Unsung Heroes: Rochelle Berger, Feeding Rockland Seniors One Meal at a Time

BY JANIE ROSMAN

Photo credit: Michael Berger
Photo credit: Michael Berger

“I became a volunteer with National Council of Jewish Women when we first moved to Spring Valley in 1969,” Rochelle Berger said. One of the first things she did was become involved in social action “which was important for me.”

Longtime friend Addy Frankel, involved with NCJW for 52 years, said Berger “had a vision and felt senior citizens should be fed.” It was in Frankel’s home that NCJW voted to fund the first kosher senior citizen depot; this evolved into feeding, and providing more services for, the county’s senior population.

Berger’s volunteering included Meals on Wheels, which she founded in 1974, through her volunteerism with the National Council of Jewish Woman. During the years she also volunteered with the Alzheimer’s Association – Hudson Valley/Rockland/Westchester, NY Chapter (Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan, Ulster and Westchester counties), Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rockland County, the National Meals on Wheels Association, eventually becoming President of each, and United Way of Rockland County.

“This weekend is my granddaughter’s 21st birthday, and we’re going to Chicago to celebrate,” the West Nyack resident said last week. With three married sons and six grandchildren, she credits her husband Michael for his support. “I could not do it (all that I do) otherwise.”

Berger had volunteered through the National Council of Jewish Woman in the Senior Nutrition site located at Harvest House senior living in Spring Valley.

“The Program was open to anyone 60 and older. A place where people where people could have a hot lunch. At times a few of them would ask if they could take a meal home to their spouses or to a homebound neighbor,” she said. Berger began packing meals to go until the program director heard about it.

“She was a stickler for rules and said I was jeopardizing the program because we received funding through the Office for Aging,” Berger said

A friend with the Salvation Army told her about Meals on Wheels in Orange County. “While home-delivered meals initially had no funding, it eventually received a grant based on a model for Meals on Wheels in Baltimore, Syracuse and in the mid-west,” she said.

Combining $500 each from the National Council for Jewish Women, a local chapter of the Knights of Columbus and the Office for the Aging, Berger bought meals from Northern Metropolitan. “I learned about carriers and how to package food, and we served our first meals in January 1975” she said.

Her home was its home base for delivery of 9800 meals that first year.

“I took the bread from the bread box and stored papers in it at the beginning,” she recalled. When representatives from the Office For the Aging asked to meet her in her office, Berger led them through her home.

“She’s a fantastic person,” Frankel said. “She came and presented, and it took off from there, yet she stayed with us (NCJW) while working at Meals on Wheels. Her heart was in the Council.”

Eventually the organization grew to where it had to buy additional meals and find new depots to support the expansion of the Program. “I negotiated to buy them for $1 and charged $1.25 per meal, to cover the costs of packaging, and slowly we got funding,” she said. All meals were and still are delivered by a network of volunteers.

Berger retired eight years ago and the organization celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2014.

Send your idea for Unsung Heroes to editor@rocklandcountytimes.com