Bedford Corners — The small, light-filled sanctuary at Temple Shaaray Tefila in this Northern Westchester town was warm and welcoming as attendees walked in slowly or were wheeled in by attentive family members.
As the small group sat in a semi-circle in front of the ark, Rabbi Michael Goldman led them in a modified High Holy Day service (the event took place between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur). There was shofar blowing, reciting the Shema together, chanting Avinu Malkeinu, Yizkor and Neilah. Participants joined in familiar melodies and phrases of prayers that tapped into long-seated, hard-wired memories.
For Yizkor, Goldman urged the congregants to think of their family members and friends, and “bring back their faces, remember the way their kitchens smelled, and may we find our place of peace as we remember them.”
Finding ways to connect those who have memory loss or cognitive decline to Judaism and spiritual experience is Goldman’s mission, which has informed his founding and leadership of the nonprofit Seivah organization.
Seivah: Life Beyond Memory (beyondmemory.org) offers services specifically targeted to those with some form of memory loss, and their caregivers, to help them feel included and part of the Jewish community. There are programs at local synagogues, like Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle and Shaarei Tikvah Synagogue in Scarsdale (as well as at Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan). Seivah’s partners include UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Westchester Jewish Community Services and the New York State Department of Health. Some programs are linked to specific holidays in the Jewish calendar, while others focus on connecting participants to musical memories.
Through the Memory Minyan program, which offers appropriate services in a synagogue, “The person can invite friends and family,” said Goldman. “If you create an environment where people let their guard down, they will come out.”
The reality is that no matter how well-meaning or compassionate a congregation may be, sitting through traditional services can be challenging for those with some kind of cognitive decline — and their family members or caregivers can feel uncomfortable. Just as synagogues have developed special “tot Shabbats” for younger children and their families, recognizing that a shorter and more interactive experience is likely to be more successful, services designed for those who have some memory loss can deliver a more meaningful and less stressful experience.
WJCS, which partnered with Seivah on this project, “is committed to caring for individuals with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers to create spaces and events where people with dementia and their caregivers can both have meaningful Jewish experiences,” said Sherry Birnbaum in an email response.
Added Briana Hilfer, planning associate at UJA-Federation’s aging and caring department, “We’re trying to meet older adults where they’re at. It’s difficult to get them to services. In terms of connecting to Jewish life, this is a big piece of it.”
When Goldman trains volunteers, one of the goals is giving them a comfort level in dealing with someone who has dementia, to recognize cues and how to be “in the moment,” he said. At the Shaaray Tefila program, for example, Goldman urged the volunteers to “keep your face open and smooth and maintain the tone and demeanor of adult conversation. Just like Abraham did, go out and greet the person. Whoever walks in is another stranger here to daven and have a Jewish spirituality experience.”
Memory Minyan is not the only program recognizing the needs of those with memory issues.
Rabbi Tamar Crystal, Westchester chaplain for the New York Board of Rabbis, goes to several nursing homes, independent living and assisted living residences in Westchester to do a modified service. She has developed booklets, targeted to each specific population, to ignite their interest.
The services she offers are “story and song oriented, with ‘smells and bells,’” said Rabbi Crystal. “It’s seeing where they are. The residents are so hungry for engagement. This sparks something in them.”
There will be a program, “Meaning & Melody with the American Songbook,” Wednesday, Dec. 19, 1 p.m., at Shaarei Tikvah Synagogue, 36 Fox Meadow Road, Scarsdale. For more information or to RSVP, please contact email@example.com.