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16 Over 61: Meet Randee Haven-O’Donnell

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.

Randee Haven-O’Donnell, 70, has brought a Jewish spirit to community service in her home of Carrboro, N.C.

Randee Haven O'Donnell

16 Over 61 honoree Randee Haven O’Donnell. Courtesy of Randee Haven O'Donnell

As the only Jewish member of Carrboro’s town council, Haven-O’Donnell has worked to improve the life of her community with a true spirit of tikkun olam. “Randee worked tirelessly to find a suitable home for Carrboro’s Hispanic community center,” wrote Dan Coleman, who nominated Haven-O’Donnell for “16 Over 61.” “She led efforts to attain a just solution for an African-American community that suffered for decades next to the community landfill. She has spearheaded initiatives in sustainable, community economics and in combating climate change at the local level.”

For Haven-O’Donnell, a member of the inaugural cohort of “16 Over 61” honorees, those efforts build on a long career of efforts to repair the world. She “was a pioneer in the field of environmental education,” Coleman wrote, and spent many years leading a summer science camp for young women. “In sum,” Coleman wrote, “Randee is an amazing exemplar of the best public spirit that arises from Jewish ethics and tradition.”

Describe your ideal birthday celebration.

Simply being with family and friends, sharing food, music and dance is an absolute joy. This year’s birthday marked the beginning of my seventh decade. I live in North Carolina, far from my family, childhood, life-long friends and relatives, all in New York. COVID propelled the personal use of tech virtual meetings, which have helped keep us all connected and sustained life-reinforcing relationships.

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 brother lives in Albany. For holidays and birthdays he sends us Junior’s Cheesecakes. For Hanukkah 2020, he sent a chocolate mousse cheesecake, a great favorite. This year, however, thanks to quarantine altering my exercise regimen, I had to tell him, “Please, please, no cheesecake for my birthday.” Then, without an ounce of control, out of my mouth tumbled, “How about Yonah Schimmel’s knishes?”

Talk about comfort food, the ultimate! And very, very special because you just can’t find a true knish in North Carolina, and none the likes of Yonah’s.

The Goldbelly package was delivered from Yonah’s with a dozen knishes. Perfect, every bite divine! You see, the scent of the garlic and onions, the smooth, buttery pastry covering that amplifies the taste in every bite is a homecoming moment. It made a perfect birthday, “cake” with candles.

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?

During my 47 years of classroom teaching, I’ve asked nearly this identical question of my students. I’ve never had the opportunity to answer it myself. I’d say, “It’s Sunday, you are completely free to design the day for yourself. Describe the day.”

Here’s my response: I have a Sunday morning ritual. I pick-up the Sunday New York Times from the driveway. Then I brew a pot of coffee. Then I pour the coffee and sift through each section of the paper. I pull the magazine section and set the crossword puzzle aside for the coming week.

I usually carve out time for my community and environmental work. There’s always purposeful work to be done and I enjoy doing it. A perfectly designed day for me would include some time at the “work” I value.

If the weather is indeed beautiful, the day would also include a run or walk with our dog, Sage, in the forest adjacent to our home. Being in the forest inspires, energizes and keeps me attuned to the complexity and beauty of an ecosystem. Either before or after I’d settle in on my back deck to sketch or water color.

To conclude the “unplanned” day, I’d make quality space for family and friends. Sunday late afternoon or evening is time for “love” calls to my brother and life-long friends. Sunday night culminates with when our son, Aran, comes to dinner and a movie with us — my husband, Gerry, and I. When our son gets ready to leave we share a “family” hug. How Gerry and I longed for our family hug this year. We’ve only just begun to share time and dinner together. This now completes the most self-fulfilling day.

What makes you smile, no matter what?

The laughter of children, blues, jazz and rock music, dance and dogs.

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

My husband, Gerry. Why? Gerry and I have been together since 1973. In a manner of speaking, we’ve grown up together. No one knows me better.

What’s your earliest Jewish memory?

My earliest Jewish memories are anchored in Jewish holidays with extended family at my maternal grandparents’ home in the Bronx. Jewish life was essential to my grandparents. At one time, my grandfather, Samuel Redbord, was president at the shul. I learned from my mother and grandfather that he and his brother escaped from Lithuania in a hay wagon and had to work in Hamburg, Germany and later Liverpool, England to earn money to book passage to America. Their escape and struggles to come to America were heroic to me.

Something as simple as one’s name was a curiosity. We do not know the original last name or the real origin of what became the family name, Redbord. The given name symbolized an awareness of “otherness” that has always informed my thinking. Holiday traditions, Jewish history and family stories such as these were intertwined, forming the framework of my values that have guided my life.

What’s one thing you absolutely cannot live without?

I cannot imagine life without my family and friends.

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

Judaism has given me a framework for living. Jewish ethics, values, traditions and experiences reinforce my constructs of life, hence aging.

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

I honor and celebrate individuals throughout their life process. With each stage of life there are new joys to be found, new things to learn, and new challenges to meet. Human flourishing, simultaneously reaching deep inside and far beyond the self, this is what honoring and celebrating aging means to me.


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