Posted by Marjorie U. Sokoll
When I was in college I worked as a nurse’s aide in a non-Jewish nursing home in Brighton. It was there that I met Dora. Dora was blind, completely alone in the world, and the only Jewish resident in this nursing home. I felt an immediate connection with Dora. She reminded me of the many elderly Jewish women who had been so important to me throughout my life - my great-grandmother, my grandmothers, and my many aunts.
Every Shabbat I would bring Dora a delicious challah from the local bakery, sing Hebrew and Yiddish songs for her with my guitar, and play Jewish music on a tape recorder. It was a very special relationship for both of us. At the time, I believed that Dora’s situation was unusual. Little did I know that there were hundreds of Doras living in nursing homes throughout Greater Boston isolated from their Jewish community.
That was thirty-six years ago.
In last week’s Jewish Advocate, Leah Burrows wrote a moving article describing our Nursing Home/Assisted Living Shabbat and Holiday Program, and Friendly Visitor Program, “Tending to the spirit of seniors without shuls.” I am delighted that these two programs were highlighted and I want to share the interesting origins of the Shabbat and holiday program that has served more than two thousand Doras, every month, in more than 20 facilities, for the past 14 years.
It was the second day of Rosh Hashanah, 1996. We were enjoying a meal at the home of good friends Rabbi Moshe Waldoks and his wife, Anne, along with Lenny and Joyce Zakim. I was sharing my frustration with Lenny, a human rights activist and executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, that I was aware, through my work at JF&CS, of the lack of meaningful Jewish programming for Jewish elders living in non-Jewish facilities. He was disturbed, too, as he had strong connections with his grandparents and other Jewish elders. He wanted to do something about the situation. He told me that a philanthropic fund had recently been created in his honor in response to his having been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. This fund was a vehicle for him to help others as he faced his own challenges living with a serious illness. He wondered what I could do with funding from the newly created Lenny Zakim Fund. I told him I would like to develop a program for Jewish elders living in non-Jewish facilities. At that moment the lives of many of Boston’s isolated Jewish elders began to change.
When I accepted the grant, I told the board of directors the following. “Although these Jewish residents will still be living in a non-Jewish setting, surrounded by unfamiliar rituals, they will also hear the familiar Jewish songs and prayers, see and feel the traditional ritual objects, taste the challah, drink the wine, and thereby enable their senses to touch their Jewish spirit and soul.” I hired Barbara Sternfield (pictured above), a Jewish communal professional working with elders, who has been serving this population for years.
Sadly, in 1999, Lenny died. That same year, the UJA Federations of North America chose our program as the winner for its model Jewish Older Adult Program. We know we are a winner because we have had the great pleasure, all these years, of serving frail Jewish elders who have come to know they are part of a caring Jewish community.
What a fitting and moving tribute to the memory of Dora… and Lenny.
Marjorie U. Sokoll, MEd., Director of Jewish Life and Healing, is the founder and director of JF&CS Jewish Healing Connections, which helps ensure that people feel a sense of connection when facing the challenges of illness, loss, or isolation by offering spiritual and communal supports to provide hope, comfort, and wholeness guided by Jewish tradition. “It is not good for people to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18)