They say in times of crisis, there are moments that unburden those in the crisis and those who are caring for them. And somewhere between a ceasefire, a terrorist bombing in Tel Aviv, and unrelenting rockets attacks into Israel, in the home of an elderly woman in Ashkelon, that moment came for me.
For the past 15 years I have shuttled back and forth between my home in Jerusalem and my work in Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union. One of my most cherished jobs is to visit the poor, elderly Jews served by JDC. And while certainly these visits are a kind of bikur cholim (the Jewish commandment, or mitzvah, for visiting the sick), I have come to realize that I might get much more out of them than the people I spend time with.
While many of the people I have visited are too old and frail to make it outside of their ramshackle homes, their spirit and will to live can inspire even the most cynical of people. Their stories of courage, perseverance, and pride keep me refreshed and eager to help as much as I can.
I experienced this once again when my employer mobilized staff to visit and comfort elderly Israelis living under constant threat of rocket attack. This is in addition to the wide-ranging work — including hot meal provision, emergency kit distribution, volunteer activities for children in bomb shelters — that the organization has been doing as it cares for people with disabilities, children at risk, and seniors during this time.
And that’s where I met Ada. At 90 years old (actually, she's almost 90 — she whispered that it would only be official in February), she didn’t look a day over 65. Despite the fact that she had seen some very hard work over the years, she also had the softest hands imaginable. And instead of me comforting her in her time of need, she stroked my hair and held my hand and provided me with a support I didn't even know I needed.
Ada lives on the 3rd floor of a walkup apartment. She is a doctor who specialized in family medicine before immigrating to Israel from the former Soviet Union in 1993. She also experienced the systematic, anti-Jewish persecution of the Soviets.
But none of this seemed to have fazed Ada — even after the death of her husband in 1994, the various crises she has lived through in Israel and previously in the Soviet Union, and even today, where she worries constantly about the next siren.
That’s because Ada has a zest for life that nothing can quash — not even the rockets that have flown over her head and landed in areas surrounding her home for more than a week. When I asked her about her secret to eternal youth and her positive attitude, she told me she stays very social with family and friends, doesn't make a big deal of the aches and pains of being old, and takes enormous pride in her country and her decision to move here.
She also participates in the Warm Homes program for seniors in Ashkelon. A JDC program that was started in the former Soviet Union, Warm Homes in Israel gather together seniors living in the same neighborhood at the apartment of one of the participants. There, over light refreshments, they talk about history, politics, read books, or knit. The Warm Home gives them an opportunity and reason to get up and get dressed and get out of the house twice a week. Ada says she even puts on lipstick when she attends.
But during my visit, all that comfort seemed lost. And while no rockets fell on Ashkelon while we visited Ada (a welcome fact because she does not have a bomb shelter in her home), I asked her what she does when the sirens go off. She told me that when she has the strength, she slowly walks down two flights of stairs to a safe room. And while Ada looks great for 90, I can tell you that going up and down two flights of stairs 18 times in one day — the number of missiles fired at Ashkelon on Saturday — it can't be easy for her. That was a reality I hadn’t realized or expected.
As my colleagues and I began our drive back to our office, the sirens went off in Ashkelon. We were in the car — and following army instructions, we pulled over to the side of the road and laid flat on the ground. I lifted my head to see the Iron Dome missile streaming through the sky to intercept the rocket that headed right for Ada’s neighborhood.
I was thankful for a lot of things at that moment, but most importantly, for knowing that each and every person in Israel matters and is accounted for and is being looked after, even by simple people like me who go and pay a visit to an elderly woman in a city at the heart of the crisis.
And make no mistake about it: though I went to visit Ada to support her, I am the one who came out stronger, more hopeful, and even a bit younger at heart.
Rina Edelstein, a Jerusalem resident, is a director of strategic partnerships for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
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