Ruth Siegler, 92, grasps the lulav – a bundle of palm, myrtle and willow fronds - in her right hand, next to the etrog, a large, lemon-shaped citrus fruit, in her left. After reciting a familiar Hebrew blessing along with 7-year-old Yaakov Friedman, she smiles broadly as she vigorously shakes these traditional symbols of the Jewish festival of Sukkot.
Next comes an abbreviated Shabbat service, complete with Kiddush, homemade Challah and a brief but thought-provoking nugget of Talmud from Chabad of Alabama’s Rabbi Yossi Friedman. Finally, there’s a visit to Chabad’s rolling Sukkah in the parking lot of Ruth's Homewood retirement home, Brookdale at University Park.
Welcome to “Honor Our Parents,” a CJFS program that was founded more than a decade ago to provide spiritual and communal outreach to Jewish older adults.
The seeds for “Honor Our Parents” were planted by the late Bernice Barstein, who was troubled that a nursing home where her own mother, Sarah Halpern, had spent her final days offered no religious outlets for its Jewish residents. That moved Bernice to establish the Honor Our Parents Jewish Senior Outreach Fund at the Birmingham Jewish Foundation. In addition to Shabbat programs at two retirement homes (Brookdale and Greenbriar at the Altamont), the fund supports home visits to isolated Jewish seniors.
The monthly services at Brookdale have forged the facility’s dozen or so Jewish residents, and their families, into a small community of sorts. “The more we have it, the more it feels like home here,” says Brookdale resident Reva Hirsch.
Eileen Cohn notes that her mother, Clair Mervis, was reassured recently to know that whether or not she made it to synagogue, she would have an opportunity to say Kaddish, the traditional memorial prayers, on the anniversary of the death of her late husband. “I wrote to Cantor (Jessica) Roskin to thank her and told her what it meant to my mom to be able to do that at Brookdale,” she said.
Clergy from all three local synagogues, as well as Chabad, lead the services on a rotating schedule. When none of them is available, knowledgeable Jewish community members step in. Recently, they have included Alan Datnoff, Alan Seitel and 18-year-old Josh Nemet.
“It’s very interesting to have the different clergy here, because we always learn something new,” Ruth says. “I’m 92, but I’m still learning.”
CJFS Assistant Care Manager Lynn Rathmell has managed and coordinated the “Honor Our Parents” since its founding. “We bring the Jewish residents of each facility together once a month for about an hour. Their family members come when they can, as well as interested community members, and everyone is welcome,” she said. “On those two Fridays of the month, the services at Brookdale and Greenbriar are a great way to for me to start my own Shabbat. Join us!”
If you’d like to participate in the CJFS “Honor Our Parents” program, contact Lynn Rathmell, firstname.lastname@example.org or 205.278.7105.