News | Senior Lifestyle

Communities aid residents’ Jewish connections

Enthusiastic participation in celebrating Shabbat and Jewish holidays helps residents of senior living communities stay connected to Judaism. Sometimes, they even teach the non-Jewish staff about Jewish traditions and food.

Atria Campana del Rio

“I have been with Atria for 14 years, and when I started I knew nothing about Jewish holidays,” says Darlene Gregg, engage life director for Atria Campana del Rio. “Most of what I know about Judaism has come from the residents, including one resident who has two sons who are rabbis. I am tickled that now they call me an honorary Jew.”

About 20 percent of Atria’s residents are Jewish, and the community has celebrations for Shabbat and major Jewish holidays including the High Holidays, Hanukkah, Purim and Passover. Gregg says she is always open to including additional celebrations as requested by residents.

Once a month, Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin of Chabad Tucson leads a Shabbat service on Friday afternoon. Atria provides candles, challah, wine, grape juice, and something sweet to eat. The facility also provides transportation for any resident who wants to attend a Saturday morning Shabbat service at a synagogue. To celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Atria gives gift bags containing apples and honey to all residents, Jewish and non-Jewish, with a tag wishing L’Shana Tova, a happy new year, to everyone. They host a break-the-fast dinner for Yom Kippur. For High Holiday services, Gregg says that most of the residents go with family members to a synagogue.

Hanukkah is celebrated at Atria with menorah lighting and a dinner. They have two buildings, and in each building they have an electric menorah in a central location. The residents “light” a candle for each night, and lead singing and readings. For Purim, Ceitlin comes to help the residents make hamantaschen, with his two daughters adding sparkle to the event. He also leads a Passover seder at Altria with enthusiastic resident participation.

“The residents participate in celebrations and services — lighting candles, reading prayers, singing, and helping to hand out refreshments,” says Gregg. “At Hanukkah they read from a book put together by residents that covers the history of the holiday, and why we light the menorah.” She says that residents often invite family or friends for holidays, and Jewish events are open to all residents, with many non-Jewish residents attending because they are interested.

Jewish events at Atria also include visits from representatives from local agencies, such as Jewish Family & Children’s Services, who engage in activities with the residents, talk to them about Jewish beliefs and provide information on the agencies’ services.

“Having Shabbat services and holiday celebrations provides a continuing opportunity for our residents to express their religious beliefs and gives them the opportunity to have a positive outlook on life,” says Gregg. “It keeps a continuum of faith going at any age. Many of our residents are 85 and older. People come here to live life to the fullest as long as they can, being active in religion, personal achievements and fitness.”

The Country Club at La Cholla

“I am Jewish so I have a vested interest in involvement with our Jewish residents and the Jewish community and the Jewish Federation Northwest,” says Lionel Kier, executive director at The Country Club at La Cholla. “I love my job, and believe that I am making a difference in people’s lives.”

About five percent of The Country Club’s residents are Jewish, and Kier says they are very enthusiastic about participating in Shabbat and holiday celebrations. “We support whatever our residents want to do,” Kiers says, whether it’s a celebration at The Country Club or taking them to a synagogue or a Jewish-related talk at another community.

On the second Friday of each month The Country Club holds a Shabbat dinner, with the blessings for the candles, wine and challah led by the residents. Pinchas Zohav, who serves as Northwest community chaplain for the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, occasionally comes on a Friday night and leads a Shabbat program for the residents.

The Country Club also hosts talks on Jewish-related themes, and they take residents to other communities for talks, such as the Federation’s “Life in a Jar” talk by Holocaust rescuer Irena Sendler, held at Splendido in October. Holiday celebrations include the High Holidays, Hanukkah and Passover. Many residents invite relatives and friends, Jewish and non-Jewish, to participate.

Rabbi Ephraim Zimmerman of Chabad Oro Valley leads a Hanukkah program at The Country Club, but Kier says that this year they also took residents to the community menorah lighting and celebration hosted by Chabad at the Oro Valley public library. For the High Holidays, residents are taken to the Oro Valley Community Center for services conducted by Zimmerman.

“We have had seders here, with non-residents who participate,” says Kier. “But we also have taken residents to the community seder hosted by Chabad of Oro Valley at the Oro Valley Community Center. Rabbi Zimmerman is very enthusiastic with everything he does, and he often explains about the holiday and encourages participation in the service.

“I feel that our residents benefit from everything we do for them,” says Kier. “They are thankful for the opportunity to stay connected to Jewish traditions and culture.”

This article is part two of a series on celebrating Judaism in retirement communities. For part one, see Additional communities will be profiled in the May 18 Senior Lifestyle section.

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