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Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin

Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin of Chabad Tucson holds a Sunshine Club program at Atria Valley Manor in December 2014.

The spacious room was lined up with green cushioned chairs ready for another session of “Chat with Rabbi Yudi” at a retirement community in Tucson. As I walk in, I found a single person sitting there. “It’s just me …” she sheepishly said. “Will you still stay?”

“Of course!” I replied.

For the past few years, I’ve been regularly visiting independent and assisted living communities as part of Chabad Tucson’s Sunshine Club. Working with the late Barry Hirsch and other dedicated volunteers, we have conducted pre-Shabbat services, holiday programs and study groups.

Arizona’s population is aging (second only to Florida). By 2020, one in four Arizona residents will be over 60 years of age, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. As of 2013, 17.2 percent of persons living in Pima County were 65 years and over.

What triggered my involvement with the senior community was the passing of my grandmother, Gita Ceitlin. A petite woman, she survived Communist oppression in Russia, escaped to Paris and settled in Montreal, Canada, where she launched a slew of community programs and established institutions that still exist today.

It was her care for the elderly that was perhaps most exemplary. She mobilized our family, neighbors and teenagers to engage with senior citizens. We would check in on their well-being, share memories and create new ones with holiday celebrations and meaningful exchanges.

With incredible devotion and a gentle touch, she led this effort for decades. When she passed away on Dec. 17, 2011, it was clear that her legacy would live on. The Sunshine Club concept is now carried on by my aunt in Montreal and my cousins in Toronto and Brooklyn’s Sea Gate area. And in Tucson.

So when an elderly woman waited to chat with me on that Thursday afternoon, I couldn’t imagine turning her down. A single soul is an entire universe, the Mishnah teaches. I sat down and she began speaking about her childhood and upbringing in the Northeast and how she ended up in sunny Arizona to be close to her daughter.

She asked about kabbalah, Adam and Eve, various Jewish customs and the extent of Satan’s powers. But then came the most important question. What is your opinion about joining a Christian prayer group, she asked.

There was a Jewish book club at this retirement community, but she didn’t find her place in it. There wasn’t much else Jewish-related happening there, so when a friend repeatedly invited her to become a paying member of the Christian fellowship, she strongly considered it.

There should be no reason for a Jewish woman like you to get involved in any other religion, I said. We went on to discuss the richness of Jewish heritage, the lesson of Jewish history and the pride we ought to have in our faith and our people. I assured her that Chabad would be coming back on a more regular basis.

“How was the chat?” the program director of the retirement community stopped me on my way out to ask.

I paused for a moment and then said, “I had one person in the audience today, but I believe this had been the most productive visit yet.”

Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin is the outreach director of Chabad Tucson, and associate rabbi of Congregation Young Israel of Tucson. He directs the Sunshine Club for the aging program.