Volunteering to lead Shabbat and holiday services for the residents of Handmaker began as a way for Mel Cohen to give back to the assisted living facility where his father was a resident, but 22 years later, Cohen continues to lead services as a way to connect to Jewish values and community.
“If you notice, in the Ten Commandments, ‘Honor your father and mother’ is in the first five,” says Cohen, “and it’s there because as a culture, we understand that there is a tendency to ignore the elderly. The commandment isn’t just about honoring your own parents, but understanding the importance of older generations.”
In his volunteer capacity at Handmaker, Cohen, along with co-leader Dan Asia, orchestrates everything from putting the prayer books out, to ensuring that the needs of the residents are appropriately met.
“We do everything from making sure that the residents have the challah they want, to providing music stands for them to put the siddur on, to making sure that the residents are on the right page,” says Cohen. Understanding that the elderly are a vulnerable population and can become easily upset, Cohen and Asia work hard to get to know the needs of the residents, and utilize the strengths of the residents that are able to assist in the services. Crediting his wife, Molly Senor, with helping support him in his volunteer work, Cohen says, “Whatever I do, my wife is the great enabler.”
Witnessing firsthand how important the Shabbat and holiday services are to the residents is something Cohen does not take for granted. “Some residents know the services better than I do,” says Cohen. He has seen residents who are despondent suddenly begin singing and reciting the prayers, and appreciates the connection that occurs when family members come to services together.
In an effort to strengthen understanding between generations, Cohen says that students from Tucson Hebrew Academy have started volunteering at Shabbat services at Handmaker. “It’s important for young people to learn to be respectful, but also to learn the value of our elders, and how to engage them.”
Understanding Judaism as a communal experience, Cohen looks at his volunteering at Handmaker as a way to express his Jewish values. “Judaism has always existed as a community, and an important aspect is to learn, and give, and support the community.”
A partner with the Mesch, Clark, Rothschild law firm, Cohen volunteers with several other local organizations, including Literacy Connects, the Tucson Festival of Books, and the City of Tucson Road Bonds Oversight Commission, and sees a tie between his professional life and his volunteer work, as he works to help people through both.
“I do my community things, because you have to have a vibrant life,” says Cohen. “I’ve always seen my community involvement as a privilege. I like doing good things, and I like doing good things with good people.”
Laura Wilson Etter is a freelance journalist, grant writer and artist in Tucson.