Global Jewish Reflections | This Elul, Remembering to Care for Our Jewish Elderly

The High Holidays liturgy offers a powerful reminder of the need to care for the most vulnerable members of our Jewish communities, Rabbi Alex Braver writes.

By Rabbi Alex Braver - Associate Rabbi; Congregation Tifereth Israel, Columbus, Ohio | August 19, 2021

Rabbi Alex Braver speaks at an interfaith social justice event in Columbus, Ohio, where he lives and works.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

The elderly woman I was visiting had a French accent. She had grown up as a Jew in Tunisia, then made her way to France and then the U.S., finally settling down in this apartment on the Lower East Side where she was receiving hospice care. I’d been assigned to give her a visit as part of my chaplaincy training program, working at a soup kitchen and social services agency the summer of my final year of rabbinical school. Already raw from losing my own mother to cancer just a few months prior, visiting with this isolated woman was both difficult and extremely moving for me, as we talked about the ups and downs of her life, her family, and her spiritual journey. 

One day, as I left her home, I got a call from the agency — there was a confirmed case of bedbugs in her apartment! They advised me that when I got home I should walk into my entryway, strip off all my clothes, double-bag them in garbage bags, and bring them to the office the next day to be treated. The next time I was to visit her, I would have to wear “the suit,” a scratchy white outfit with booties and gloves I’d wear over my usual business-casual rabbi-in-training attire.

Serafima Ladygina, 87, lives alone in Moldova and depends on her JDC homecare worker Liudmila to survive.

I have a visceral squeamishness about bugs, and I can’t say that I didn’t contemplate just never returning. But there was something about the holiness of the work — of sitting with someone in need, hearing their story, and being fully present with them — that helped me work up the courage to come back the next week, fully suited up, to sit at her bedside again and spend time talking and praying together.

“Al tashlicheini l’eit ziknah” — “Do not cast me away in my old age.

These words from Psalm 71, woven into the Yom Kippur prayer services, strike me every year as I think about my own aging, my aging family members, and those people I’ve had the sacred privilege of sitting with and — with just my presence — demonstrating that they have not been cast away.

It’s this type of sacred work that JDC helps facilitate around the world every day, as hundreds of homecare workers serve more than 80,000 elderly Jews across the former Soviet Union — not just with food and medicine, but with companionship, dignified care, and a connection to the Jewish community. I’ve learned about many of their stories through my husband’s work documenting and sharing their stories as JDC’s senior video and digital content producer.

It’s this type of sacred work that JDC helps facilitate around the world every day, as hundreds of homecare workers serve more than 80,000 elderly Jews across the former Soviet Union.

One such woman is Serafima Ladygina, who lives alone in Bălți, the second-largest city in Moldova — Europe’s poorest country. Born in Belarus in 1934, she lost both parents by the time she turned five, and in 1941, as the war drew closer, her orphanage was evacuated to Russia, where she faced difficult and hungry years full of antisemitism and manual labor. Serafima worked hard all her life, and was married for 46 years before losing her husband in 2007. She has no children and now lives on a pension of just $86 a month. With her story and circumstances, it would be easy for her to be cast away now at the age of 87.

But JDC is her lifeline, and Serafima’s homecare worker Liudmila provides her with the compassion and presence that I was so moved to be able to provide during that chaplaincy summer. While I had to wear a bedbug suit, Liudmila and so many other homecare workers contended with the upheaval of new and evolving COVID-19 guidelines to maintain that connection — to make sure no one was cast away in their old age.

Serafima Ladygina

“It’s too bad that it only got like this toward the end of my life. In my life, in all those years, I’ve never had attention like this,” Serafima told my husband when he interviewed her in 2019, marveling at what Liudmila and JDC were able to provide her. “All that I’ve learned, I’ve learned through pain, through experience, through living life. It’s something holy, the fact that I’m not alone now.”

This Hebrew month of Elul is meant to be a time of preparation for the High Holidays, to prepare us for the vulnerability and intensity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, where we contemplate matters of life and death — who we are and who we want to be.

What can we do now, in this time, so that when we arrive at Yom Kippur at the line “Al tashlicheini l’eit ziknah” — “Do not cast me away in my old age“ — we can say it with our full heart and soul? How can we arrive at that moment knowing we’ve helped provide care for others at the end of their lives, the way we’d wish it for ourselves? We can use this time to cultivate our own ability to be present with compassion for those we love, and to support those who do this sacred work for our global Jewish family.

That’s a lesson JDC helps me remember.

Alex Braver is the associate rabbi at Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio, where he lives with his husband Alex Weisler, their son Ezra, and their dog Benjy.

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