Yenta, Gita, Yunkle and Antiochus all walk into a senior assisted-living community. Does it sound like quite the story?
In this case, they were all puppets, but the human connection was very real for the residents of Emeritus Senior Living in Pikesville, thanks to the Beth Tfiloh Puppeteers.
Anita Knisbacher has combined her background in instructional technology, a Ph.D. in education and the emotional experience of her mother’s debilitating stroke to create a unique outreach event for seniors. It started in Florida, where Knisbacher was living at the time, and she witnessed how lonely the people in her mother’s nursing home seemed and how much they longed for company. She knew immediately that she wanted to do something for the senior community, but she wasn’t sure what.
A series of events occurred leading her to join the National Council for Jewish Women puppet group, in which she learned about creating short scenarios dealing with sensitive subjects that were presented in area Florida schools with great success.
Knisbacher’s friend, Sonia Maltinsky, soon became involved, and together they saw the value of how puppetry might be used in Baltimore, where they now live, particularly within the senior community.
The idea grew, and they made contact with Beth Tfiloh. Getting involved immediately at BT were Chesed committee member Roselyn Kalb, social action committee member Lindsay Gaister, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg and executive director Eve Kresin Steinberg. The whole project gained momentum, and the Beth Tfiloh Puppeteers group was born.
Knisbacher and Maltinsky perform with other puppeteers including Eva Engles, Rosalie Klotzman, Jeff Knisbacher, Arnold Maltinsky and Judy Werner. Rita Waltz, Knisbacher’s sister, provides backstage support. They even have a groupie who has followed their performances to multiple locations, and Klotzman has started learning Yiddish because many residents they visit seem to respond well to that language.
All of the group’s members enjoy both the experience and the challenge of performing together as well as bringing something special into the lives of the seniors they visit.
“When I hear people in the audience laugh while we’re performing, it really makes it all worthwhile,” said Judy Werner, who plays puppet Shayna in the current production. “And when I go into the audience after the show and speak to people and see them smile, it just makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing. … I think I’m receiving more than I’m giving.”
The stage was donated by Knisbacher and Waltz in memory of their mother, Regina Marshall.
What’s next? The Beth Tfiloh Puppeteers are planning a Purim show.
Melissa Gerr is JT senior staff reporter and digital media editor — firstname.lastname@example.org