Celebrating Shabbat and Jewish holidays brings the joy and comfort of tradition to residents of senior living communities. This can involve anything from a ride to synagogue to holding High Holiday services on site.
Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging
“Jewish celebrations and services are important because they help the residents feel part of a larger community,” says Nanci Levy, community outreach director for Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging. “About 40 percent of our residents are Jewish, and having these celebrations keeps them connected to Judaism and to other people. It helps them to keep alive memories, create new memories, and to continue learning.”
Some of the residents chant Torah blessings or take part in discussions at weekly Torah studies; many residents are inspired to learn more about Judaism. Levy says one woman, who will turn 103 next month, is still continuing her Jewish education.
Handmaker holds services and provides festive meals for every major holiday, and for Shabbat there is a dinner and a service every Friday evening and a service every Saturday morning. Family members and friends of residents often come for Shabbat and holidays, and people from the greater Tucson area are welcome but should call ahead for details and space availability. Rabbis, cantors, families from local congregations, students from Tucson Hebrew Academy, and other members of the community volunteer to give talks about holidays and Shabbat, help lead services, bring their musical talent or assist residents who attend the services.
For Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Handmaker holds a full schedule of services and special meals.
This year, High Holiday services were led by attorney Mel Cohen and composer and University of Arizona professor Dan Asia, who also lead Shabbat services. About 55 people attended High Holiday services, with about half of the attendees residents and the rest from the community, says Levy.
“Sometimes non-Jewish residents come for the services and other celebrations.” says Levy. “There was one resident who kept coming to holiday services and celebrations and then converted to Judaism.”
About once a month, Levy bakes with the residents, and this often coincides with the holidays. Usually around a dozen residents participate in the baking. Levy says the residents enjoy measuring and mixing ingredients and rolling and braiding dough for challah, especially since most of them have not baked in a long time. This year, Levy and the residents made honey cake for Rosh Hashanah.
Levy makes latkes for Hanukkah, and says the residents “love the sight, the smell and eating the latkes.” They also make hamantaschen for Purim, which they share with members of Congregation Chaverim at Handmaker’s Purim party.
Every year Handmaker’s commercial kitchen is made completely kosher for Passover. There are first and second night seders attended by residents, their family members, friends, and others from the community. Handmaker also holds services at the beginning and at the end of Passover.
“The staff at Handmaker are very respectful and are fascinated to learn about Judaism,” says Levy. “Before each holiday I send out an email with descriptions of the holiday and traditional greetings so the staff can connect with the residents.”
“The residents are always very appreciative of all we do for them,” says Levy. “They take part in the services and consider Handmaker their shul.”
Starfish Care Homes
“We are delighted to accommodate our Jewish residents,” says Ben Silverman. He and his wife, Kris, own Starfish Care Homes. They have four care homes with 10 residents each, and Silverman says there are usually two or three Jewish residents per home.
“The residents appreciate anything that we can do for them, and we welcome the Jewish traditions that our residents want to maintain,” says Silverman. “It depends on the person, the level of engagement with Judaism and the involvement of their families.”
The biggest celebration at Starfish is the Passover seder. Over the past several years, the Silvermans have hosted or facilitated first night seders for residents and their family members at their own home, at one of the care homes and at a Starfish resident’s family’s home. The seders included reading the Haggadah, traditional food and songs.
Upon request, staff at Starfish homes will help residents light Friday night candles, and Silverman says Kris has baked challah for Shabbat, which inspired one of their caregivers to learn to bake challah. Caregivers are educated about the meaning of Jewish holidays and how they will be celebrated at Starfish, such as decorating for Hanukkah and lighting the menorah. Silverman says the residents usually spend the High Holidays at the homes of family members. Rabbis also come to visit with the residents.
“We will take a resident to services for Shabbat,” says Silverman. “We had one resident who still sang in the choir at her synagogue.” They also have helped residents with transportation to the Tucson International Jewish Film Festival and to talks on Jewish topics.
“We do what we can for each resident,” says Silverman. “Helping people keep Jewish traditions and celebrating holidays enables us to become closer with our Jewish residents and their families.”
The Fountains at La Cholla
“I have a great passion for enabling the residents to celebrate Shabbat and the holidays,” says Abbie Stone, community life director at The Fountains at La Cholla. Stone organizes celebrations for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, Purim, Passover and a monthly Shabbat service. About 18 to 22 percent of the residents at the Fountains are Jewish.
For the past three years, Jewish residents have been able to attend High Holidays services shown on a “smart” television through live streaming broadcasts from Temple Emanu-El. Stone says residents also were served special meals for the the High Holidays. Prior to Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Thomas Louchheim of Congregation Or Chadash gave a talk to the residents about the holiday. The event was sweetened with refreshments of apples, honey, honey cake, challah, and wine.
“Right now we do a Shabbat service one Friday night a month, but I would love to expand this to every Friday,” says Stone. “We also encourage family members and members of the community to come for Shabbat.”
Currently, a hospice chaplain leads the service, although Stone would like to have a congregation bring their members to The Fountains once a month to conduct the service. They also light candles and have challah and wine.
“The residents here are very participatory and read parts of the service,” Stone says. “For Shabbat services we sit around a big table and face each other, and the residents really like this because it makes them feel like a family. They have often told me how pleasant it is to have such a strong sense of Judaism here.”
For Hanukkah there is a concert of Jewish music and the lighting of menorahs — many residents bring their own menorahs to share in the celebration. On Shabbat during Hanukkah residents are served a meal with latkes, sour cream, applesauce, and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts).
Cantor Janece Cohen of Or Chadash led this year’s seder, attended by 65 people including residents and family members. The seder is open to members of the Tucson community if space is available, and Stone says non-Jewish residents also attend the seder.
“One of our residents, Bernie Greenapple, davens like a hazzan (cantor) and opened the seder,” Stone says. “The seder is an intergenerational experience. My daughter who is 21 came to the seder, and some of the residents’ grandchildren participated as well. To me this is an illustration of what Passover is all about.”
“We have a life-long learning program, and when I teach a class about Jewish holidays, I ask the residents to share what is meaningful to them and how they celebrated with their families,” says Stone. She adds that non-Jewish residents also attend these classes and have told her they enjoy learning about Jewish traditions and customs.
Although people from the greater Tucson community volunteer to help with holidays, Shabbat or teaching a class, residents who call The Fountains home are always willing to help. “There are many ways to contribute and we all have a basic need as humans to make a difference,” says Stone. “And that does not cease if our lifestyle changes and we move into a retirement community.”
This is part one of a series on celebrating Judaism in retirement communities. Additional communities will be profiled in the Feb. 9, 2018 Senior Lifestyle section.
Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.