While “Meister Menorahs” sound like a niche Hanukkah item – and, in fact, they could be – they are what Herb Meister, of Newport, and his family have being crafting and delivering to Jewish nursing-homes residents in New England.
The Jewish value of l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation) is alive and well in the Meister family, thanks in no small part to Herb, the family’s patriarch.
“A passion was sparked when I was just 12, delivering Meister Menorahs for my Bat Mitzvah project,” says Rachel Salzman, one of six Meister grandchildren. “Grandpa has always had a passion for older adults and [for] providing them with a little joy by visiting them in nursing homes or assisted-living facilities. I discovered this same passion when I was 12 and … giving older adults menorahs for them to celebrate Hanukkah. I wanted to help a population that was not always acknowledged, and I wanted to meet them face-to-face.”
These are not your typical menorahs. Meister Menorahs, which are made of wood, use colorful crayons instead of candles, which are barred from residents’ rooms due to fire and other safety concerns.
After Herb taught Rachel how to design the menorah and explained the story behind the Meister Menorahs, “I took control … by having family friends and my dad help me build the wooden menorahs and paint them,” recalls Rachel. “My parents and I hand-delivered the menorahs to local nursing homes, and I gave my grandpa a call to update him on … the reactions of those who were truly touched.”
“Herb and [his late wife] Melba were great influences in our girls’ lives. They knew what foods to make from my mom for every Jewish holiday … and my dad was in the kitchen with them,” says Beth Salzman, Rachel’s mother. “They were role models about giving back and being selfless; it’s what you do as a Jew.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Beth got involved in Temple Israel, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, soon after moving to the state’s seacoast. She is now a synagogue board member. She and other members of a new mahjong group are now pooling funds to give monthly anonymous donations to a worthwhile cause, such as a Thanksgiving meal for people in a shelter. “If you get into the groove of it, there’s no stopping that,” Beth says.
Elyse Thaler, another of Herb’s three adult children, says that her handy father, who had “an engineering mind,” always had a workbench with projects in progress.
“He and my mom designed and figured out” how to make the menorahs, says Elyse.
Ethan, who is Elyse’s older son and Rachel’s cousin, followed in Herb and Rachel’s footsteps by making some 100 Meister Menorahs for his Bar Mitzvah project, at Temple Habonim, in Barrington.
Ethan, with Elyse and Herb, delivered the menorahs to various nursing homes in the East Bay. Ethan and his cousins – when they came to visit – painted the menorahs, and Elyse, who taught first grade at Temple Habonim’s religious school, also engaged her pupils in painting them.
“I was glad I was able to connect with my grandpa and bring something to the Jewish community,” says Ethan, who learned Herb’s Jewish values at holiday celebrations and through Herb’s stories of his own childhood memories.
In addition to his Meister Menorah project, many years ago Herb served as Brotherhood president, and Melba as Sisterhood president, at Temple Beth-El, in Providence, where Elyse and her siblings – Beth Salzman and Andrew Meister – attended religious school. Of her parents, Elyse says, “They gave and gave to Beth-El, which benefited tremendously. They never pushed any of us [into philanthropic activities]; it was all observation. All three of us were presidents of PROVTY, Beth-El’s youth group.”
After delivering 30 Meister Menorahs for her Bat Mitzvah project, Rachel continued to make, paint and deliver them through her junior year in college. Today, she is completing her final year of graduate school in occupational therapy at the University of New Hampshire.
“I hope to work some day with older adults in a skilled-nursing facility or assisted-living facility,” she says. “This passion that I learned from my grandpa is now my dream career, improving overall quality of life and bringing joy to older adults.”
Herb’s volunteerism runs deep. In addition to being active at Beth-El, and in Newport’s Touro Synagogue, he has been a longtime volunteer with JERI, a program established by the Jewish Seniors Agency (JSA) and now part of Jewish Collaborative Services, and a dedicated and consistent donor to JSA, says Sara Ades Goodwin, JCS director of major gifts. Many former JSA staff members, who now work at JCS, “think the world of Herb,” she says.
“In appreciation of Herb’s extraordinary dedication and generous commitment to bettering the lives of so many of our Jewish seniors, JCS chose to dedicate our annual Hanukkah programs for, and outreach to, Jewish residents in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in honor of Herb’s beloved Melba, whose holiday meals, Shabbat traditions and kindnesses enriched the lives of so many,” Goodwin said.
Known for having strong opinions and being comfortable expressing them, Herb is proud that his three children are all engaged with their Jewish communities. Of his grandchildren, he says, “They listen; they watched; they did. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Matter-of-fact about his myriad contributions and acts of loving-kindness, he says, “This is my religion; helping people is what we do.”
JESSICA MURPHY is Jewish Collaborative Services’ marketing and communications manager.