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Celebrating Tradition at Jewish Senior Living

Jeff Anderson
By Jeff AndersonMarch 14, 2014

As our loved ones age, it’s important they are able to maintain their traditions and spirituality. Physical decline and lifestyle changes like retirement or a move to a senior community can be hard, but maintaining religious traditions helps seniors stay grounded and have a stable focal point among the many changes in their lives. Jewish senior living communities make certain that residents can maintain the religious and cultural traditions that enrich their souls, and in part, define their identities. By maintaining Jewish traditions, senior community residents are reminded that their faith and the creator are enduring and unchanging despite the difficult transitions of aging.

It’s comforting to residents when they can continue traditional religious practices that may have begun before they can remember and that continued throughout their adult life. When you really consider it, it would almost be cruel not to facilitate the continuance of resident’s religious traditions.

Jewish Senior Communities

Many of the earliest senior communities were owned and operated by churches and religious groups, so homes for older Jewish people have existed for decades in the United States. Today, there are still many communities that specialize in accommodating Jewish residents, or that have a significant population of Jewish residents and offer services to them, particularly in areas where the Jewish population is high.

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This includes both communities owned and operated by Jewish organizations as well as communities run by secular companies that none-the-less go the extra mile to accommodate Jewish residents.

For example, Atria Senior Living is a large national chain of senior communities that generally serves a more upscale clientele. While not affiliated with any religion, many of their communities have resident populations that are majority-Jewish. At communities with a sizable portion of Jewish residents, Atria communities will serve kosher-style food (and in at least one case, fully kosher food), celebrate Jewish holidays and facilitate the observance of Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath, which begins sundown Friday and ends at sundown Saturday).

While Atria Senior Living and other major nationwide senior living providers have dozens or even hundreds of communities across the U.S., they are not cookie-cutter operations like fast food restaurants: Each of their communities are unique and accord to the regional tastes of the resident population. Therefore, an Atria community in the Deep South is significantly different from an Atria community in, say, Great Neck, New York. The community’s design, cuisine, activities and religious services are all catered to the needs and preferences of the particular community’s resident population.

Of course certain best-practices regarding care and safety remain consistent at all communities, but care that’s regionally oriented, and ultimately resident oriented, helps assure seniors feel comfortable and at home at the community. 

Senior Living Purim Celebrations of Jewish Senior Living

As Purim approaches, it’s appropriate to looks at Jewish assisted living through the prism of this very festive (and sometimes innocently boisterous) Jewish holiday.

Purim being celebrated on the streets of Jerusalem

To tell the story of Purim as briefly as possible — in ancient times a Persian king known as Haman planned to kill every living Jew in his kingdom, a plan much akin to the Nazi Holocaust. His plans were foiled by Mordechai and his adopted daughter Esther. Haman was subsequently hung (like Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg). To learn the full story, Wikipedia’s article on Purim is quite informative. Or you could go straight to the original source and read the Megillah, or Book of Esther.

In any event, following the miraculous salvation of the Jews from the evil King Haman, Jews were commanded to celebrate this occasion in a variety of ways:

  • Megillah is to be read the evening before Purim
  • Megillah is to read day of Purim
  • Exchange of food and gifts with friends and family
  • Donations to the poor (Rabbis suggest you must give gifts to at least two needy people)
  • The reading of special prayers for the day
  • The drinking of wine or other alcoholic beverages (specifically, to the extent that one doesn’t know the difference between “Blessed is Mordechai” and “Cursed is Haman”. But don’t worry; no one will be making your elderly mother get plastered. Sleeping is said by Rabbinical Authorities to be an acceptable substitute for drunkenness for the elderly or people who have alcohol problems because sleep is comparable to the oblivion of drunkenness).
  • The optional wearing of costumes or masks

Purim carries special spiritual significance, and is among the most festive and carefree of the Jewish holidays.

Jewish Groups Bring Holy Days to Senior Residents

For many assisted lived and nursing home residents, health and mobility problems make transportation off the premises uncomfortable, impractical, or possibly even unsafe. Because many senior community residents may not be able to make it to Jewish centers or temple, volunteers from Jewish organizations like Chabad bring the ceremonies and celebrations to the elderly residents. We spoke with three Chabad movement Rabbis who told us about their work at senior communities. We were first in touch with Rabbi Menachem (Mendy) Hecht who works out of Chabad Forest Hills North in New York.

Chabad is a large, well-known Jewish organization committed to outreach to Jews throughout the world. Chabad isn’t a really a sect of Judaism, but instead promotes Jewish unity, helping all Jews, including the elderly, reconnect with their faith. Rabbi Hecht emphasized that the Chabad movement’s work was inspired by the legacy of the late and highly esteemed leader of the movement, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson. Rabbi Scheerson led the Chabad movement from 1951-1994 and his grave in New York draws tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims (and also non-Jewish visitors) annually.

Chabad is also involved in general efforts to help make the world a better, more peaceful place through efforts such as humanitarian work and the encouragement of gentiles (non-Jews) to live a moral life by obeying the Seven Laws of Noah, which are basic and generally non-controversial moral precepts such as abstinence from murder, theft, adultery, and cruelty to animals. In other words, Chabad is involved in a lot of good work – both within and without the Jewish community. Their work bringing Jewish holidays and traditions to senior community residents, while important, is just a portion of their efforts.

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Purim at Assisted Living

Rabbi Hecht visits seniors at Atria Forest Hills during Hanukkah

Rabbi Hecht works with seniors at Atria Forest Hills and has helped to make the Jewish resident’s experiences of these holidays wonderful and spiritually significant. He’ll be there again on Purim, reading the Megillah and leading ceremonies – allowing seniors who ordinarily wouldn’t be able to attend services fulfill their Purim obligations and enjoy the holiday.

It’ll be a long day for him, he said, but a good one. Rabbi Hecht said that during the reading of the Megillah, a simultaneous high quality slideshow with art representing the Purim story will be presented. This assures that older residents who don’t know much Hebrew or who have hearing loss can gather the essentials of the story regardless of their hearing or language skills.

Rabbi Hecht said that even his wife is participating in Purim at Atria this year, making traditional hamantaschen pastriesfor the elderly residents. Rabbi Hecht explained that family is a huge part of Jewish life and many Jewish celebrations, and that resident’s loved ones will often visit the senior community to participate with their elderly loved ones during celebrations honoring Jewish holidays. He said this was most notably true at Atria Forest Hill’s recent Hanukkah celebrations, in which there were family groups with three and even four generations together to celebrate with the Rabbi.

Senior Living Purim Festivities a Microcosm for Jewish Senior Living as Whole

Rabbi Hecht emphasized that the Megillah isn’t just about Purim. He says that its lessons “apply to our day to day lives” and emphasized the importance of garnering the spiritual significance of the story. Rabbi Hecht explained that one rule of Judaism says, “One who has fulfilled the Purim story backwards has not fulfilled the obligation…”

Rabbi Hecht said that while this verse is taken literally, it also has a deeper meaning. It may be a warning against misinterpreting the story as pure history since one who has failed to see the latent insights below the surface of story may be missing the point. For example, Rabbi Hecht said that to Jewish people, Haman represents evil in general and in all its forms, not merely the Talmudic, historical King Haman. Elaborating in a follow-up email, Rabbi Hecht wrote:

We talk about Haman in the story representing the evil in our days and we must TODAY [emphasis in original] get rid of that evil just like we got rid of Haman back then in every aspect of our lives – whether it is wicked people that want to kill or spiritual evil within our body that sometimes comes to us to tell us to do bad. We must get rid of evil by increasing in good and bringing more light to the world. Like we are taught and know, a bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness.

Celebrations, Ceremonies, and Song

Seniors at Jewish senior living communities are provided the opportunity to observe not just Purim, but other Jewish holidays, so Purim is one of many special events Jewish senior living residents have to look forward to. On Purim, residents are served, and sometimes even help make, traditional food associated with the holiday like the above mentioned pastry, hamantaschen, while on other holidays they have the correspondingly appropriate traditional food.

Music is often a big part of Jewish ceremonies and festivities, and Rabbi Hecht said there will certainly be some at Atria’s Purim celebration. At some events a live band plays traditional Jewish music. On holy days, observant Jews don’t play live music, but can still make a joyful noise through a cappella singing, which can be just as powerful and moving as any band.

A multi-generational Hannukah at Atria Forest Hills

And the reading of the Megillah, which (as mentioned above) tells the Purim story, has musical elements of its own. Firstly, it’s chanted rather than merely read. And during the reading, when the bad guy’s name (Haman) is mentioned, it’s traditional for everyone present to stamp their feet or make other such noises to blot out Haman’s name from history. The chanting combined with the sound of Haman’s name being rhythmically overpowered can make the reading of the Megillah decidedly musical in nature.

Maintaining a Jewish Identity in Late Life

What’s more, Purim, like other Jewish holidays, allows Jewish residents also to express their identity and feel connected. This communal bonding through religion is both special and sacred. Through the proper observance and celebration of Purim, senior community residents are reminded that they are not isolated individuals but part of a greater community; they can feel the joy that comes with continuing a tradition that has been with them since childhood; and they receive a spiritual benefit that is not totally tangible or quantifiable but that senior community staff say is undeniable.

Rabbi Hecht described all sorts of original and engaging Jewish programming that he has developed for seniors at Atria Forest Hills and other long-term care providers in his area. For example, in one activity, elderly Jewish residents are presented a large grab-bag with a wide array of traditional Jewish ornamental and ceremonial objects (for example, a dreidel) for them to hold, feel, observe and even smell. This kindles deep memories and allows even seniors with Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia to have spiritual experiences and maintain a connection to their faith.

Purim Celebrations at Jewish Senior Communities Everywhere

It’s safe to say that nearly every Jewish senior community, or senior community with a majority of Jewish residents, will be celebrating Purim to some degree or another.

In addition to Rabbi Hecht in New York, we were also in touch with a Rabbi Aron Wolf in Chicago, who operates outreach to senior communities for the Chicago Mitzvah Campaign, another Jewish Chabad group. What’s remarkable about their program is that they have scaled it up to such a degree that they have arranged Megillah readings and Purim festivities at practically every senior community in Chicago and its suburbs that houses Jewish residents, which is no small feat. They even visit lone Jewish seniors in their homes. Rabbi Wolf, who we interviewed via email, wrote:

Every year on Purim, the Chicago Mitzvah organizes scores of volunteers from the community to celebrate the festival by visiting many hundreds of Jewish seniors at locations all over the city of Chicago and suburbs, including care facilities and nursing homes, senior residences, and of course, private homes. The visitors spread the holiday cheer by singing songs, relating the story of Purim, and distributing the CMC’s specially prepared “mishloach manot” gift packages. At some locations the volunteers also read the Megillah for seniors who wish to hear it. Volunteers are encouraged to bring their families and especially their young children to participate in these visits.

It’s clear that Rabbi Wolf and the volunteers who visit the Jewish seniors are committed to the elderly and allowing older people to maintain their traditions, faith, and way of life – even when they are frail and live in a long-term care environment.

Rabbi Wolf connected us with his colleague at Chicago Mitzvah, Rabbi Raphael Jaworowski, who also participates in outreach to senior living residents. Rabbi Jaworowski explained that their visits and accompanying ceremonies and festivities are deeply appreciated by the Jewish seniors:

The seniors always enjoy these Purim celebrations immensely, particularly when the children participate in the singing, storytelling, or distribution of the packages. A child’s smile and joyous “Happy Purim!” wish can light up a senior’s face like nothing else! These events remind seniors of pleasant memories from their own childhood and their own younger days raising their families and building their communities. The opportunity to participate in a festive holiday celebration and the joyous and uplifting interaction with the volunteers also reminds the seniors and helps them to feel that even in their older years they are still an important, valuable and active part of the vibrant broader Jewish community.

Rabbi Dovid Grossman’s wife and children celebrate Purim in 1994.

Finding Jewish Senior Living Communities

It’s not always easy to find a Jewish senior living community. Of course, if the word “Jewish” or a familiar Hebrew word is in the name, it’s a dead giveaway, but this isn’t always the case. A Place for Mom’s service to families is to help them find communities that most closely meet their needs. If you are in need of a Jewish senior living community for a loved one, or even yourself, contact us. Among our Advisors is a Rabbi Dovid Grossman (contact information on his webpage), who in addition to providing invaluable help putting together this article, helps families find Jewish senior living. While he works out of Chicago, his personal connections across the country combined with his access to A Place for Mom’s nationwide network of providers allow him to make informed referrals to Jewish senior communities across the U.S.

Visiting a Senior Community on Purim

If you have an older parent who is Jewish and who may be interested in attending Purim festivities, it’s very likely the senior community holding the festivity would be happy to have guests. Senior communities are always eager to show off their services and facilities so generally welcome guests to events.

Chicago Communities Observing Purim

Here is a listing of some of the Chicago-area senior communities in A Place for Mom’s network with Purim festivities this Sunday:

Interestingly, not all of these communities are majority Jewish. We spoke with the Executive Director at the Breakers at Edgewater, a senior community operated by Senior Lifestyle Corporation. Dr. Leslie K. Eldridge. She explained that while the population of her community is only about 15% Jewish, they do host events and work to accommodate the small but significant minority of Jewish residents however possible. She said the Jewish residents at the community deeply appreciate the holiday observances, and that even non-Jewish residents participate. Dr. Eldridge was proud to have such a diverse community, as well as residents who are open-minded enough to participate in Jewish events despite the fact they are not Jewish.

Jewish Senior Living in the Rest of the U.S.

Of course, we realize Chicago is just one city in a big country, and most of our readers will live in other locales. Call us at 877-369-9261 to find Jewish senior living communities in your area, including communities that may be hosting festivities for Purim or other Jewish holidays in the weeks and months ahead.

If you are Jewish, how will you spend Purim? Can you recommend a good Jewish senior community? We welcome your comments below.

In memory of Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, 1954 – 2014

In Memory of Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz

This article is dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, regional director of Lubavitch-Chabad of Illinois. Through his email newsletter, he helped us seek rabbinical sources to interview for this article, which he did kindly and successfully on very short notice. Sadly, he passed away only days later during a minor surgery. Rabbi Moscowitz was an important and influential Jewish figure in Illinois and Chabad Worldwide, and this article would not have been possible without his assistance. He will be missed.

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Jeff Anderson
Jeff Anderson
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