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16 Over 61: Meet Sylvia Lustgarten

This profile appears as part of “16 Over 61,” a collaboration between the Forward and the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan’s Wechsler Center for Modern Aging.

Sylvia Lustgarten, 94, is something like the prototype of a macher.

Sylvia Lustgarten

Image by Sylvia Lustgarten

To cap a long record of avidly promoting Yiddish culture in Toronto, including as Director of the Committee for Yiddish at the Toronto Jewish Congress, Lustgarten has spent her 90s giving adult students private Yiddish instruction — for no charge.

In her career in social work in Montreal and Toronto, Lustgarten worked primarily with Jewish family and child services, demonstrating particular care for children coming from struggling families.

“As a social worker at the Eitz Chaim day school, where many of the pupils’ parents were Holocaust survivors, her compassion and ability to connect changed the lives of many troubled families,” wrote Nessa Olshansky-Ashtar, who nominated Lustgarten for “16 Over 61.”

And Lustgarten is a committed advocate for the arts. She recently founded the SilverScenes Film Festival, which celebrates the lives and art of older adults, and which will debut its second installment online in November of 2021.

It’s clear that Lustgarten, a member of the inaugural cohort of “16 Over 61” honorees, has a passion for connection. And she has a talent for it, too. Her ability to bring people together, Olshansky-Ashtar wrote, “may be her greatest legacy.”

Describe your ideal birthday celebration.

I would enjoy getting together with good friends, in a park or garden, to chat and reflect on the concerns of the day.

16 over 61

The Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan and the Forward present 16 over 61. Courtesy of Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan and The Forward

You wake up on a beautiful Sunday morning with an unplanned day ahead of you, and no responsibilities. How do you choose to spend it?

I would visit one of the major museums in Toronto with a friend who enjoys art, or even by myself.

What makes you smile, no matter what?

Babies and young children.

When you get good news, who is the first person you tell, and why?

It depends on the news! Some I would first share with a good friend — in the case of the news about “16 Over 61,” I shared it with the dear friend who nominated me — and some I would share with my sons, or my niece Silvie, with whom I’m close.

What’s your earliest Jewish memory?

My entire early life was filled with Jewishness. I lived in Montreal, which had a huge Jewish immigrant population. Everyone spoke Yiddish. We were all aware of our Jewishness, and holidays were celebrated by everyone. But our Jewishness wasn’t limited to holidays. My family saw progressive values as an important aspect of Yiddishkeit.

What’s one thing you absolutely cannot live without?

Stimulating ideas to think about and share with friends and anyone interested in exploring them.

How do you feel you’ve changed over the years? What ideas have been most meaningful to you as you’ve traveled through life?

I like to think that I’ve grown, matured and mellowed, but I don’t think my fundamental values have changed much through the years. I have remained a progressive secular Jew with a deep commitment to the fight for social justice and to the rich Yiddish culture into which I was born. (My father was a Yiddish poet and educator.) As I’ve aged, I’ve learned that love and kindness aren’t just platitudes, but have a profound impact on our lives.

Has your Judaism informed how you approach the process of aging? If so, how?

My Judaism has informed the way I approach life, and aging is part of life. The values of social justice, human dignity and social responsibility, which are integral to my Jewish identity, apply to aging. We must fight unceasingly to overcome ageism.

What does the idea of honoring and celebrating aging mean to you?

As we have all witnessed during the pandemic, the elderly and frail are far too often neglected and treated inhumanely, especially in for-profit nursing homes. To truly honor older persons in our society, we need to work together to elevate their standing both in our consciousness and in our communities.

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