Food, holidays: Its the details that make nursing homes Jewish

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What makes a Jewish nursing home Jewish? As is the case with questions about God, the answer may lie in the details.

Throughout North America, Jewish nursing-home administrators are seeking new ways to bring a Jewish presence into their facilities.

A Jewish home for the aged in Des Moines, Iowa, shows closed-circuit broadcasts of Shabbat services to residents who can't get out of their rooms.

In Montreal, one Jewish home offers Shabbat services and family seders — and its gift shop closes on Jewish holidays.

And last week, during the national symposium of Associated Auxiliaries of Jewish Homes for the Aged in San Francisco, Carol Rosenberg of the Jewish Home for the Aged in West Bloomfield, Mich., addressed such facilities' most pressing concerns.

Representatives from Jewish nursing homes throughout the country attended the three-day symposium at the Holiday Inn Golden Gateway.

Assessing the details that make a home Jewish, Rosenberg advised the distribution of large-print Passover haggadot as well as copies of the local Jewish newspaper and lists of local synagogues.

And while it may not be advisable for nursing-home patients to fast on Yom Kippur, staff members can enliven Jewish holidays by serving apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah and providing electric chanukiot for the Festival of Lights.

Nursing homes can also put up a Jewish calendar and nail mezzuzot to the doors, she said. They can have music from "Fiddler on the Roof" playing on the phone line for callers on hold.

Homes also have more serious questions to consider, particularly around end-of-life issues.

"A Jew dies differently," Rosenberg said, explaining that someone has to stay with a body until it is buried. Someone also must perform a ritual cleansing. It is also helpful if plans have been made for a Jewish burial.

In addition, aging brings up other issues, she explained, including depression, whose incidence tends to increase around holidays. Holidays are a reflective time, and many nursing-home residents have lost a great deal, including friends, spouses and autonomy.

The only "portable" form of support that everyone can keep until they die is religion, Rosenberg said.

She also discussed how Jewish nursing homes can be the scene for happy events. One home hosted a brit. Another held a marriage ceremony. Others exhibit paintings and small collections of Jewish art on loan from museums.

One way Jews in nursing homes can allay depression is by reaching out.

"Do a mitzvah outside your internal organization," Rosenberg said, suggesting that nursing-home residents adopt projects that bring cheer to Jews who live in non-Jewish nursing homes. She added that they can assemble fruit baskets for patients in hospitals.

Food in a Jewish nursing home, she noted, should be fresh; it should be of high quality and it ought to be kosher. She advised administrators to keep a Jewish cookbook handy.

Homes must uphold these essentials, she said, even though social-service cutbacks are making it more difficult.

A Jewish facility need not have an all-Jewish staff, she added.

"It doesn't matter if you're a black from Indonesia," she said. "As long as you know what's Jewish about Jewish homes, you're a cut above the rest."