Local | Volunteer Salute

Hebrew chats provide intergenerational bond

Rina Paz, left, with Hazel Rappeport at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging (Nanci Levy)

Rina Paz has been visiting Hazel Rappeport, a resident at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging, for three months. Once in a while Paz says something in English and Rappeport is quick to remind her that they are supposed to be speaking only Hebrew.

Nanci Levy, community outreach coordinator for Handmaker, had tried to get Rappeport interested in a Yiddish class. The 95-year-old had no interest in learning Yiddish, but is fluent in Hebrew and wanted someone who could help maintain her skills. Levy called Oshrat Barel, director of the Weintraub Israel Center and Tucson’s community shlicha (Israeli emissary), who suggested Paz.

Paz was born in Israel. She served in the army and worked at a boarding school, a bank and as a travel agent. Prior to moving to Tucson in 1993, she and her then-husband lived in New York where they did the production, advertising and distribution for the Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Ahronot, and also did production for a Hebrew television channel. Today, Paz works full-time as a caregiver for AZ Home Care Options.

“It’s a wonderful match, and Hazel and I have become friends,” says Paz. “She’s an amazing lady and we both benefit from our conversations.” Paz says she sees positive changes in Rappeport. She had not been going to shabbat services at Handmaker, but now she does. She used to be lonely, staying her her room most of the time. Now she visits with other people.

Rappeport grew up in Brooklyn, and started learning Hebrew at the age of 6. She graduated from Brooklyn College and began working as a copywriter. After Israel became a state in 1948, she was 26, and decided it was time to quit her job and go to Israel. She stayed three years, writing for the Jewish National Fund’s monthly magazine. She returned to the United States in 1952 to marry a man she had met in New York while in college, but has visited Israel many times. She maintains her fluency in Hebrew because her son and his family live in Israel, and she keeps in touch with friends.

Paz and Rappeport share stories and memories about Israel, and talk about their children and families.  “My mother died at age 48 when I was my 20s,” says Paz. “Hazel is like a mother or grandmother to me, and I feel very close to her.” Paz meets with Hazel on Fridays but she wants to visit with her more often.

However, there are other volunteer roles that also claim Paz’ time, including directing the Weintraub Israel Center Shirat HaShirim Hebrew Choir, which she started nine years ago. The group performs for retirement communities and other groups, singing all types of songs. Directing the choir represents a lifelong love of singing for Paz. “In Israel life was tough, but we had fun. We sang and danced at home and other places,” says Paz. “Mothers would sing when they were doing housework and sang lullabies to the children to help them get to sleep. This is part of why I wanted to teach singing in Hebrew here in Tucson.” Paz plays some of the choir’s music for Hazel, who enjoys listening and follows along on the sheet music.

Paz also volunteers one day a week at the Tucson Jewish Community Center working with children ages 4 to 6. She teaches them songs and about Jewish holidays. Reflecting on working full-time plus all her volunteer commitments, Paz says, “I like to say that if you keep busy you keep out of trouble.”

The Shirat HaShirim Hebrew Choir meets Wednesdays at 7 p.m. at the Tucson J. For more information, contact Paz at 304-7943 or ericashem@cox.net.

Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.