Bringing Light to Seniors

Although I have only been the Jewish Pavilion’s publicity director for just over a month, my new job is by no means my first introduction to the Jewish Pavilion. As an active member of Orlando’s Jewish community for the past 20 plus years, I was well aware of the Pavilion’s evolution and function. I also knew that the Pavilion works with local synagogue education directors to connect children and seniors, and I had accompanied my two children’s Hebrew School outings to several different facilities. And for the last 3 years, I have actively participated in the invaluable services this organization provides to seniors in our community. Twice a month, I have volunteered to help lead Friday night Shabbat services at Oakmonte Village’s Independent Living Community in Lake Mary.

That was not something I ever expected to do! I tend to be a frequent and enthusiastic volunteer in general, but at the time, my volunteering “dance card” was already pretty full. However, soon after my mom moved to Oakmonte about 3 and a half years ago, Jewish Pavilion Program Director Emily Newman spied me walking an Oakmonte hallway. I’ve known Emily for many years, having worked with her on several committees. We stopped to chat, and she told me that the Pavilion’s regular Shabbat volunteer at that building, Cathy Swerdlow, needed a helper and an occasional substitute service leader.

Well, the helper part was an easy sell—I could do that, and knew I would love to do it! I’d get to spend Shabbat with my mom and I’d have a great opportunity to get to know her friends. Afterward, we’d have dinner together, a wonderful time to catch up and enjoy each other’s company.

But lead a service! That is something I never for a moment imagined myself doing. It’s not that I don’t know the prayers—but it’s one thing to pray along with a congregation and another thing entirely to lead it! I wasn’t completely sure I could pull that off.

I hesitated, but I said “yes.” And I’m so glad I did.

One of the things that many people might not realize about the Jewish Pavilion is how closely its staff works with seniors facilities to make sure they understand Jewish culture and take steps to ensure that their Jewish residents feel comfortable living in their new environments. After consulting with Pavilion staff, the building’s management is able to incorporate familiar elements of their Jewish residents’ upbringing and lives into the routines of the facility, such tangible things as foods and holiday observances as well as the intangible things like awareness of their culture and point of view. Such a partnership helps to ensure that Central Florida’s Jewish seniors live in dignity in places that feel like home.

Oakmonte Village is one of the Jewish Pavilion’s most committed partners. I learned this quickly as I began volunteering there. The room is invariably set up and ready to go when I arrive on a late Friday afternoon, with candles and kosher wine bought and ready, cups and napkins supplied, and a few extra challahs waiting in the freezer in case they are needed. Staff members always check in before the program to make sure we have everything we need.

Jewish Pavilion volunteers come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and each one of them has his or her own way of making a difference in the lives of seniors. It so happens that Cathy Swerdlow is an exceptionally wonderful service leader, warm and enthusiastic and very knowledgeable about the prayers and Jewish practice. She is an extremely tough act to follow! So the first time she was out of town and I had to lead a service, I was nervous.

Luckily, I was standing before a very welcoming crowd. The Friday programs draw about 30 to 45 regulars who enjoy them very much and are happy to be there, and I had already had a chance to meet and chat with many of them over the past several months.

As I stood at the front of the room and lit the candles, I looked up at the rows of smiling, expectant faces, my mom’s included. And I relaxed. We were a small community of Jews doing what all of us have done hundreds of times and what Jews have done on Friday nights for millennia. And by volunteering with The Jewish Pavilion, I was helping to keep this light in these seniors’ lives.

We said the blessing and began the service.

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