Joshua Balan
Joshua Balan blows the shofar outside of Fleischman residence. (Jerry Zolynsky)

Here’s what organizations are working tirelessly to help ensure any voids in observing the High Holidays are filled for Jewish older adult residences.

When you participated in your virtual seder last Passover, did you really think five months later you’d have to “Zoom” through another Jewish holiday on your laptop, iPad or iPhone? Welcome to the High Holidays 2020. Same pandemic, same challenges. And nowhere are those challenges more prevalent yet again than in our Jewish older adult residences.

There is heartbreak in knowing that many residing in independent and assisted living communities will not be able to join their families in person during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. To the rescue, if you will, are the leadership at those residences and Jewish organizations I spoke with who are working tirelessly to help ensure any voids in observing the High Holidays are filled.

“Jewish Senior Life (JSL) has been very concerned about our residents and their ability to celebrate during this time of isolation,” said CEO Nancy Heinrich, whose communities consist of six senior residences, three each on the JCC campuses in West Bloomfield and Oak Park. “Understanding that we can never substitute for the embrace of family, we wanted our residents to be able to experience as much of the flavor and spirituality of the holidays as possible.”

That includes being especially mindful of residents who cannot connect with family or their congregation through digital technology. “To that end, we are offering call-in numbers to hear the shofar blown, recorded holiday services available over the phone and over loudspeakers,” Heinrich said.

The toll-free number is now activated to hear holiday messaging for both residents and the community at large [(605) 313-4107, Access Code 270368#]. Where possible, some residents will also have access to streaming of services on a closed circuit television channel in their apartments.

Hands-on items are also being prepared including custom treat-filled holiday bags designed by Jo Strausz Rosen, JSL executive director of development. “I have an outdoor studio in my yard,” Rosen said. “I hung up dozens of our JSL holiday bags to spray paint in vivid happy colors.”

Leslie Katz, director, FRIENDS of JSL, shared a working list of other High Holiday options that will be made available and delivered to residents including activity packets that include a memorial service and a written d’var torah by JSL chaplain Rabbi Dovid Polter. Plus, a team of JSL’s “Sunshine Callers” stand at the ready to make Happy New Year greeting phone calls to residents.

Through its Isaac z”l and Yetta Pann Bikkur Chaverim Fund, Temple Israel is providing an extraordinarily special gift for all six of JSL’s residences on their West Bloomfield and Oak Park campuses. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, two musicians from the DSO will play concerts from parking lots or courtyards. Residents will enjoy the music in comfort and safety through open windows in their apartments or on their personal balconies.

Sound of the Shofar

Music from the DSO will not be the only melodic sounds emanating from outdoors on the campuses. Volunteer shofar blowers from congregations will be on site including 17-year old Temple Israel member and Bloomfield Hills High School senior Joshua Balan. He’ll blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah on Sunday, Sept. 20. He’s in his fifth year of blowing the shofar for the temple.

I met up with Joshua several days ago for a shofar dress rehearsal outside of the Fleischman residence. His tune-up for the High Holidays included one 27-second held note on the shofar, which I’m certain will be part of his Rosh Hashanah repertoire.

Several Fleischman residents shared their thoughts about the different ways JSL was planning on making holiday traditions available to them. Ileene Zate, 83, says she will be in touch with her family by phone and FaceTime but is grateful to JSL for the on-site programming. “They really are looking out for us, to protect us,” she said. “I’m adapting to these changes and would love to be at services, but I’m going to Plan B.”

The same positive attitude was shared by Judy Martin, 91. “I never missed going to my synagogue during the High Holidays. Now we can’t, but I think it’s wonderful they found a solution.”

“Complaining can’t fix it,” said Laurette Levadi, 89, adding, “Really, I thank God I’m alive.”
Anita Lampcov, 81, will take advantage of watching services on closed circuit TV. “I’m sad I cannot go. I know we have a pandemic, and I just handle it. I go with the flow.”

The reality is, while all these efforts will make the holidays in isolation more palatable, it’s far from a panacea. Despite best efforts, there are many High Holiday observers in our Jewish and other senior communities, living independently or with assistance, who are not fairing as well.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Rabin from the Marvin & Betty Danto Health Care Center on the campus of the JCC sees every day the impact lack of visitors has on his patients and residents. “Residents need the comfort and reinforcement that personal family visits bring,” he said. That reality only makes the rabbi want to work harder on behalf of the Danto community during the High Holidays.

The Jewish community rallies to make the holidays special for isolated seniors.
Jo Strausz Rosen, JSL executive director of development, spray-painted colorful holiday gift bags for residents. Courtesy of JSL
The Jewish community rallies to make the holidays special for isolated seniors.
Courtesy of JSL

Pre-virus, Danto provided unique services designed for its community, including specially prepared Machzor in large print with translation, stories and pictures. This year, the rabbi hopes to be able to have a few seniors socially distance and gather in the cafe during the holiday to hear shofar blowing by volunteers from The Shul outside the cafe windows.

Reaching Out to All

Other non-Jewish senior properties throughout the tri-county area are supporting their Jewish residents’ needs during the Days of Awe.

The Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit (JFMD) and the Jewish Community Chaplaincy and Outreach Program of JSL didn’t need a pandemic to embrace outlying senior communities with Jewish residents; they’ve been doing it for years.

The two organizations are working in concert in the preparation of care packages with holiday-themed items among the gifts, including applesauce, honey, battery- operated holiday candles and a greeting card, to name a few.

“Our Women’s Philanthropy TOV volunteers (Tikkun Olam Volunteers) are decorating bags and cards,” said Betsy Heuer, Women’s Philanthropy president. On the JSL Chaplaincy side, Joanne Kristal says they “will put together the parcels and distribute them this week.”

All Seasons independent senior living community of West Bloomfield, a Beztak property, has been preparing a very ambitious, safe holiday programming schedule for its Jewish residents.

Danette Stenta, senior vice president of marketing, provided a preliminary list of activities that includes streaming of services in their multi-purpose room and tech support for streaming local services. A special menu will feature traditional High Holiday fare, including roast chicken, beef brisket, potato-encrusted whitefish and potato kugel.

All Seasons is also on the receiving end of generous support from The Shul of West Bloomfield’s spiritual director Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov and wife, Itty Shemtov, education director.

In advance of the holiday, The Shul will be distributing “Rosh Hashanah in a Bag.” Among the assortment of gifts will be a challah, honey, electric candles, a kiddush cup and a do-it-yourself holiday guide. The Shul will also conduct a safe, outdoor service and shofar blowing on Sunday, Sept. 20.

We can take some solace in knowing that many more philanthropic efforts by a variety of our Jewish organizations, congregations and volunteers are under way, far too many to mention here, that will offer support for our most vulnerable seniors during these High Holidays.

Our Jewish community is answering the call again. For their efforts, our seniors’ wishes are much improved for having not a bittersweet, but a truly Shanah Tovah Umetukah, a good and sweet New Year.

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