Lenny and Hariette were a very sweet couple who were devoted to each other. I buried them last year. They died within three days of each other. When I first came to this pulpit, they were living in separate homes on opposite sides of town, Hariette in an assisted living home and Lenny in a skilled nursing facility about 20 miles away. Hariette could see her husband only by taking a difficult bus ride. Once there, all she could do was sit
by his hospital bed.
I couldn’t give them what they really wanted which was to return to health and live together as they had before. They were on a long waiting list to move together to the same nursing home. But I found that I could give them some normalcy.
I made the complicated arrangements to transport them both by medi-van to the synagogue for events and special services. They arrived dressed in their very best, Hariette’s outfit complete with a feathered hat. They smiled and glowed as they sat together on their date.
This situation introduced issues beyond my pastoral training. I had learned to sit with people, to be present for people, to pray with people. I had learned to put myself into their world of illness and pain. But Hariette and Lenny taught me the importance of bringing people out of that world, if only for an hour, to the healing rhythm of a synagogue community.
Bikkur cholim, visiting the sick, is a tricky mitzvah when applied to our elderly. Not all elderly are sick; more often they are just frail. For many, life has become institutional, one day looking very much like the last. More than bedside company, they need to feel that they are still alive, still important, still part of a community. Their lives are not over. They have wisdom to share. Their memories of the synagogue building, holiday services, even the social hall, are reignited when they visit.
In my congregation there is a great sense of hiddur pnai zaken, honoring the elderly. The older members are viewed as founders and builders and their advice is listened to with care. Yet, we did not have much success in consistently visiting those who were in nursing homes. Perhaps it was the environment, perhaps the one-to-one bedside model. People did not flock to the mitzvah of visiting nursing homes.
Our innovation has been to remove the bedside model. I and a few others still visit the sick, but our synagogue mitzvah has turned to bringing our community to our elderly and bringing our elderly back into our community.
Once a month we move our complete Kabbalat Shabbat service to a local nursing home. This is not a supplemental or side service. This is our congregation’s Friday evening prayer, picked up in its entirety and brought to our elderly. For that hour, the walls of the nursing home disappear and the spirit of community Shabbat takes over. The elderly look forward to these services and the congregation loves them. We feel an extra spirit of Shabbat on these Friday nights. It enriches everyone.
I also introduced a volunteer van transportation service. Many in the congregation who are still active and vital can no longer drive at night. They feel the decline of age as they are left out of important events. As their number grows, carpooling is less of an option but keeping them in our world is still essential. We borrow the van from a neighboring church and congregants step up to drive. It was very important that there be no fees to use this service. No one has to ask a neighbor to put themselves out.
The benefit to our synagogue community has been enormous. There are congregants who were not regulars at Friday services but who adore the nursing home Kabbalat Shabbat service and rave about it. The structure gives people the confidence to enter nursing homes, something that otherwise might have frightened them. More than this, people feel enriched by the experience of sharing with our elderly. We have enriched our spiritual connections to community and Shabbat. We have learned that Judaism, in all its richness, is not limited to the walls of a synagogue. We have learned that our community will not forget us when we are old and frail.
I still spend many hours in pastoral care. I still bring myself to those who are ill, in pain, and in need. But I thank Lenny and Hariette for showing me that synagogue community life can maintain one’s spirit and health. They needed more than an ear and a prayer. They needed a community and we gave it to them.