Posted by Barbara Sternfield

Nursing home ShabbatAs we usher in the New Year, and I pause to reflect on the year gone by, I am reminded how privileged I am to lead Shabbat services in non-sectarian nursing homes and assisted living facilities for frail Jewish elders.

Every Friday, I pack my Shabbat bag with delicious challah, a Kiddush cup for reciting the blessing over the wine, Shabbat candles, and prayer booklets designed by JF&CS Jewish Healing Connections to lead Shabbat services in a variety of facilities. In serving elders who typically feel isolated and marginalized, I serve as a meaningful representative and bridge to the Jewish community and to their cultural heritage.

For nearly 18 years I have been blessed to do this sacred work as part of the award-winning Nursing Home/Assisted Living Shabbat and Holiday Program through Jewish Healing Connections. Our program has reached more than 1,000 Jewish residents (as well as non-Jews seeking spiritual sustenance and connection) in more than 20 facilities, enabling them to gather in shared prayer, uplifting song, and inspirational readings. The spiritual experience of being together in community touches a place of familiarity and comfort and reinforces a sense of belonging. For some, it's the only time they gather with other Jewish residents. How fortunate I am to share the sacred rituals and texts of our tradition with this special community of elders.

Over the years, my passion for this work increased with my own personal search for deeper Jewish learning. A number of years ago, I began a regular practice of Torah learning. As I grew more comfortable with weekly study, I began to feel more comfortable teaching what I had learned every week. Incorporating the insights of a "word of Torah" connected us all to the awesome wisdom of our ancestors.

At JF&CS, we are highly committed to receiving feedback regarding the quality and effectiveness of our programs. Since most elders I serve are unable to respond to a written survey, at the close of 2013 I decided to ask them to share with me what the program means to them. Here are some of their comments:

"Every time I see you, it reinforces that I'm Jewish."
"It's the only time I get together with other Jews."
"The service is very enhancing…it's so nice when you come."
"I would crawl to come to this service."
"It fills a need in me to attend Shabbat services."
"When I pray, I feel calm; it centers my week.

And from the elders who live in an Alzheimer's facility:

"It reminds us of our Judaism."
"It's all we have left of religion."
"You give of yourself to us."
"It helps remind us of our origins."
"It's very important to us."
"We are the remnants of the Jewish religion."

I'm so glad I asked; I always learn so much from their collective wisdom. And from these responses we glean that they know they are not alone; they are remembered by a caring Jewish community.

Barbara Sternfield, MA has worked with older adults in the Jewish community for more than 30 years. For the past 18 years, she has been a program specialist for Jewish Healing Connections (JHC). She has been leading Shabbat and holiday celebrations since the inception of the award-winning Nursing Home/Assisted Living Shabbat and Holiday Program that received its initial funding from the Lenny Zakim Fund. She also facilitates the JHC bereavement support groups.