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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Group links seniors to faith community

Gerald Cooper and his wife, Lorraine, attend a senior luncheon at Temple Beth Shalom on Tuesday, thanks to the ride they got from Jewish Family Services, which helps the elderly and less fortunate.
 (Holly Pickett / The Spokesman-Review)
Virginia De Leon Staff writer

It’s a chance to get out of the house, eat a home-cooked meal, visit old friends they wouldn’t see otherwise.

Every month, at least a dozen seniors – many of whom can no longer drive or leave their homes without help – gather at Temple Beth Shalom for a luncheon sponsored by Jewish Family Services.

“It’s the only time we see everyone else,” said 88-year-old Lorraine Cooper, who attended last week’s special Hanukkah party along with her 90-year-old husband, Jerry. “It means a lot for us to come here.”

Unless they get a ride, the couple can’t leave home. Jerry’s frail health also has prevented them from regularly attending Sabbath services at the synagogue, their spiritual home since they were married more than half a century ago.

So in many ways, Jewish Family Services has become their lifeline.

Volunteers at the nonprofit not only keep them connected with other Jews in the area by bringing them to the monthly luncheon; in the past, they’ve helped the couple with errands, driven them to doctors and brought hot meals to their home.

For the past five years, the group has worked behind the scenes to help the elderly and less fortunate in Spokane. This tiny organization has an annual budget of less than $75,000. It receives virtually no grants, has only one paid staff member and survives solely on tzedaka, or charitable gifts, from the area’s three Jewish congregations.

Still, the nonprofit has managed to help more than 120 seniors in recent years by providing them with transportation, shopping assistance, home visits, meal preparations and regular assurance calls. It also has made many referrals and supplied the needy with hundreds of pounds of food every year.

While Jewish Family Services helps anyone, regardless of their race, ethnicity or religion, the vast majority of their clients are Jewish. In fact, many are Jews who don’t belong to a congregation but for personal reasons have sought the services of an organization that’s familiar with their faith.

Its goal is essentially that of every Jew – to pursue tukkun olam, or the healing of the world, by helping those in need, said Deborah Taylor, the group’s executive director.

With its limited funds, however, Jewish Family Services’ focus in the Spokane area has been on the elderly.

“There’s so much emphasis on youth that seniors are sometimes forgotten,” Taylor said. “Seniors possess tremendous wisdom and potential. Years of living have given them a great deal of knowledge. We can’t let that go to waste.”

At last week’s luncheon, about 20 seniors spent two hours talking as they enjoyed a traditional Hanukkah meal of latkes, or fried potato pancakes, smothered in applesauce and sour cream. Ethel Grossman, a longtime Temple Beth Shalom member, spent several hours in the kitchen along with other helpers to prepare the meal using the synagogue’s secret recipe, which has been handed down through the generations. The latkes were served with salad and bowls of split pea soup that Taylor cooked at home.

“I hope everyone is having a good time,” Taylor said after serving each guest. “I hope the food is good.”

The seniors replied with smiles and polite applause.

Taylor usually brings a speaker or a movie to the monthly luncheon but decided to just let the seniors visit with one another during the Hanukkah celebration. She gave each one a gift: chocolates and candies in bright blue bags decorated by the children of Congregation Beth Haverim, one of the two Reform groups in the area.

“They (the volunteers) do a wonderful job,” said Eva Lassman, 86, who gets a ride to these monthly gatherings. “This is such a congenial group and Deborah is just wonderful.”

Since she took over the job of Jewish Family Services executive director this fall, Taylor has played the multiple roles of social worker, referral service, secretary and fund-raiser. She’s been busy, especially as some of these seniors struggle to make sense of the new Medicare plan. When she’s not making home visits or getting ready for senior events, she’s working on fund-raisers that most recently included the Jewish Film Festival and a phone-athon.

A former physical therapist, hospital administrator and religious school educator who specialized in interfaith issues, Taylor’s favorite part of the job is spending time with the seniors. “It’s priceless what a phone call, a short visit or any gesture of kindness can do,” she said.

Working closely with the group’s 11-member volunteer board, Taylor’s goal is to connect seniors in the community with the younger populations. Just recently, students from Temple Beth Shalom had a bake sale to benefit the people served by JFS.

People tend to be isolated these days, especially since extended families no longer live near each other, Taylor said.

“It takes a village to create a community that is viable and healthy and sustainable,” she said. “Kids and seniors make wonderful connections. Being with these older adults gives children a sense of continuity, tradition and history.”

Seniors also benefit because the kids bring them back into the world. Unless they make an effort to reach out, many older adults become isolated, she said, which leads them to deteriorate both physically and mentally.

“This is an attempt to not forget them,” Taylor said, explaining Jewish Family Services’ work with senior citizens. “This is a way to honor their wisdom and experience.”