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Gurwin residents bring glamour, wisdom to calendar pages

Every fall for the past eight years, a select group of about a dozen residents at Gurwin Jewish-Fay J. Lindner Residences, an assisted-living facility in Commack, has been handpicked by Gurwin staff to appear in the center’s annual calendar, “From Generation to Generation: L'dor v'dor.” (Credit: Newsday / Daysi Calavia-Robertson; Johnny Milano)

There are lights. There are cameras. There is action.

No, it's not a scene pulled from the set of a photo shoot for some fancy magazine, though the camera is flashing a mile a minute and the models are shining their pearly whites, batting their eyelashes and striking poses as if it were. 

And why wouldn't they? After all, for these stars — residents at Gurwin Jewish-Fay J. Lindner Residences, an assisted-living facility in Commack — it's "Calendar Day."

Every fall, for the past eight years, a select group of about a dozen residents ages 72 to 100 has been hand-picked by Gurwin staff members to appear in the center's annual "From Generation to Generation: L'dor v'dor" calendar.

Each of them is treated to a Hollywood-style hair and makeup session followed by a professional photo shoot.

The close-ups will be published in the calendar alongside the residents' names, a short paragraph highlighting their lives, and a motto or short phrase representing their words of advice for future generations. 

The idea for the calendar arose almost a decade ago when Dennine W. Cook, Gurwin's chief public relations officer, and Staci Rosenberg-Simons, the residences' director of community relations, were thinking of ways to spotlight residents. 

"We wanted to shed light on their beauty, but also on their wisdom," Cook said. "We both had learned so much from listening to them, we wanted to find a way to share their stories so that others could learn from them as well." 

Throughout the years, the calendar's popularity has skyrocketed among residents, making the selection process that much harder, she said. 

"It's so difficult because they're all so amazing, and we believe that every one of them is deserving of a calendar page — but there are only 12 months in a year, so what can you do?" she said. Pausing, she added, "It's funny because there's a lot of buzz around it, and some residents will bring it up and ask if they can be in it," she said.

But for other residents, the prospect of starring in the calendar seemed so daunting, it almost kept them from debuting in its pages. 

"There was one resident we thought had a really great story, so for a few years in a row we invited her to be featured. She kept declining the invite, saying she was too shy and too nervous," Cook said.

"Finally, she reached out to us and said, 'I need to be in this calendar. All the girls I eat dinner with are calendar girls! All of them in my dining table, except me!’ ”

When it comes to selecting who should grace the pages of the oh-so-coveted calendar, Rosenberg-Simons said it's all about the stories. 

"Some of the stories residents tell me about their lives stay with me. I've gotten into the habit of keeping notes, so when it's calendar time I look those over and try to choose people whose stories will have an impact on others," she said. 

"However, one of the things that always strikes me when putting the calendar together is that I think I know them, and then they share things that just blow us away. They're so willing to be honest and open about their lives, and in a world that is so fixated on image, it's truly refreshing." 

Both Cook and Rosenberg-Simons agree the best part of the making of the calendar, from each glam session to the interviews and snapshots, is watching how much the residents enjoy themselves throughout the process.

"It's their time to shine," Cook said. "But it's really just so much fun for everyone involved." 

Here we share the stories from a few of the Gurwin celebrities who will be featured in the annual calendar: 

William Bomzer, Vietnam veteran: "Believe in miracles"

William Bomzer is in his Sunday best. He's wearing a long-sleeve, forest green, plaid button-down and khaki slacks, and he is sporting a bright smile.

"I think I look good," he says. "This is something new to me — never had makeup put on. It made me look better. It's amazing." 

Bomzer, who was born in 1946, is a Vietnam veteran who served as an Army sergeant during the war. For many years, later in life, he worked as an electrician. 

He's sitting in a chair in the middle of the library — which has been converted into a photo studio — at Gurwin, where he's been living for the past year. He's busy chatting with Tony Lopez, the photographer who just shot his picture for the calendar.

"You did a nice job. You really did," he says to Lopez. "You made me look like a superstar, but you're the superstar!" 

Ignoring Bomzer's jovial demeanor is practically impossible. 

"It's natural for me to be this optimistic, this positive," he says. "I've been a very fortunate person. Throughout my life, I've had three near-death experiences. Three times, I almost lost my life and I was saved. The first one was in Vietnam." 

Bomzer, whose right leg starts to shake and eyes begin to water, recalls being inside a plane on a runway ready to take flight from the Southeast Asian country back to America. 

"There were three planes lined up, taking us all home," he says, his voice cracking.

"I was in the second plane. Now, the first plane on the runway, they blew it up ... My plane was ready to take off and we were all praying to God 'please let us go' and just as we did, we looked back and saw the third plane exploding, too," he recalls.

"What can I say? And I'm still here?" 

Bomzer, who is 73, was again "lucky" in 1993, when a truck bomb detonated below the north tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, and on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the Twin Towers. On both occasions, Bomzer, who at the time worked as an electrician, was supposed to be on site doing a job. 

"And both times, I got a call the day before informing me that the job had been canceled," he says. "I don't know how long He's gonna give me, but He's gonna give me however long He gives me ... but do I believe in miracles? I really do and I always will."

About being featured in the calendar, he said: "I'm truly honored. I think it's beautiful and I feel so gratified. When I was asked by Staci to be in it, I was speechless." 

Louis Meador, World War II veteran and teacher, and Ruth Meador, Holocaust survivor and nurse: "Enjoy every day" 

As stylist Danielle Cinque — who has volunteered her services every year since the inception of the calendar — is doing Louis and Ruth Meador's hair and makeup, she asks them if they remember the year they got married. 

Ruth quickly replies, "1955," while Louis offers: "Well, I don't remember the date, but I remember the pleasure." 

Of course, his statement garnered an "Aw!" from all present. The love shared by the Meadors, who held hands all throughout their photo session, is palpable from across the room. 

She calls him "Daddy," and he looks at her lovingly. 

"He's a wonderful, sweet man who cares about his family more than anything else," Ruth says. "He was a gorgeous-looking man. We met and we clicked. We didn't have a long engagement at all. We were 23." 

Their lives before meeting were much less sweet. Louis had weathered tough times as a soldier in World War II. He had slept in foxholes. He had faced extremely cold temperatures. He had lost comrades in combat.

Ruth, born in Germany to Jewish Orthodox parents, was separated from her family and sent to Holland, and later England, as part of a humanitarian rescue program called Kindertransport during the Holocaust. She had, at the young age of 7, kissed her mother goodbye to never see her again — she later learned her mother had been bounced around from concentration camp to concentration camp and died of typhus near the end of the war. Ruth had lived in an orphanage and been hungry and cold many a day. 

Perhaps, that's why early on in their life together, Ruth, 88, and Louis, 97, committed to enjoying every minute of every day. 

Louis became a teacher, Ruth a nurse. They had "two wonderful sons" and now have a 12-year-old granddaughter, who is being bat mitzvahed in January. 

"The happiest moments of my life have been with our kids and with each other. There's no contest," Ruth said, to which Louis added, "That's the key: family ... my feeling is this: You must try to enjoy your life, every minute of the day, if that's possible. Be with your family, enjoy them. It's important." 

Leo Rechter, Holocaust survivor and reparations advocate, and Fortunee Rechter, insurance underwriter: "Be close to your family" 

Fortunee Rechter enters the library-turned-studio minutes before having her photo taken alongside her beloved husband, Leo Rechter, and gasps. 

"This is amazing," she says. "The room looks so different from how I know it. I've never been in a studio where they made pictures. Leo is more used to this because he's done interviews for Spielberg." 

"Yes, walking in here I'm reminded of the volunteer work I did for director Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation," Leo says. "We were treated like human beings, not subjects. Here, it's the same, we're treated with care." 

Leo, a 92-year-old Jewish Holocaust survivor who was born in Vienna, says his earliest childhood memories include his family "constantly on the run trying not to get caught by the Germans." 

"I was 10 years old when it all started. I have a sister and a younger brother, who was born during the war. I was the oldest of three," he said. "After the war, none of my extended family survived. Uncles. Aunts. Including my own father. He was taken. Everybody was deported and killed." 

He remembers the mandate that required him, and all Jews, to wear a yellow Star of David as a means of identification. "Officially, we had to wear our stars, but I didn't. Everybody knew if you wore it, they'd get you and you wouldn't survive." 

But Leo did. And he thrived. He went on to meet and marry Fortunee, a blue-eyed Jewish girl who was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and whose family had "thankfully" been far removed from the horrors lived by those in Europe. 

The couple met in Israel in 1953, later married and moved to New York. They settled in Queens and had four children.

For more than two decades, Leo, who had a career in finance, was the founder and president of the National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors, a grassroots organization. In this role, he wrote for and edited a monthly newsletter and advocated for Holocaust survivors seeking reparations.

His efforts were often written about in the pages of New York magazine and Crain's New York Business. In 2016, his work earned him a Blue Card Award; Blue Card is a nonprofit dedicated to providing financial assistance to destitute Holocaust survivors living in the United States. 

"And rightfully so, it was his proudest work," Fortunee says. "A real labor of love. He did so much. He put in 12-hour days doing this work, which was all on an unpaid, volunteer basis." 

Fortunee, 88, spent most of her life working as an insurance underwriter, a career she says she enjoyed very much. 

"But our lives centered mostly around our family. They're the most important thing to us. Our kids, our grandchildren," she says. 

"When we were shown the pictures, I was very excited," Fortunee said. "They were perfect! We didn't have the opportunity to do something like this throughout other stages of our lives, so it's good to leave this for our family, to show them our love through these photos. That's who it's for, this calendar photo is for them." 

Gloria Potaznik, bookkeeper: "Help others" 

In front of the camera, 92-year-old Gloria Potaznik is as giddy as a teenage girl getting her photo taken at prom. 

She's glowing. There's a glimmer in her eyes. She's grinning. She's posing. 

"You have a gorgeous smile," Rosenberg-Simons tells her. "Don't hold back, baby!" 

And she doesn't. "Oh, I feel like a movie queen," she says smiling, and then asks photographer Lopez: "Should I put my hands like this or like this?" 

Potaznik, who grew up in Brooklyn and lived in Bayside, Queens, most of her life, was a career bookkeeper. 

"For a while, I worked doing clerical work at an automotive company," she said.

"But one thing about me is that I always did more than I was asked. I really love to help so I always went above and beyond, and because of that I was always given more responsibilities." 

She remembers her first job. "It was a part time, I was 16 and made $26 a week. I thought I was a rich girl then," she says, letting out a giggle. 

She later married a man "who at the time I thought was old, but it turns out he was only 30 years old," she says with a laugh, "and we soon had two children, a son, Walter, and a daughter, Marcia." 

Potaznik says she was verklempt when Rosenberg-Simons asked her to be in the 2020 calendar — and said yes immediately. 

"It hit me right in the heart," she says. "I've never had this type of attention before. I'm so overwhelmed, proud and thankful. When I saw the pictures Tony shot, they were incredible. I haven’t had photos taken like that of me since my wedding!" 

The calendar

Gurwin Jewish-Fay J. Lindner Residences’ staff members roll out the red carpet for calendar stars and their families at a private reveal ceremony every year — where those photographed also find out which month they represent. The celebration includes a video presentation of resident interviews, shot by Tony Fabrizio of Media House Productions.

Gurwin, which prints 5,000 calendars each year, will make them available free of charge on Dec. 10 at bit.ly/OrderGurwinCalendar or by calling 631-715-2568.

— Daysi Calavia-Robertson

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