Mitzvah Care volunteers forge deep spiritual bonds with elders

Each week, through her work as a volunteer with the Mitzvah Care for the Elderly program, Jane Stepak has the opportunity to make a little magic.

"For me, it is magic," said Stepak, one of the newest members of a team of volunteers striving to bring the spirit and warmth of Judaism to isolated Jewish seniors living in Bay Area nursing homes.

Stepak, who lives in Greenbrae, regularly visits Jewish residents — who would otherwise have little or no contact with the Jewish community — at the Sharon Heights Convalescent Hospital in Menlo Park.

Launched by a grant from the Albert L. and Janet A. Schultz Supporting Foundation of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Endowment Fund, the program recently received a $10,000 grant in second-year funding from the Schultz Foundation.

According to longtime Berkeley volunteer Denah Bookstein, the ultimate goal of the program is to forge spiritual relationships with seniors, based on a common Jewish bond.

"Often, elderly Jews are in care facilities that have no expertise in serving the needs of Jewish clients. Mitzvah Care provides them with people who can share stories and Jewish experiences," she said.

To that end, program volunteers, who have weekly visits with one or more seniors at a single site, participate in ongoing training sessions.

"Sometimes just knowing that we're both Jewish is enough. Other times we'll get into deeply spiritual places in our conversations," said Stepak, reflecting on her visits with one of her favorite clients, 90-year-old Sadie Greene.

"It's always nice to have a visitor, and this one is particularly nice," said Greene of Stepak. "We usually talk about family, with a little politics thrown in…Just your ordinary back and forth conversation."

For Bookstein, what began as a simple friendly visit with her client, 86-year-old Ethyl Roeder, has since evolved into a much deeper connection.

In fact, Bookstein grew so close with Roeder that she recently took it upon herself to help get the elderly woman moved from her room at San Francisco's Laguna Honda Hospital to the city's Jewish Home for the Aged.

"Ethyl's Jewish identity means so much to her and she wanted to live in a Jewish setting," Bookstein explained.

With every visit she makes, Bookstein said, she "always brings something Jewish into Ethyl's life…be it a card with `shalom' on it, traditional Jewish food, popular Yiddish expressions or discussions about the meaning of prayer."

Mitzvah Care volunteers come to the program for a variety of reasons, from enhancing their own spirituality to maintaining the Jewish mitzvah of caring for the elderly.

For San Mateo resident Sharon Behrend, the decision to become a Mitzvah Care volunteer was finalized after returning from a trip to visit her father at his nursing home in Omaha, Neb.

"I remember seeing residents just sitting there day in and day out with no one coming to visit them. And I couldn't stop thinking how sad that was," she said.

Mitzvah Care is operated by the Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center of Mount Zion Health Systems Inc. in partnership with the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services and San Francisco Ministry to Nursing Homes

For information about the program, or to become a volunteer, call Ruach Ami at (415) 885-7785. For information about how to make a grant, call JCEF Endowment Director Phyllis Cook at (415) 512-6211.