The phrase “the embrace of the Jewish community” has always sounded warm and fuzzy to me, and also a bit abstract. But when you personally feel that embrace, as I have recently, it can be positively breathtaking.
My experience happened in North Carolina, not Rhode Island, but everyday wonders like this occur here, too. In this case, you could easily substitute the heroic work of Jewish Eldercare of Rhode Island for Jewish Family Services in Charlotte.
My father, Noel, a lifelong New Yorker, moved to Charlotte last June to live in a care community better suited for him at age 92. One of the things I quickly noticed was that the community had a Shabbat service every Friday at 4 p.m. On one of my visits, I suggested that we attend, and my father – never a big synagogue-goer but connected through his widespread volunteer activity in Jewish services – was glad to go.
The small chapel in the clubhouse was packed with about 25 people. Wheelchairs and walkers were all over the aisles. No one minded. These people could not travel to a synagogue, so services came to them. The leader was a volunteer from Jewish Family Services and, afterward, he joined us for dinner.
We went to services again a month later. A particularly touching moment came at the end, when an elderly man came in looking dazed. He said he had overslept and was there to say Kaddish for his wife’s yahr-tzeit. We had already recited Kaddish and were finishing the service, but the leader, like it was the most natural thing in the world, said, “Let’s say the Kaddish again.” Which we did, in a great example of being attuned to the needs of others.
Unfortunately, my father’s health began to deteriorate rapidly after that Shabbat, and he soon moved from his apartment to assisted living. His mobility was impaired and a trip to the chapel for the Friday service was no longer possible.
But the same Jewish Family Services organized a Shabbat service once a month at the assisted living facility, again coming to where the need existed. This one was organized by Natalie Tunney, the charming, smart person in charge of the agency’s senior outreach.
I had written to Tunney with some questions and gotten to know her through email exchanges, even hearing about a Rhode Island connection – she was married in Roger Williams Park when she lived in Boston. I also learned that her parents were from Flatbush, New York, the same place where my father was so proud to have grown up.
Soon after my father moved into assisted living, Tunney came to say hello and see if there was anything he needed. She caught him at a time when he was tired. But I got a chance to walk and talk with her, and was calmed by her bright smile and easy manner.
A few weeks later, she came to visit again, and cheerily asked my father if he wanted to come down the hall for the Shabbat service. He looked interested but didn’t have enough energy. I decided to go with her to the service. Attending were Tunney, me, a man in a wheelchair whose wife had recently died, and a woman who had left her hearing aids in her room. Still, it was a beautiful, intimate service and I was near tears throughout. Judaism had come to us in an unexpected place, in a generous way. At least I was able to tell my father about it.
A few weeks later, a series of strokes landed my father in a hospital, and two days later, he died peacefully.
When I wrote Tunney the next morning to tell her of my father’s death, there was a surprise for me: She said on the previous Friday, just a day before he was taken to the hospital, she spent an hour with my father, talking about New York, his life, art and books – things he loved dearly. She told me he was smiling throughout, enjoying the conversation.
In his final weeks, it had become hard for my father to speak. It turned out that one of his last extended conversations was with someone he barely knew but who represented the Jewish world that was so important to him. He had spent a lifetime helping, and now he was being helped. I was stunned hearing about the conversation and cried tears of gladness.
Experiencing so directly the help Jewish people and organizations can bring has been profound. My encounters were intense and personal, and the impact of the help to my father and me was huge. It showed me the power of the Jewish world more clearly than ever, and made me want to be even more involved.
NOEL RUBINTON is a consultant and writer based in Providence.