I decided to become a rabbi because it was what I was doing, just without a title or training. When I was a child everyone joked that I would become a rabbi, just at the time it was not a possibility. The only way that it would be possible is if I dressed up like a man, as Yentl did. I even remember having an argument with a friend in college, where he was telling me that I should become a rabbi, and I told him why I could not and that I did not even have the desire to.
It was in the middle of graduate school that I finally started thinking that I actually did want to become a rabbi. To me it was something logical. I looked at what I did and what I liked doing- building community; leadership; teaching Jewish subjects; talking to people about Judaism, God, and religion- and all those things combined made a rabbi. It took me three years to actually accept that is what I want to do, and to find somewhere to do it.
I think similarly with regards to my desire to work with older adults. I have been working with older adults for as long as I can remember. I made sure that my youth group went to run parties or visits to the local nursing home. I was part of an intergenerational theatre group at the JCC. When I worked in a hospital, even though my job was to work in the children’s building, I always found ways to go to the geriatric building. When I studied to become a clown, I was lucky that the organization allowed me do my residency on the geriatric floor. In college I ran a volunteer program and an intergenerational theatre program at two nursing homes.
When I sit down and think about where my skills are and things that I love, it is working with older adults. I saw this very clearly last year where I helped with services at a nursing home over Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It was a group of people I had never met in my life, but yet being there felt very comfortable. I was not sure at the beginning what the rabbi wanted me to do, but as soon as the residents started to arrive at services I just knew what needed to be done.
After that experience I started thinking more seriously about working with older adults post ordination. I look at what I had done at the nursing home that I worked in for over four years, where my job title was therapeutic recreation specialist, but in actuality my job was much more than that. I helped men put on tefillin, I sat with residents, I spoke to families, I ran holiday programing, and ran an intergenerational prayer service.
I learned a lot about areas in life that are regularly forgotten for this age group. There are many people who love and care for the residents, but religion and spirituality are not necessarily the first thing people are thinking about, especially in a job that is very demanding. The residents that I worked with needed help with all or most of their daily living activities, which meant that the staff was getting people dressed, feeding them, taking them to bathroom, and anything else that they needed. It was not part of the schedule to allow the men to put on tefillin, nor was there a person on staff that was able or had time to help them with it. There was no thought that residents would want to pray or go to Bible study. It was a conversation every year about making sure that residents that wanted would be brought to memorial services or services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
I want to be able to create a space that these things are not forgotten. I believe that it is important to have someone on staff that takes these aspects of life into account, and has the time and ability create these opportunities. At times it takes a bit more creativity because people are not always physically or mentally capable to do what they used to do.
I also want to create an intergenerational space. I want to have programing that is not seen as “helping” but rather about “doing”. The prayer service that I ran was for young people from the community to have Friday night prayers at the nursing home once a month, instead of in their regular synagogue. The prayer service was a traditional Friday night service, which is why I think it worked. People tend to be intimidated to go and visit someone (even if they know the person, but all the more so if it is a stranger), but when it is in a situation where there is no forced talking, it is a bit less so. People came to pray, not to have conversations with other people, but because of this, they actually able to start talking with the people around them.
Looking at my past, it is clear that this is what I should be doing. When I tell people that I work with older adults, the first reaction many times is “isn’t that sad? Why would you want to be around old people all day?” I don’t have a good reason, other than I love it.
I feel like a calling is just that, it is to do what we feel is something we love, something we are good at, and something that we can do to create positive change in the world. And for me, that is to take my calling to be a rabbi, and bring it together with my calling to work with older adults.