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Bernard Betel Centre marks 50 years of creative living

Isaac Cohen and Barbara Zigler at the Oct. 25 celebration
Isaac Cohen and Barbara Zigler at the Oct. 25 celebration

For 50 years, the Bernard Betel Centre for Creative Living has been keeping Toronto seniors engaged in the community, and on Oct. 25, it opened its doors to kick off a year-long celebration in honour of its golden anniversary.

“It was an overwhelming and resounding success,” said executive director Gail Gould of the open house event, which spotlighted Betel’s past, present and future. And it brought out more than 600 seniors for a day filled with activities, music and dancing.

The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), Toronto section, founded the Centre for Creative Living back in 1965. At the time, it had only 50 members. Eventually, the centre outgrew the NCJW and became its own autonomous organization under the leadership of its first executive director, Rhea Shulman.

Now Betel, as it’s lovingly called, serves more than 5,000 seniors, including those who aren’t able to leave their homes.

“It’s about going where the client or community member is at,” Gould said of the centre’s Healthy at Home initiative. “These folks can’t get out. They can’t get to Betel, so we go to them.”

For those who are well enough, Betel hosts an array of programs, from computer and fitness classes to dances and even an Israel trip.

It’s about “empowering seniors to lead active, creative and healthy lifestyles in a Jewish environment,” Gould said of her organization’s mission.

It was easy to see this in action at the open house as men and women – speaking mainly in Hebrew, English and Russian – socialized and participated in various activities led by staff and volunteers throughout the day.

During the Oct. 25 event, Gould said that she and her staff rely on more than 400 volunteers, who contribute a combined 40,000 hours each year. That includes an entirely volunteer-based board of directors.

Along with Gould, representatives from all three levels of government addressed the crowd. Toronto Ward 10 Councillor James Pasternak shared greetings from Mayor John Tory, while MPP Monte Kwinter brought the same from Premier Kathleen Wynne. York Centre’s MP-elect Michael Levitt also spoke.

Later in the day, the Toronto-based klezmer band Klez Konnection got members, staff, volunteers and visitors dancing. “We do a wild party here at the Betel Centre,” said Gould, laughing.

Gould is currently in the process of organizing additional 50th anniversary events along with the planning committee’s co-chair and board member Bonnie Baker.

“Whether we have lectures or trips or concerts, we have a variety of things that are in the works,” Gould said. “And we hope the community will come out to enjoy and continue to celebrate.”