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16 Over 61: Meet Ellen Ratner

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.

Ellen Ratner, 76, is guided by music.

Ellen Ratner

Image by Ellen Ratner

It’s a love passed down from her mother, Ethel. That relationship also shaped Ratner’s commitment to building compassion and community. As an only child and the primary caregiver for her mother following an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Ratner became a passionate champion for older adults within her community. Fittingly, music has been a major part of how she manifests that devotion. “By using her music she hopes to bring joy to the lives of others — especially those whose health and independence are compromised,” wrote Jocelyn Pellerano, who nominated Ratner for “16 Over 61.”

That’s not the only way in which Ratner has used music to advocate for matters close to her heart. As a member of the community chorus attached to Manhattan’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, Ratner has helped break down barriers facing gay and lesbian Jews, including by participating in the North American Jewish Choral Festival at a time when inclusion of LGBTQ performers was not the norm.

Ratner, a member of the inaugural cohort of “16 Over 61” honorees, has a knack for seeing the beauty in things, particularly when they involve her piano — and maybe a good slice of cake.

What’s your ideal birthday celebration?

A lovely dinner celebration with close friends at home, followed by delicious cake with buttercream icing, dancing and a fun singalong with me at the piano.

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?

16 over 61

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

My partner and I get in the car and go for a drive to some quaint town. We look around, go to the local arts fair, have lunch in a beautiful inn, drive home and meet some friends for a light supper.

What makes you smile, no matter what?

Beautiful music. Cake with icing or chocolate chip cookies. Cute babies and sweet puppies. The ocean on a warm day. Looking at photos from old family picture albums.

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

My partner, because she has been so supportive and interested in all my endeavors, and because she is always thrilled for me if something wonderful happens.

What’s your earliest Jewish memory?

Seders at my grandparents’ home — about 25 of us sitting around the table. My grandfather majestically leading us through the Haggadah. My cousin Fred (now 80!) reciting the Four Questions. The delicious Pesach food meticulously prepared by my grandmother and aunts. Opening the door for Elijah. The adults would sing these beautiful Yiddish and Hebrew songs, some in harmony. The children would join in on the chorus. It was glorious!

What’s one thing you absolutely cannot live without?

Music and my piano.

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

Ellen Ratner Piano

Image by Ellen Ratner

I’ve become more mature and self-confident. I’ve come to value and respect older people — yes, older than me! — and try to gain some wisdom from them when we meet. They have wonderful stories to tell, and I so enjoy listening to them.

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

The aspect of Judaism which I treasure most is tzedakah. As I get older, especially now that I have retired, I have more time on my hands. My Judaism has taught me to give back to others, so I now play the piano and entertain in Senior Facilities and conduct singalongs with residents and with adults who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.

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

I’ve always felt that the older people in our country have become a “throwaway ” population. Elders have not been valued or revered as they are in other places in the world. I know that the elderly have lived interesting lives and there is so much to be learned by their stories of their past.

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