Do Not Cast Me Off in My Old Age:
Serving Jews in Eldercare Facilities During a Pandemic

By Ellen Flax

For more than two decades, my Friday afternoons have concluded with a familiar ritual: I take off my “hat” as a philanthropy professional, put on my yarmulke, and conduct early Shabbat services and provide pastoral care to the residents of a nursing home or assisted-living facility.

Until a couple of weeks ago, that is, when COVID-19 effectively banished all but medical professionals from eldercare facilities, and confined the residents of many homes to their rooms on a near, or entirely, 24/7 basis.  Due to fears about the spread of the virus, residents of many facilities are not only forbidden to have visitors or venture outside, but they are also often required to eat alone, and forgo all group activities that mark the slow passage of time in such homes. 

In this new world of social distancing and self-quarantining, there have been concerns raised about the needs of isolated people, particularly the elderly. Many Jewish communities have organized food deliveries and regular check-in calls to vulnerable populations who are staying-in-place in their own homes. However, there has been far less discussion, never mind practical suggestions, for meeting the emotional and spiritual needs of those even more isolated, those who live in eldercare facilities. 

As a rabbi who has worked with literally thousands of elderly institutionalized Jews and their loved ones over the years at non-Jewish facilities, I know first-hand how a simple gesture such as providing challah and grape juice, or singing Adon Olam, can literally make a resident’s day or week. My heart just breaks when I think about what it must be like to live under such confining conditions, and be denied the simplest of pleasures and measures of comfort.

Realizing that Jewish services and pastoral care is probably more important now than ever in the lives of these residents, I proposed (and was granted approval) to switch to a virtual format. As a result, on Fridays, residents who are capable of using a tablet or smartphone can connect via a webcam to my service – after saying hello, and “seeing” my congregants, I will let them view my screen, so they can sing, read or follow along with the modified Shabbat service that has been uploaded to my computer. Those who lack a tablet or smartphone are invited to dial in instead – it isn’t perfect, but at least they get to hear the familiar prayers.

The flyer I prepared, and which the staff has agreed to circulate every week, notes that I am available for drop-in pastoral visits via webcam or phone after the conclusion of the prayer service, and invites them to contact me in advance by email to set up an appointment, if they so desire.

The Passover seder, normally a highlight of the religious calendar at a nursing home or assisted-living facility, will also be virtual this year. As with Shabbat services, residents will be invited to use their tablets or phone with a webcam, or to dial-in with a regular phone, for an abbreviated Passover seder. The text will be shared from my computer screen, and the Home has agreed to provide each person with an individual seder plate, which will contain the ritual foods, as well as grape juice.     

Invariably, there are going to be technical hiccups.  Many residents lack a tablet or smartphone, and even with a pledge by the facility to provide them with a loaner – so they can have visits via webcam with their loved ones – too many will not be able to master the use of a tablet without significant staff hand-holding. But at the very least, they will be able to join in by a regular phone and sing along to Dayenu.

I hope that in the not-to-distant future, I will once again be able to distribute challah and grape juice in person on Friday afternoons, hold someone’s hand, and wish them a Shabbat Shalom.  But until then, the webcam and phone will offer these residents the next best thing – and will remind them that the Jewish world has not forgotten about them.

Ellen Flax is a New York City-based consultant to foundations and nonprofits.

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