true,” Erez said. “I want to make it even bigger next year.”

As each participant was recognized and given their book (and a certificate), a picture of them in their younger days was projected on the screen.

Lehman interviewed the participants, transcribed the interviews and formatted them for the book. She enjoyed the experience and feels inspired to talk to her parents about their family history.

One thing that stuck out to her, she said, were “all these beautiful love stories I got to hear.”

“I learned when you love someone, no length of time is ever really enough,” she said.

Sam Kooperman, one of the participants and a former executive director of the YAJF, reflected on his experience and thanked “the people who made me who I am today” as he accepted his book.

Each book had inscribed in it, “We are all story tellers; we all live in a network of stories.”

The seniors who were interviewed are Dr. Harold Chevlen, Irv Lev, Marcia

Lev, Merabeth Murie, Florence Mirkin, Sophia Kappon, Gladys “Cookie” Spikell, Manya Tsitrin, Kooperman, Rusnak and Florence Harshman.

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