Volunteers forging spiritual connection with elders

Some volunteers deliver meals to the homebound. Some read to the blind. And still others are choosing to spend their time with the elderly, helping them grapple with issues concerning God, death and Judaism.

A team of Mitzvah Care Spiritual Volunteers is currently visiting nursing homes to discuss Judaism and spiritual topics with Jewish residents, thanks to a 1-1/2-year-old program.

Volunteers in the program — established by the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, and the San Francisco Ministry to Nursing Homes — work to build spiritual bonds with their clients.

Allyn Stern, a 34-year-old San Francisco book store owner, recently talked about Purim and Passover with her 91-year-old client at the Hillhaven HealthCare Center in San Francisco. Although her client wasn't quite ready to discuss religion and God, Stern said their spiritual discussions revolved around musings about Jewish food and life.

Stern acknowledged that treading in spiritual waters can be tricky. She wants to build a solid relationship before trying to make a deeper, more spiritual connection.

Sheryl Groden, one of the spiritual volunteer coordinators and a JFCS social worker, agreed with Stern that establishing a spiritual bond is not easy. She acknowledged that while it might at first be difficult for volunteers to serve as more than just friendly visitors, the real goal of the project is to get clients to open up about spiritual concerns.

To better equip the team of spiritual volunteers, Groden and Rabbi Jeffery Silberman of Ruach Ami hold training meetings and monthly debriefing sessions.

These meetings are especially helpful to 40-year-old Helen Barnes of Larkspur, who regularly visits an 84-year-old woman at the Central Gardens Convalescent Home in San Francisco.

"Many of the clients have experienced losses, loneliness and isolation from their communities and from longtime friends and family members," Barnes said, adding that the role-playing exercises and the suggestions from the rabbi were valuable.

Silberman suggested that volunteers bring a Jewish text to use as a tool in their meetings with clients. So the next time Barnes visited a client, she came armed with a siddur and read prayers and psalms. "It seemed to help," Barnes said.

One reason that Barnes enjoys the volunteer program is that it enhances her own spiritual connection. That's why the part-time manager and the mother of a school-age child spends two hours a week visiting the elderly.

"Sometimes you don't know why you do something," she said. "When I read about the [program], I was drawn to what they were doing. I wanted to do something in the community. It's definitely something that was missing in my life."

Conversations with clients are often lively. Barnes, who also visits an 86-year-old at the same home, said the man is quick as a whip and loves to challenge Torah portions. "I brought him the parashah of the week and read it to him. He asked me: `Now do you think that really happened?'"