Volunteers bring ‘mitzvah’ of Shabbat to nursing home

William Motchan
Sheila Shucart, Brayden Miederhoff, Heather Miederhoff, Bonnie Rosen and Madison Miederhoff recite the blessing after lighting Shabbat candles during a service at Delmar Gardens West in April. Photo: Bill Motchan

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

Friday afternoon is Bonnie Barber’s favorite time of the week. Barber, 74, has been a resident at Delmar Gardens West skilled nursing and rehab center in Town and Country for three years. Her mobility is limited, but she doesn’t let that stop her from attending the weekly Sabbath service.

“I’ve never missed one,” Barber said. “What I like best is that we’re together and we’re doing the best we can to have services. We’re not a regular shul or temple here, but the people who come to lead it are very good, and they make it as close as they can to a regular Sabbath service. They’re fantastic. I don’t know what we’d do without them. They bring the essence of Judaism to us. If you can’t be there at shul, this is the next best thing.”

The weekly Delmar Gardens West “Welcome the Shabbat” program is made possible by a group of 13 volunteers who rotate in pairs each week. The team has no rabbis or cantors, but they handle the 45-minute service like old pros.

The Friday afternoon a week before Passover was typical. About 35 Delmar Gardens West residents gathered and formed an ad hoc congregation in the community room. The volunteer team huddled and assigned responsibilities: Beverly Chervitz delivered the d’var Torah and Harvey Greenstein paraded the Torah after taking it out of the wooden ark.

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Madison Miederhoff, 13, an adjunct volunteer, lit the candles to begin the service. She’s the granddaughter of resident Bonnie Rosen. Rosen, her daughter, granddaughter and two of her great-grandchildren represent four generations of one B’nai Amoona family who participate in the service.

The volunteer team efficiently and smoothly ran a full Shabbat service. It included responsive reading and opportunities for the congregation to participate by leading prayers. The service ended with challah, grape juice and, since this Shabbat was close to the start of the baseball season, a rousing rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

Most of the songs, of course, are not baseball-related. They are traditional for Shabbat service, which provides an authentic experience, volunteer Mark Dana said. 

“For those residents who know how to sing, the Shabbat tunes we use are what they remember so they become engaged,” he said. “That’s what makes the experience so nice.”

Ron Heller began the program 23 years ago. His father had been a resident, and Heller noticed that Delmar Gardens West had a significant Jewish resident population.

“They had a priest who came in on Sunday morning, but there was no Jewish service here,” Heller said. “But Delmar Gardens is owned by Jewish people. I wanted to do something here, so I said, let’s start Sabbath services.”

The next step was getting volunteers to run the service. That proved to be easy because they quickly understood the need. Also, Heller didn’t give anyone a chance to say no.

“When Ron started it, he said, ‘You’ll do this.’ He didn’t ask, he just told me,” said Harvey Greenstein, laughing. “But it was a chance to give back.”

The current program coordinator is Laurie Cohen, a B’nai Amoona volunteer, congregant and staff member whose father was also a resident at the facility. Cohen attends the weekly service and handles volunteer scheduling.

“The volunteers are performing a mitzvah every Friday for the Jewish residents who attend services,” Cohen said. “The twinkle I see in their eyes, both residents and volunteers alike, is tremendously heartwarming.”

Volunteer Randi Schenberg is community relations director at Crown Center in University City. She joined the team after some Crown Center residents moved to Delmar Gardens West.

“I wanted to visit them, but now I love coming and participating in it,” Schenberg said. “If I can make someone’s day, that makes me feel good. The volunteers are a great group, a diverse group, and they have a lot of fun doing it. I really look forward to it each week.”

Like Schenberg, each Welcome the Shabbat volunteer says he or she get as much out of the experience as the Delmar Gardens West residents.

“I enjoy bringing a taste of Judaism to the residents who are no longer able to attend services at their temple or synagogue on a regular basis,” Richard Hitt said. “It’s my way of helping these folks connect with their Jewish heritage. What I get out of it is a sense of tremendous satisfaction and pride at seeing many of them actively participate in the service. It’s my way of paying it forward.”

Delmar Gardens West offers a number of activities for residents, but the Shabbat services are special, recreation director Allison Schubert said.

“I think it’s very important to keep their religious practices, and our residents love the volunteers,” Schubert said. “We have a good group that comes for the service, and a lot of the residents’ families come as well. We even have some residents who are not Jewish who attend to see what it’s all about.”

For residents like Barber, the weekly Shabbat service provides a connection to a familiar, comforting experience.

“My mother and father went to Nusach Hari and Temple Israel, so I’m used to going to Shabbat service in a synagogue,” Barber said. “Then, all of a sudden, you find yourself here, but this service is the next best thing to being in a synagogue. These people come and give their time and make it so beautiful for us. It is a mitzvah.”

Welcome the Shabbat Volunteer Team

Who: B’nai Amoona volunteers Laurie Cohen, Andrew Oberman, Beverly Chervitz, Harvey Greenstein, Jay Englander, Joel Dennis, Joel Spigel, Mark Dana, Phyllis Traub, Randi Schenberg, Richard Hitt, Ron Heller, Sherry Phillips

Where: Delmar Gardens West

Fun Fact: The first Welcome the Shabbat in 1996 drew 10 people, only four of whom were Jewish. Founder Ron Heller wondered if it would work. He persevered, and the program flourished.