My Journey with CJE

By Leonard Worsek

It’s hard to believe that 50 years have passed since I joined the Board of the Parkview Home as a young man in my 30s. It seems like yesterday. Yet this is how my commitment to enhancing the lives of older adults was sparked. Parkview, located in Humboldt Park, was one of the three “old people homes” developed specifically for Chicago’s elderly Jewish community. The other two were Drexel Home (Hyde Park) and BMZ (Lawndale). Together, these three homes provided long-term residential care for about 600 Jewish seniors.

However, in the years following World War II, these residential facilities went into a slow decline—physically, functionally and economically. Eventually, they all closed and many of their residents were transferred to CJE’s Lieberman Center in Skokie when it opened in 1981.

The decline in these facilities was due, in part, to the fact that the Jewish demography of Chicago changed significantly after the war. Many families were moving from Humboldt Park, Hyde Park and Lawndale to the north and northwest side of the city as well as the north, northwest and southern suburbs.

In the mid-60s, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, in its wisdom, recognized that there was an increasing need for the development of community-based as well as residential services for a growing elderly population. But Federation wanted more data before embarking on this pioneering endeavor. In 1968, I was one of the lucky and privileged members of the Federation-appointed Gerontological Council which was given the responsibility to study the current and future needs of the Jewish elderly in Chicago.

Our goal was to “plan, implement and maintain a comprehensive and coordinated program of total service for the Jewish elderly of the Chicago metropolitan area, with the primary aim of assisting the maximum number of people through a program specifically designed to maintain the aged as independent and viably functioning individual in their normal environment wherever and as long as possible.”

Based on the recommendations of the Gerontological Council, Federation created Council for Jewish Elderly (renamed CJE SeniorLife in 2008, but that is another story!) in 1971 to implement the proposed plan. And the rest is history!

Today, CJE helps 23,000 seniors and their families through a wide network of care— from home-delivered meals, counseling and transportation to independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing care. What CJE has accomplished in four decades is amazing. I am so proud of its programming and leadership role in enhancing the lives of older adults in Chicago, the State of Illinois, and yes, even in many cities across the United States. As an innovative eldercare provider, other organizations often reach out to CJE for its knowledge and expertise.

So, by now you can tell that my history with CJE is long and deep. I have been on CJE’s Board since its inception and was Chairman from 1981 through 1983. I am one of the oldest and longest serving members and certainly meet the age requirement to receive services! And yet, my work is not finished. I have undertaken a new project as a volunteer. I am now the Agency’s first, official archivist.

To be able to understand the future, we must understand the past...

As a history buff, I am fascinated with Jewish philanthropy and its role in the history of Chicago. I bet most of you don’t know that in 1889, Drexel Home was the original dream of a social club comprised of ten Jewish women who raised $350 to establish an “Altenheim” (German for “old people’s home”). Imagine trying to build a hospital today with a nest egg of $350!

As I dig deeper into CJE’s history—how it was launched as a storefront on Morse Avenue offering counseling services and today is a nationally-recognized eldercare provider—I am still energized by our mission, values and vision.

To be able to understand the future, we must understand the past... what has taken us to where we are today and what has changed along the way. I am looking forward to documenting CJE’s journey which has been so entwined with my own. There is no doubt that CJE is in my DNA and I am truly grateful for how much CJE has given back to me, my family and the entire Jewish and larger community.