Through the front entrance at Danville’s Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living, past the spacious dining room, in a bright recreation room overlooking the front lawn, Claudia Felson is inspecting a pair of worn-out blue socks.
“Are these your favorite socks?” she gently asks their owner, an elderly resident who has brought them to be darned. Across the table from Felson, Nancy Price is ducked behind a whirring red-and-white sewing machine, carefully hemming a pair of men’s slacks.
In their day-to-day lives, both of these women are heavy hitters in the Bay Area Jewish community. Felson is president of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay and Price is president of the San Francisco chapter of the American Jewish Committee. But to folks at Reutlinger? They’re simply “the menders.” Once a month for the past three years, the friends have lugged sewing machines to the seniors’ residence and held court in a rec room for a few morning hours, patching, hemming and darning anything residents bring them to sew.
Well, almost anything. This particular sock owner admits she has plenty of other socks and that perhaps the blue ones are beyond repair. But she stays to chat for a few minutes anyway.
“A lot of the residents here have just moved here because their kids want them to be close. They’re originally from back East, or other communities, and they can kind of be on their own here,” said Felson, who lives in Castro Valley. “So when people come in, we try to ask where they’re from, just get them to talk. Around the holidays there are lots more people, and we always talk about recipes, our families — just engage as much as possible.”
Some residents have brought in the same item multiple months in a row, and the women are certain that others search for things that might need even a few stitches, just to have a chance to come shmooze.
“We have people who find stuff for us to mend just so they can come and talk,” added Price, who’s based in Orinda. “More than anything, it gives them a chance to tell their story.”
As if on cue, another resident ambles in with a sweater whose sleeves need shortening; she quickly takes a seat and joins in the banter. The room’s current topic: how sewing is becoming something of a lost art. Both Price and Felson are lifelong seamstresses, Price professionally: From 1983 to 2007, she ran a textile business, Nancy Weil Price Fabric and Trims, supplying material to customers such as Levi Strauss and Gap. “That’s why I still have all of this!” said Price, taking out an overflowing Ziploc bag of zippers, buttons and ribbons.
Felson’s love of sewing was inherited: “My grandmother sewed, my mother sewed, my nana sewed,” she said. “I still have my first doll dress that I sewed when I was 5.” These days she makes clothes for her grandchildren.
Turning their love of sewing into volunteer work was a natural move for both women. In 2009, the federation’s women’s philanthropy board was holding a routine meeting at Reutlinger (“I think it’s good to have board meetings at different sites, actually get out into the community we’re talking about,” said Felson). When Reutlinger employees mentioned mending as a task that could use volunteer help, Felson and Price checked their calendars and began the program that very month.
Since then, the two have become regulars at the facility. Residents with clothing in hand are usually waiting in the rec room when the women arrive, lugging their sewing machines on dollies. They write up a waiting list and get to work, the hum of the machines providing a backdrop for the conversation. More often than not, the morning will take an amusing twist at some point, said Felson.
“One time, we had this man in a walker bring in a cushion from his couch that had ripped, and I fixed it but we didn’t want him to have to shlep this thing all the way back with the walker,” she recalled. “And Nancy had just cut this big hem from some lady’s dress, so we just tied the thing onto his walker with it. We get creative.”
Aside from the laughs, the women keep coming back because “we leave here and we feel good,” said Felson. “We happen to have a talent that we can share, and we feel like we’re doing such a big mitzvah by putting it to use.”
“We’re both kids of Holocaust survivors,” said Price. “I think that has something to do with it — giving back, especially to the Jewish community, has always been paramount.”
Judging by the looks of these Reutlinger residents and the atmosphere in the room, the duo’s bubbly presence is a gift in and of itself.
“I feel privileged to be able to write a check for causes I feel passionate about, but this is something we get to do one-on-one with a recipient,” said Felson. “We both have a lot going on in our volunteer lives, but this will always be special.”