Mensch is a Yiddish word meaning a person of honor and integrity, but in Fresno it is also an acronym for Men Eating, Noshing, Schmoozing, Curbing Hunger. The Mensches, all members of Temple Beth Israel, range in age from 67 to 91 and have been meeting for lunch every Wednesday for more than 10 years.
Each of the current 13 members (five others have died) takes a turn selecting the restaurant of the week. It requires a little footwork to do the research and determine that it is acceptable to get separate checks and hang out for an hour and a half or so after eating.
That gives the Mensches ample time to solve personal, political and world problems as well as to discuss basketball, football and baseball, depending upon the season.
The club was originally suggested by Peter Nagel’s wife, now deceased, as a way of getting him out of the house when she hosted a weekly Mah Jongg game. Her friends liked the idea and asked if their husbands could join Pete. Soon other men were invited to join the growing lunch group.
By 2008 some of the Mensches decided to form an investment club; each person put in $250 plus $25 per month. Their first investment was to buy logo baseball caps touting their acronym MIC, or Mensch Investment Club. Several of the investors have died but their wives have continued their monthly contributions.
Nobody made millions, but they are happy with a small return on their investment, and the caps are still being worn on Wednesdays.
Gary Greenberg, 74, came on board after his wife became a substitute Mah Jongg player and then joined the women’s group full time. Soon Greenberg was lunching every Wednesday and has become the unofficial group organizer, scheduling whose turn it is to select a dining site and reminding members to RSVP.
A transplanted New Yorker, Greenberg moved to California with his parents as a young teen. After his retirement in 2008 he volunteered at Saint Agnes Medical Center and Kaiser Permanente, and enjoys using his amateur ham radio skills for the Red Cross, Salvation Army and public service communications when called upon.
He also appreciated his time on the Fresno County Grand Jury for two years, where he was appointed sergeant at arms. He appreciates the diversity of the Mensches, whose backgrounds vary from retail to chemistry professor to stock broker to advertising executive.
Five of the members are veterans. Joe Levy, the oldest member at 91, served in the Navy in World War II. He enlisted at 16 in 1942. “Even though my mother may not have been happy about it, everybody’s thinking was different in those times and she knew I would have done it anyhow,” he reminisces.
Stationed in the South Pacific, he was a mechanic who worked on landing craft, sub chasers and “anything that had a diesel or gas engine.” After getting out of the service, he was a buyer for Mervyn’s and Gottschalks.
Concerned that the owner of Gottschalks, Joe Levy, wouldn’t hire him because he had the same name, he used his middle name and was hired as Joe Hart. In retirement he volunteered with the Small Business Association to give advice to small business owners. Of the Mensches lunches, he says, “sometimes we talk politics, sometimes it’s nonsense – but it’s just fun to get together with a bunch of guys.”
Len Albert, 84, is one of the original four members. He loves meeting with “a great bunch of guys every week who have a lot in common.” Also a Navy veteran and drafted at age 19, he served during the Korean War, working on three ships including one that was a spy ship operating behind enemy lines, bringing doctors to do research and treat sick sailors.
Originally a New Yorker, he moved to Fresno in 1964 and became a stock broker. In retirement, he had wanted to volunteer to work with crack babies at Children’s Hospital but regrets not having followed through. Twice a widower, he is happy to have a new partner now, especially as he is being treated for a serious lung disorder.
Research has confirmed that older adults get specific health benefits from social interaction, including lower blood pressure and reduced risk for mental health issues, cardiovascular problems and Alzheimer’s, among other diseases.
Social interaction helps keep your brain from getting rusty, and helps you live longer. So Mensches, keep on meeting and eating (but not too much).
Francine M. Farber is a retired school district administrator and full-time community volunteer. Her husband is the newest Mensch.