We blinked, and the summer is over. Despite the crazy high temperatures in mid-September, it’s time to think about autumn, which means preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This year I decided to check in with some of our community’s rabbis and congregants to see how they make services accessible and enjoyable for their elders.
When I asked specifically about the High Holidays, everyone emphasized that their synagogues think about making their congregations inclusive, welcoming and accessible to elders 365 days a year.
As you have observed or experienced, aging isn’t easy. We have always been multitaskers and it is hard to accept that things we love to do aren’t so easy anymore. Being part of a minyan, volunteering for the sisterhood or attending High Holiday services are just harder.
Synagogues see this and want to maintain connection with aging members.
“One of the most important things is to make sure that we don’t forget the people who were there for us when they were young and vibrant,” says Rabbi Richard Perlman of Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody. “It’s our turn to help them connect at a time in life when people can question their relevance. Our seniors have fabulous minds, but sometimes they can’t get around. What can we do about that? We remember the people who built and nurtured our shul by creating programs for them [where] they can participate in-person or virtually.”
“Inclusion is an ongoing commitment,” says Rabbi Michael Ragozin of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott. He told me the story of a 106-year-old congregant who attended services at Shirat Hayam regularly. “Everyone knew her and was so happy to see her,” he said. “There was a chair for her in the front of the synagogue.
“Attending services filled her with joy at a time when she felt incredible loneliness,” says her daughter, Alva Parker. “Being part of the community there was everything to her. It amazed me to see how every effort was made to help her participate in the service.”
Should I go to services?
There are a few things to consider before deciding to attend High Holiday services:
• How long is the service? Can you leave if you feel that you have had enough?
• Do you have transportation to and from synagogue?
• Do you need help walking into the building?
• Can you sit in close proximity to the rest room?
• How is your mobility? Can you walk without assistance?
• Can you bring a companion?
• Does your synagogues have space for wheelchairs and walkers?
• If hearing is an issue, ask the synagogue staff if they have listening devices.
Are there large-print prayer books?
If you decide that attending in-person is too challenging, you can still participate. Find out about streaming and ask for technical help if you need it. We all do at one time or another.
Invite a loved one (or two or three) to join you at home to watch the service.
It is a cherished honor to be called to the bimah for an aliyah. Many synagogues have made adaptations to the tradition because it is difficult for older people to safely get to the bimah.
“If congregants decline aliyah because of mobility issues, I will be the first one to give a hand to make it possible for them,” says Rabbi Idan Irelander of North Andover.
Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly has implemented a group aliyah so that people don’t have to leave their seats. The congregation will soon bring services from the bimah to the same level as the congregation, says Rabbi Alison Adler of Temple B’nai Abraham, so stairs will not be an issue. “We have a reading table in front of the pulpit so that Torah is accessible to everyone during the High Holidays and throughout the year.”
The holidays are a time for families and friends of all ages to gather. It is also a time for congregants to take pride in the community they have been part of.
“People want to see that the synagogue they love has a future,” says Rabbi Ragozin. “Our seniors want to feel the energy of the congregation that many had a hand in building.”
Older members take pride in watching students preparing for bar and bat mitzvahs chant from the Torah. Parents and grandparents get a kick out of attending children’s services. These elements of celebration and prayer help everyone look toward future and feel the echo of tradition.
Services for elders living in assisted living and skilled nursing residences
Chelsea Jewish Lifecare provides hybrid services for residents. “If someone cannot leave their apartment or room,” says Ellen Gordon, director of Resident Life, “they can participate in holiday services that are live-streamed thanks to Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott and Central Synagogue in New York.
“We have live-streamed with Shirat Hayam during the pandemic,” says Gordon. “The rabbi welcomes our residents by name, which helps everyone feel a part of the service.”
The Sons of Israel Congregation has collaborated with Chelsea Jewish Life Care’s Peabody campus for the past year. “High Holiday Services are held here on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. We host the congregation monthly, which gives our residents an opportunity to get to know the congregation,” adds Gordon. “Residents are thrilled to participate. We know it is successful because every time we host a service, more people attend.” Θ
Carolyn Eggert writes from Newton. Previously she was a reporter for People magazine. Questions? Please email her at Carolyneggert@yahoo.com.