This posting does not necessarily represent the positions, strategies or opinions of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
By 2015, it is estimated that 11% of Israel’s population will be elderly – that’s one million people. Shockingly, one in three seniors in Israel lives under the poverty line and JDC-Eshel partners with local Israeli groups to combat poverty and develop strategies that preserve the dignity of Israel’s seniors, many of whom are Holocaust survivors.
Each morning, I head from my apartment at the edge of Rachavia up north to the Haredi neighbourhood of Sanhedria, where I volunteer at the Bayit Bayer day program held in the basement of the Idan Home for the Aged. JDC is known for investing in programs that promote self-sufficiency and indeed the 80-or-so clients (yes, they are deliberately treated as paying customers – which they are!) live in their own homes or with their children’s families. Yet, they and their caregivers rely upon the day program to provide a stimulating social environment as well as a nutritious breakfast and lunch. A few of the clients have full-time caretakers who accompany them to the program. It has been fascinating to meet these individuals, as they are from India and the Philippines.
The clients are adorable and endearing “babushkas,” as my supervisor puts it. They are gracious, charming individuals representing a wide range of Jewish backgrounds – from Haredi to secular – and a plethora of languages from French to Russian. While my Canadian French has come in handy at times, I am grateful to the staff and residents for giving me a ‘safe space’ in which to practice my ivrit (Hebrew).
The heart of the program – and my placement – involves three hours of daily activities such as arts and crafts, a daily exercise program, and a new computer literacy program (which unfortunately is a tough sell for most of the clients – although one lady has a flair for Skype). I have been assisting in various ways and integrating myself with the program atmosphere – singing, painting, listening, and serving. I particularly enjoy the interactive shiur (class) where participants are able to connect Jewish teachings to current events – such as ongoing frictions between the ultra-orthodox and secular communities in Jerusalem – and contribute their unique opinions.
The learning curve for me is relatively steep since the bulk of my previous volunteer experience has been with children and youth initiatives as well as with adults who have developmental disabilities. Working with the elderly is a new and exciting foray.
Learn from your Elders
Meanwhile, I am a true believer in the value of serving and learning from one’s elders. A few weeks prior to my trip to Israel, I was humbled to act as an Honourary Witness at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Toronto, Canada. Indigenous and First Nations individuals who had survived trauma in the residential schools system were given a opportunity to share their pain and healing journey. What struck me most was the important role of the Elders in all aspects of the summit and the respect they were shown by youth and adult participants alike.
Although I am officially part of the JDC team in Israel, I have not yet had the chance to explore the rich history of this organization in depth. Fortunately, I will be meeting with key members of the staff – including JDC Israel’s CEO – in the coming weeks. However, I already have a sense of the important role of JDC here. Almost everyone I meet – including at last week’s Israeli Presidential Conference – knows of “The Joint” and many have told me their grandparents or great-grandparents were supported or even “saved” by JDC. It is a privilege to be a small part of an organization that continues to have such broad impact in Israeli history and society.
When not volunteering, I am taking in all that Jerusalem has to offer – meeting wonderful new friends and visiting old ones, exploring the rich cultural scene, and of course seeking out engaging Jewish experiences. This past Shabbat, I attended an amazing Shabbat Dinner with 200 young professionals who had made Aliyah (the official move to Israel). I look forward to spending upcoming Shabbatot in areas of Israel I have not yet explored such as Tzfat and the Galilee. In the coming weeks, I shall continue to share with you my experiences serving, learning and exploring – here in Israel!