A splash of friendship at JCC’s Aqua Fit class

Seniors bond in and out of the pool on the Island.

As Toby Franco raised her eyebrows and revealed her age to be 36 — the exact number of her locker — peals of laughter emanated from the three other women seated by their Aqua Fit friend.

Gathered in the lobby of Mercer Island’s Stroum Jewish Community Center (JCC) on a recent morning, Franco noted with a mischievous smile that she’s older than 36, but she’s going with that age for now. Her friends nodded their heads and played along.

About a half hour earlier, Franco, Morrene Jacobson, Pam Feinstein and Pallu Shah were stretching, lifting weights and engaging in cardio in the pool as part of the 23-person Aqua Fit class. The group meets from 9-10 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but their togetherness extends way beyond those one-hour sessions.

“Community Never Closes” is the JCC’s slogan, said John D. Shaffer, director of marketing and public relations, who pointed at the poolmates as a prime example of that three-pronged expression.

Bellevue resident Feinstein, 72, didn’t expect to form such a tight bond with others when she dove into Aqua Fit classes.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie in the pool and you just find that you’re suddenly seeing people that you look forward to seeing again,” she said.

No conversation topic is off the table when the foursome gathers after class.

“Family, friends, politics, news, the whole gamut. Just whatever’s going on in the world that day,” added Feinstein, who noted that a smaller group often goes for coffee and the whole class attends pot lucks a few times a year.

When the pool was closed for awhile during the pandemic, Feinstein missed the class and her pals and looked forward to connecting with them when the restrictions were lifted.

The fitness is key, but the friendships are even more crucial, she said.

Even if it’s tough to rise from bed on some mornings, she noted that people get moving out the door because they want to interact with their buddies.

Mercer Island’s Franco added: “Not only do we have a wonderful class where we get fabulous exercise, but it’s almost like a community.”

Aqua Fit classes are an important part of her week, and she cherishes her JCC community even more after experiencing the pandemic. The isolation turned into joy when they were allowed to return to the pool.

Jacobson, a 74-year-old Mercer Island resident, said that her daughter-in-law pointed her toward the JCC because she had grown up attending classes there.

After moving to Mercer Island from the Chicago area to be with her two sons, Jacobson found friendship and water exercise at the JCC.

“We certainly have meaningful conversations about, especially grandkids, and complaining about our grown children,” she said as laughter again filled the air.

Bellevue’s Shah, who lists her age at about 80, has learned about the Jewish culture at the JCC while sharing her own life experiences in India with her friends.

“When I first joined, I wasn’t sure how I would be accepted in JCC because I was Indian and I didn’t know a soul here when I joined. Everybody here was so welcoming to me and so it was really nice to have it,” she said.

Her son lives nearby, but the rest of Shah’s kindred reside in India, so her JCC group has essentially become her family, she said.

Eight of Shah’s JCC friends joined her on a month-long trip to India in recent years and they became even closer.

After their time at the JCC one morning, the foursome walked together out into the parking lot, chatting away the entire time.

The JCC is located at 3801 E. Mercer Way. For more information, visit https://sjcc.org/

Stephanie Nelson-Penland (center, face forward) instructs an Aqua Fit class on a recent morning at the Stroum Jewish Community Center. Photo courtesy of John D. Shaffer/Stroum Jewish Community Center

Stephanie Nelson-Penland (center, face forward) instructs an Aqua Fit class on a recent morning at the Stroum Jewish Community Center. Photo courtesy of John D. Shaffer/Stroum Jewish Community Center