Local | Senior Lifestyle

At senior communities, residents play part in maintaining Jewish connections

At Villa Hermosa, a Tucson senior living community, Bill Kugelman listens as Cantor Janece Cohen of Congregation Or Chadash plays Hanukkah songs on Dec. 13. (Courtesy Congregation Or Chadash)

Sharing ideas and family recipes enables Jewish residents of senior living communities to keep up family connections and traditions. Staff members appreciate their input, saying that coordinating Shabbat and other Jewish holiday celebrations is part of how they help residents to be happier and healthier.

Villa Hermosa

Aimee Pichardo, activities director at Villa Hermosa, says about 25 percent of their residents are Jewish, and Villa Hermosa has celebrations for High Holidays, Hanukkah, Purim, and Passover. There also is a Shabbat service on the last Friday of each month led by Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin of Chabad Tucson, and members of Temple Emanu-El come to give presentations about holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Passover or other Jewish-related topics.

“Our residents get very involved in celebrations from planning the service to selecting the menus,” says Pichardo. “We value their feedback and involvement because we feel that these are their holidays and traditions, and we want everything to be as they wish.” She says usually about 30 to 40 people attend these events.

Many times residents invite family members and friends to participate in holiday activities, with the Passover seder being one of the most well-attended, says Pichardo. She adds that non-Jewish residents often attend the holiday celebrations since “many of our Jewish residents openly invite their non- Jewish friends to join them during these programs and services.”

Villa Hermosa welcomes people from the Tucson community who want to volunteer to help with services and celebrations, says Pichardo, explaining that potential volunteers go through the same process as employees, such as a background check, as a protection for working with their residents.

“I feel that providing these celebrations benefits our residents because they are able to participate in their traditions and cultural observances,” says Pichardo. “Their families are invited to all of these religious programs and ceremonies, which in turn keeps them involved and connected to family and community.”

Fairwinds Desert Point

Irma Sankman (on left) and Marion Rosenbaum, residents of Fairwinds Desert Point, who planned this year’s Passover seder. (Irma Sankman)

“This is a hamish (homey) place to live,” says Irma Sankman, a four-year resident of Fairwinds Desert Point in Oro Valley. “The staff here is not only very cooperative, they are friendly and caring.” Sankman experienced this cooperation when she volunteered to organize and lead the community’s Passover seder this year.

“It happened by default that I organized and led the seder because ‘Rabbi’ Zohav and his wife Rita were going to be in Israel, and I couldn’t let Passover go by without having a seder,” Sankman says. Pinchas Paul Zohav is an ordained rabbinic pastor who serves as a community chaplain for the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Northwest Division. The Zohavs usually lead the seder as well as the Shabbat service held one Friday a month at Desert Point.

Sankman says she prepared diligently for the seder, assisted by her friend Marion Rosenbaum, also a Desert Point resident. Zohav provided them with copies of a shortened version of the Haggadah, but she also looked at other versions for comparison.

“The management is very helpful, even though we have a small Jewish community at Desert Point,” says Sankman. About 4.3 percent of the residents are Jewish, according to Frank Vidal, programs supervisor. Vidal says the 26 people who attended this year’s seder included family and friends of the residents. Non-Jewish residents also attended the seder, including some who had never been to a seder, and others Sankman says come each year because they enjoy the service and want to show respect for their Jewish friends.

The staff provided a beautiful room for the seder, with white table cloths, fresh flowers, and a seder plate on each table, says Sankman. She worked with the chef to create the menu, and says the matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, brisket, potatoes, asparagus, macaroons, and flourless chocolate cake with raspberry topping were all delicious.

Rosenbaum read most of the leader’s portion of the Haggadah, and Sankman called upon individuals to take turns doing the rest of the readings. “The seder was outstanding,” says Rosenbaum. “I am glad that we have these celebrations here because I have always celebrated all the main holidays.”

“I really enjoyed doing this — I had never been in charge of a seder,” says Sankman, “but because it was a lot of work, I told [Zohav] that he’d better be here for Passover next year.”

For Hanukkah, the staff places an electric menorah and decorations in the lobby, and provides chocolate gelt (coins) for everyone.  Each night a resident “lights” the candle and recites the prayer, and this past Hanukkah Sankman and Rosenbaum both participated in the candle lighting. Sankman says anyone can attend the menorah lighting, and her Christian friends come each night.  She also said the residents enjoyed the potato latkes the chef put on the dinner menu for two nights during Hanukkah. With a smile she recalls the time Rabbi Ephraim Zimmerman of Chabad Oro Valley came with his children for Hanukkah. They brought donuts, told stories, sang songs, and the children gave everyone cards they had made for the occasion.

Desert Point staff members also coordinate a Shabbat service on the second Friday of the month. The staff provides wine and challah, and Zohav and Rita bring prayer books and lead the service. Sankman says the Zohavs tell stories and sometimes ask residents to share stories from their childhood about Shabbat or holidays. Some Christians also attend, she says, because they enjoy the Shabbat service and listening to the stories.

“The Shabbat services and the holiday celebrations here benefit me because I am Jewish and I enjoy observing the holidays and Shabbat,” says Sankman, “but it also brings back childhood memories.”

The Forum at Tucson

“We are very community oriented here at The Forum, and we encourage input from the residents about celebrating holidays,” says Liesen Clemons, director of sales and marketing. About 25 percent of The Forum’s residents are Jewish, and on average about 50 people attend holiday celebrations.  The holidays celebrated are Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, and Passover, although Clemons says they are considering including additional holidays. Once a month there is a Saturday morning Shabbat service, led by Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of Congregation Chaverim. Clemons says many residents take an active role, to each person’s comfort level. They also welcome volunteers to help with celebrations and services.

Passover is their biggest celebration of the year, with a traditional seder and dinner. Residents invite family or friends, Jewish and non-Jewish, and the seder is often led by a resident and/or a family member. “Many times people from Tucson have no place to go for the seder, so our seder is open to non-residents, but they must call for a reservation,” says Clemons. This year’s seder was led by Jennifer Selco, director of Jewish life and learning at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.

Besides helping to plan celebrations, residents suggest topics for talks on Jewish-related themes presented at The Forum. They also make requests for certain foods, even sharing family recipes. “We have printed up some of these family recipes to share with others, and this has a lot of meaning for our residents,” Clemons says.

“Providing the celebrations for holidays and Shabbat services offers the benefit of continuing to provide a good quality of life,” says Clemons. “We want our residents to remain active, and to continue to relate to family and friends. The more active the resident, the more engaged they will be in the celebrations. This allows them to continue their traditions, and when people are happy, they are healthier.”

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