Posted by Barbara Sternfield
I was asked to visit Thelma* in one of the nursing homes where I conduct the Jewish Healing Connections monthly Nursing Home/Assisted Living Shabbat and Holiday Program. The request originated with Thelma's daughter who lives out of state. She told me that her mother had experienced a stroke and was unable to speak but she still had some ability to comprehend. She also shared with me that religious ritual was not particularly meaningful to her mother.
I had intended to visit Thelma in her room but when I arrived the staff had already brought her to the Shabbat program. As the program progressed, I noticed that she was weeping. When the Shabbat program was over, I wheeled her into her room to have a private visit and acknowledged that she had been crying. I asked, "Were you touched by the prayers?" In response, she nodded and wrapped her arms around herself to show me how she felt as the tears dripped from her eyes. She continued to cry and then clasped my hands together and touched them to her heart.
I've often seen such a response; nonetheless, whenever it happens, it is always striking. I don't know Thelma in any significant way and she doesn't know me. Despite the fact that she is not particularly religious, she responded to a communal religious experience. We don't know whether it evoked some powerful memory of her childhood, her family, or something else. What we do know is that something sacred occurred.
Not having the ability to communicate verbally did not impede her from expressing this powerful reaction to me. And in my being there with her and witnessing it, we both had a moment of profound connection.
For Thelma, I was a representative of the Jewish community and her Jewish heritage to which she was able to connect. For me, it is so gratifying that I have the privilege of being able to offer prayer, music, and touch to elders who may be physically impaired, but who still respond to a Jewish experience that evokes memories and emotions that reside deep within their souls.
*Name changed to protect privacy.
Barbara Sternfield, MA has worked with older adults in the Jewish community for more than 30 years. For the past 15 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.