Before moving to Handmaker in 2015, Elaine McLain lived all over the country, and “did everything imaginable,” she says, including marrying and being widowed twice, raising three children — and, on Aug. 9, converting to Judaism. (See related story, page 7.)
Jewish ethics were the first thing that attracted McLain, now 74, to Judaism — “just walking into services where the motto was improving the world with kindness and welcoming strangers.”
“Coming from a Protestant background, where actually I was president of the Baptist Youth Fellowship in California, I had really been involved. [But] the rules for being a good Christian are mostly negative, what not to do, and it so impressed me that there was an opportunity to be good” in a more positive way, she says.
“I’ve always been a social worker,” whether doing traditional case management, working at a hospice, or directing a social service agency in Arizona’s White Mountains, McLain says. “And here was an opportunity to be encouraged to do good. And I felt so at home [at Handmaker’s Jewish services], and so welcomed, even as a ‘stranger’ — and loved. I wanted to participate in that.”
For more than a year, in addition to attending services, McLain studied diligently and read voraciously, says Nanci Levy, Handmaker’s community outreach coordinator, who confesses she was speechless when McLain first expressed interest in converting.
“It is one thing to participate in Jewish services to expand your knowledge of the world around you, but it is another thing to want to change your faith, especially this late in life. I was surprised, but I was also delighted for her and for our community,” Levy wrote in her Handmaker blog.
Jewish books are still stacked around McLain’s apartment.
“The people also attracted me,” says McLain, who has formed warm bonds with Levy and with many of Handmaker’s Jewish residents.
She’s been greatly impressed by the friendly and polite Jewish teens she’s met at Handmaker, who come to volunteer at services or other intergenerational programs. Indeed, if she had it to do over again, “my kids would go to a Jewish school,” she says.
She’s also impressed by Dan Asia, Howard Schwartz and Mel Cohen, the three men who lead services at Handmaker.
Schwartz, who also leads Torah study sessions at Handmaker, was one of the three rabbis who presided at McLain’s conversion beit din, or rabbinic court, along with Rabbis Avraham Alpert and Bennett Blum.
Facing the beit din “was formidable, but the three rabbis were just marvelous,” she says.
“Nanci and Carolee Asia came with me” afterward to the mikvah, says McLain, and then they took her to a tearoom to celebrate. “It was so moving and so important that we’re having an anniversary” celebration on Aug. 9 at the tearoom, “to talk about the conversion and renewal.”
“Words cannot describe the beauty and emotion of this mikvah experience,” says Levy. “Both Carolee and I feel that being with Elaine at this moment was one of the most meaningful and memorable experiences of our lives.”
Born in the town of Catskill, New York, McLain grew up in California. But she spent summers helping her grandfather, a veterinarian, at the Catskill Game Farm, a privately owned zoo that housed more than 2,000 animals.
She studied psychology at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon. After graduation — and a trip around the world — she returned to New York to take care of her grandmother, and at a chance meeting with the town supervisor, talked her way into her first social work job.
“I got to drive my Volkswagen Bug, which I bought in Amsterdam, all over the Catskill Mountains,” she says.
McLain and her first husband eventually moved to California. After he died, she married again, to a scientist, and they moved to the Washington, D.C., area. It was there she learned to paint, taking lessons from the wife of a congressman. Her art was accepted into several shows and galleries, and began to sell.
McLain’s family was living in Massachusetts when, after three spinouts driving on black ice, she decided they should move to Tucson. Using a Rand McNally atlas in the days before home computers were ubiquitous, she chose Tucson because it had opera, art museums and a university for her kids. She’s been in Tucson since 1989, and one of her sons did attend the University of Arizona.
Reflecting on her life, McLain marvels at all the wonderful opportunities she’s had, including, when her second husband had scientific field work in Hawaii, tagging along and getting certified in scuba. “I don’t think I’m your average senior citizen,” she says, with a laugh — and then reflects that other seniors must have equally interesting stories to tell.
McLain’s three children all have settled on the East Coast, in New York, Vermont and Connecticut. Her eldest son has encouraged her to move to an assisted living facility in New York, but knowing she would have to spend entire winters indoors, she has no plans to leave Tucson, or Handmaker. She stays in touch with her kids and six grandchildren through phone calls, emails and the occasional visit.
When McLain first moved into Handmaker in November 2015, her husband was living at another facility. “He had a terrible injury, and never walked again. And I wanted to get him here,” she says. Her husband moved to Handmaker in December 2015, only to die shortly after.
“After his passing, Elaine was so touched by how much love and support she received from staff and residents as a newly widowed person,” recalls Levy.
“God meant for me to be here,” says McLain.