I often tell people that my favorite thing about my job as publicity director for the Jewish Pavilion has been the opportunity to meet and get to know so many wonderful members of Orlando’s Jewish community—and then write about them and give everyone else a chance to see some of the good they bring into the world. I don’t kid myself that my pieces will bring anyone fame and fortune (or even that they will be widely read), but I love that I get to put my energy into writing about some of the good things that happen in this world and some of the good people who make them happen. There is more than enough bad news for us to try to make sense of, a seeming dump-truck-load with every new day. Shoyn genug (enough already)!
Sometimes, though, even the most positive news may come with a shade of sadness. This is especially true when sharing news about an organization, like the Jewish Pavilion, that focuses on seniors. Time and again, when I talk to longtime Pavilion volunteers, they share stories of close relationships they have made with seniors, and then the grief they felt when their friends passed away.
On the other hand, these same volunteers also stress to me how much these friendships had enriched their lives, how privileged they were to have known these remarkable people, and how much they will cherish their memories. Such late-life friendships are, by their nature, bittersweet, because they may turn out to be of short duration. Then again, isn’t that true of every one of our relationships? None of us comes with an expiration date, and there are no guarantees.
A few weeks ago, I saw with sadness in a Heritage Florida Jewish News obituary that a wonderful senior named Harry Starr had passed away. In fact, as I realized with an extra tinge of sorrow, he had died just a day after a photo of him I had taken had appeared in the Heritage alongside a story I had written about Jewish Pavilion volunteer Randi Cunningham, who makes individual visits at the Oakmonte Village assisted living building where he lived.
I met Harry when Randy made her last visit to him in early January, when I was making the rounds at Oakmonte with her for the story. At 96, he was a warm and welcoming host as we sat with him for a nice long visit in his small apartment. A born kibitzer, he seemed to wear a permanent smile, and his eyes twinkled as he told us jokes, and shone with love as he talked of his parents, his wife, his children and grandchildren. He spoke with pride of the congregation in Dallas, Texas, to which his family had belonged for many years, and showed us his framed family photos and a small Torah scroll that took pride of place among his sparse furnishings.
Harry was someone who Randi had told me she especially enjoyed visiting, and I immediately could see why. He was a good-natured charmer, and I’m sure he was that way with just about everyone he’d ever met in his life. In fact, when a nurse came in with his medicine, he was delighted to see her too, and you could see that she enjoyed chatting with him and would have stayed longer if her duties had allowed. Before Randi and I left, Harry made sure to tell us how much he had enjoyed our visit and sent us away with a Yiddish blessing: Gay gezunt un kum gezunt—go in good health, and return in good health.
On that day, of course, none of us were aware that it would be the last time we would meet. We genuinely enjoyed our time together and left each other with a smile. Giving of her time so freely, Randi had fulfilled the mitzvah that is the Jewish Pavilion’s main mission—to brighten the lives of seniors in our community. There are so many other stories just like hers, and I can’t wait to tell you some more of them.