Keeping the Miracle – LA Jewish Home
What’s the secret to a Happy Hanukkah, according to leaders at the Los Angeles Jewish Home?
Music, stories and Krispy Kreme donuts.
This recipe for joy during the winter holiday comes from Rabbi Karen Bender, Skirball Director of Spiritual Life for the Los Angeles Jewish Home. Founded in 1912, the Jewish Home is a comprehensive senior healthcare system offering a full continuum of care to Los Angeles area seniors living in their own homes or on one of their five campuses. The 1,000 residents of the Home (average age: 90) cover a wide range, from mostly independent to seniors with advanced stage dementia. Rabbi Bender joined the staff in 2014, and recently became the lead rabbi in charge of religious affairs, overseeing all of the various campuses.
Bender has been interested in working with senior citizens since she was a teenager. A friend of her mother’s, Lillian Libross (“my childhood hero,” she recalls), was a leader in Na’amat USA and often took 12-year-old Karen and her guitar to visit the elderly and bring them cheer. Through her college years, volunteering with older people retained its attraction, and guided her decision making when going into the rabbinate.
“On my rabbinical school application, they asked, ‘If you do not get in (to the seminary), what would you do? And I wrote that I would either go on to gerontology or law or politics,” Bender said.
She was, of course, accepted and ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and spent two decades as a pulpit rabbi, most recently at Temple Judea in Tarzana. Through the years, her interest in working with older people remained strong – so it was not surprising that this lifelong passion made an appearance at a critical time when she was considering a career shift.
“My son was 15 and he was the one who told me about the job,” she remembers. “I confided in him that I was thinking of leaving the synagogue. There were no rabbi jobs that particular year, but he started poking around (online). He just sent me the link and said, ‘This sounds like it would be perfect for you.’”
And it has been, in many ways. Bender enjoys her interactions with the residents and staff of Grancell Village and the other campuses, especially the learning that takes place on both sides.
“I think elderly people are like other people, but better, wiser,” Bender said, reflecting on her favorite part of the work. “If you’ve ever made a reduction sauce when you cook, you reduce it down to what really matters – that’s what they’re like. At this point in life, they’ve had so much time to reflect and there’s so much wisdom they can share.”
Among her many other responsibilities, both administrative and hands-on, Bender works with staff to plan engaging Jewish holiday programs for residents and their families. She notes that so much of Jewish tradition is centered around the home which is why it’s important to make people feel like they are getting both a synagogue and an “at home” experience. At the Jewish Home’s recent Sukkot celebration, Bender made a point of thanking the residents for inviting her to their sukkah “to help them have that sensation of hospitality, which is really hard when you’re 90 or 95 and live in a senior living facility.”
Rabbi Bender and her colleague, Rabbi Ron Goldberg, work hard to set up not only a holiday program, but pre-programming that helps residents get in the mood and mode of each special day or days.
“There’s a sweetness that comes from anticipation. It disrupts the monotony of life and gives them a chance to look forward to things,” she said.
For example, before Rosh Hashanah (pre-Covid), the Home would lead up to the holiday with apple and honey “tastings” and lessons on how to blow the shofar. For Hanukkah, the Home held an olive oil tasting – various varieties, mixed with flavored vinegars – that Bender is hoping to resurrect. Another time, she found “funky glasses” that when worn turn every light you look toward appear to shine through a Jewish star. In discussions with residents about their menorah-centered memories, there are often intense debates of how to make the best latkes – grated, blended, with or without zucchini – that lead to great sharing of the older people’s childhood experiences.
“Every night we go to every floor – we have eight floors – and do a menorah lighting and sing and teach something different,” Bender said. “But at least once during Hanukkah we have our outdoor extravaganza. We found the hugest Chanukiah in all the land, and we light it and have some sort of concert or celebration and bring the whole campus together.”
Hanukkah is clearly one of Bender’s favorite holidays; she’s been known to wear colorful “chanukiah” glasses or a holiday jumper, and even dress up as a dreidel. But her most triumphant moment of Hanukkah glee occurred at a pre-pandemic Hanukkah, when she and Rabbi Goldberg loaded up their trunks with dozens of boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts and snuck them onto campus as that year’s sufganiyot. It meant getting up at 6:00 in the morning, but the joy of the gift’s recipients made it absolutely worth it.
Like many residential living facilities and healthcare establishments for seniors, the Jewish Home has had to change the way holidays can be celebrated during the pandemic.
“For about a year, we relied almost entirely on video content, and I was making content,” the rabbi said. She became a producer, director, and actor, collaborating with Rabbi Goldberg “to make it fitting for our community, speaking to them and their needs.” Some restrictions have been lifted, with staff fully vaccinated, and Bender looks forward to more in person possibilities as this year’s holiday season approaches.
“Symbolically, Hanukkah is about lighting the darkness, and the affirmation of hope and miracles,” she said. “It’s not a coincidence that it takes place near the winter solstice; a remarkable number of cultures have something involving light in the darkest time of the year.
“Winter can be a lonely time, and it’s also a time when people are at most risk of getting sick, but we try to create a beautiful, joyful, fun experience that, in addition to being meaningful in the moment, successfully helps people harken back to their own memories.”
In addition to the Jewish Home, there are many other senior living facilities spread throughout the Los Angeles area that offer support and care for a Jewish population. Cantorial soloist Ter Lieberstein caters to this constituency, providing dropin Shabbat services and holiday programs. A protégé of Cantor Doug Cotler of Or Ami, Lieberstein started working as a teacher and music specialist at area temples in the early 2000s, and soon discovered the need for her kind of work at residential homes for seniors in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys, and from Thousand Oaks to the westside. She said during her busiest time of year, she sometimes conducts up to four or five programs a day, usually for a mixed audience.
“My programs are always full of explanations, and I give translations for anything that has a lot of Hebrew,” Lieberstein said. “It can be for non-Jews, or Jews with little experience, or Jews with lots of experience – I try to run the program so it satisfies the gamut. For Hanukkah, I explain what a menorah is, what the holiday is and the history of it, light the hanukiah, do blessings and then sing various songs.”
Along with the traditional “Oh Hanukkah” and the infamous dreidel song, Lieberstein enjoys throwing in other musical numbers not so well known, such as a Ladino tune called “Ocho Kandelikahs”, or reading a poem about “the night before hanukkah,” based on the one from that other December holiday.
“We also do some reminiscences, what they (the residents) remember of Hanukkah growing up and what their families did,” she said, noting that her repertoire changes according to the health and interests of her audience. But somehow, even with the most fragile among them, something of the songs makes a connection.
“Music is the last thing to go for people,” she said. “I’ve played for people who the staff tells me are nonverbal, and they will sing every word to a song that I am doing or a prayer I am chanting.”
It’s these miraculous moments, in keeping with the holiday, that Lieberstein says families of elderly residents should not miss. She encourages family members to “come to their facilities if there is any kind of program going on, come and be with them during the program. It’s important for the families to experience some of the things their loved ones are doing. Hanukkah is a family celebration; it’s fine to get together on their own, but being together as a family (at the residential home) is like doing it at the temple together.”
Rabbi Bender also stresses the importance of families participating in the holiday along with their loved ones – but acknowledges it may be difficult with COVID-19 protocols in place.
“It’s early, so we haven’t detailed that out, whether families are coming this year versus not,” she said. “But we do want to do the olive oil tasting, we do want to do an extravaganza outside, and if we can bring in musicians and other treats, we will. We will bring the holiday to wherever (our residents) are, accompanied by something special.”
Like music. And stories. And, most definitely, Krispy Kreme.
“It’s a pricey commitment” Bender says with a chuckle, “but we kind of raised the bar for that one.”
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