Seniors Get A Second Wind With Chabad Programs

by Rivka Chaya Berman - MARINA DEL RAY, CA

February 12, 2006

As more and more boomers get their welcome kit from AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), Chabad programming for seniors is experiencing a boom of its own. In southern California, two Chabad centers offer programs for older Jews with a twist – spiritual health is as much a concern as good blood pressure readings.

Drills plunge flush with the sheetrock of the newly built addition at Chabad of Marina Del Rey as they are used to bolt grab bars to the hallway walls. With the expanded restroom area, an upgraded industrial kitchen, and rooms repurposed for therapy and medical care, Chabad’s Marina Adult Day Care program is nearly ready to open. Chabad representative Rabbi Danny Yiftach is working with established adult day care center operators to give 150 area seniors a purposeful place to spend the day.

“Retirement meant nothing to the Lubavitcher Rebbe,” said Rabbi Yiftach, referring to Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, who actively led the worldwide movement into his nineties. “He expected us to have a program for Jews of every age. Tzivos Hashem for children, learning classes for adults. Our adult day care center is how we are taking care of the physical and spiritual lives of older Jewish people in our community.”

Twenty two miles away, in North Hollywood, CA, Chabad representative Rabbi Nachman Abend is caught in southern California’s infamous traffic quagmire. A cell phone call reassures one of his regulars, a resident at a local assisted living home, that he is simply a casualty of bumper to bumper and will be arriving for his weekly visit without fail. The older man “has lived such a rich life, rich in experience and history, but he doesn’t have a lot of people to share it with,” Rabbi Abend explained.

Visiting up to 100 seniors per week across the greater North Hollywood area is phase one of Chabad of North Hollywood’s Seiva program. Seiva, a Torah term for the elderly, is an outgrowth of Rabbi Abend’s experiences as the son of a Chabad representative. “I spent many holiday mornings at my father’s side in nursing homes, blowing the shofar, shaking the lulav. The Jewish soul, a G-dly spark, does not age, weaken or retire.”

Seiva’s holiday programs and weekly visits will branch into programs for homebound seniors. “In North Hollywood, if you don’t have a car or someone to drive you around, your opportunities for interaction are limited. Some seniors are lucky if one person visits them a week,” said Rabbi Abend. When fully realized, Seiva will gather groups of high school students, train and mentor them as they bring Torah, Jewish conversation and friendship to the homebound.

Intergenerational activities, the brass ring of so many non-profits, will benefit the teens. Seiva will provide incentive programs for volunteers, who will also be fulfilling their required community service hours through their senior visits.

Growing up with grandparents in his home sensitized Rabbi Yiftach to the positive role good adult day care can play in the quality of life of older people. “When every day had a purpose, goal and routine, my grandparents remained vivacious. New friends came over, a new life began for them,” said Rabbi Yiftach. His grandparents’ passing last year motivated Rabbi Yiftach to bring the adult day care experience to people in the Marina Del Rey and adjacent Playa Del Rey neighborhoods.

Whether a Chabad opens a Seiva-like program or adult day care facility is largely determined by the needs of a population. In Marina Del Rey, property prices have limited the number of young families able to move into the area. The population is divided neatly between young single professionals who can afford Marina life and the elderly who bought early or live in one of the newer assisted living apartments.

Around the world, Chabad is an old hand at senior programs. The Shul in Surfside, Florida, offers an “Elder School,” four days a week through its Kollel Tiferes Zkeinim Levi Yitzchak program. In the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma, Chabad of Coconut Creek provided thousands of self-heating meals to elderly people stuck in their high-rise apartments without food and electricity. Across the former Soviet Union and Israel, Colel Chabad soup kitchens have become de facto senior centers, serving up family style meals and Torah classes on a daily basis. Inspiration for Chabad’s role in caring for seniors came from the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself. On the anniversary of his father’s passing, the Rebbe urged Chabad representatives to found programs in honor of his father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, where seniors could study Torah.

During a Friday afternoon gathering at Sunrise Senior Living, Rabbi Abend helped a resident light Shabbat candles and recite the blessing. After the group chorused, “Amen,” the woman turned to Rabbi Abend and told him, “’That’s the first time I’ve lit the candles since I was seventeen years old.”

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