In the Company of Angels

This morning, my poor heart was both crying and smiling at the same time. From 9:00 a.m. until 2:15 p.m. I was at Melabev in Jerusalem. You see, as much as I like reading lots of books, taking exercise classes at the YMCA  and playing “words with friends,” I have felt somewhat unproductive while in Jerusalem. So I decided to find someplace where I could, as my father used to say, “Make yourself useful.” A friend of mine put me in touch with a new organization called Skilled Volunteers for Israel whose founder, Marla Gamoran, took me to Melabev.

Not intending to play Jewish geography, the lady in charge of Melabev, Marsha Donshik, and I have a few things in common: her husband is first cousin to my eye doctor in West Hartford, and he also took the Jewish Communal Service course in L.A where my husband, Steve, and I met.

Marsha had me spend the day with two different groups of people with varying degrees of Alzheimer’s. The first group was able to participate in a word game which was challenging. They then did seated exercise and most were able to follow along although a couple of people fell asleep!

When I was introduced, the patients asked me lots of questions and I felt like I was in a classroom of lively, smart, educated, interested people. One man knew most of the answers to the word game, but due to his illness, he was very difficult to understand. Yet he persevered, and everyone was extremely patient. It turns out that he was a poet, and the lady leading the game went out and got his published book and read a poem from the book to the group. People applauded, and told him they were proud of him for writing the book. The atmosphere was positive, relaxed, and comfortable.

In the second room where I was introduced, one woman smiled and waved; some glanced in my direction, the rest just sat there. The group was doing some exercises although only a handful of the 30 people in this room participated. One man kept getting up.  He wanted to get to the other side of the road.  We suggested that he might want to wait until later, but he answered in a lovely British accent, “Better not to wait.” One of our volunteer roles was to take turns walking with him. When he wanted to sit, they warned me that you had to move the chair for him, because he had no spatial recognition, and we had to help him sit down.  In the space of about half an hour, this occurred about 20 times.

When it was time for “tfilot” (prayer service), the leader passed a microphone to different people and asked them to read either in English or Hebrew. I was amazed at how well people could still read in both languages. They retained their accents, so I could tell that some people were originally from Germany, Poland, England as well as other English speaking countries. Others were asked to lead the singing, and I noticed that when we sang, the gentleman who was always getting up, stayed planted in his seat. He led the singing several times in a loud, clear voice, if off key. Although the staff and volunteers distributed prayer packets to everyone, those people who were singing knew the prayers by heart and didn’t need the packets.

After the service, it was lunch time. I wondered how we would get all those mobility challenged people into a cafeteria. But I soon discovered that the patients didn’t have to go anywhere.  Tables with red and white checkered table cloths were brought into the room where the people were already sitting.  Their chairs were moved slightly so they would sit around the tables. Then soup was brought in- which smelled delicious. I wondered how we would manage helping people eat and miraculously the room’s population doubled when the patients’ personal caretakers came in, got the food, and made sure that each person was fed.   Before I knew it, lunch was over and the Center’s vans arrived.  The caretakers gently led the patients to the waiting vans.

I volunteered 3 days a week for almost three weeks primarily with the group that participated in the word games.  I have become very fond of many of the people at Melabev. While the patients do not remember my name,  most seem to recognize me and are happy to see me. One morning, when the groups were playing different board games, I was helping with a math game at one table.  Suddenly I heard, in a loud voice, “Hey Rebbetzin!” This lady wanted me to come to help her at her table with a bananagram game. She didn’t remember my name, but she did remember that I was a Rebbetzin. Furthermore, she didn’t want me to leave her table!

When one man left the room, I asked if he needed any help, he smiled, and said, “Where I am going, you can’t go.”  Some of the men prefer to sit with other men at a table, and some are happy to sit with the ladies.  I have noticed that at the Thursday Kabbalat Shabbat service, one of the men finds a way to be seated next to a particular lady.

While the patients arrive in the morning and we bring in breakfast there is often an interval of time between arrivals. During these periods, I especially love to sit and chat with the people who are there and hear their unique life stories. One woman, born in Berlin, was brought to live with a Christian family in England at age 14. She later joined the British military and met her husband who was a soldier from Holland.  The couple made Aliyah in 1951. Another woman was a pediatric nurse from Pennsylvania; another worked as a social worker in NYC. One woman who spends the whole time in a wheelchair, and has trouble grasping the bands used in exercise class, was a concert pianist.

Melabev is a wonderful place, where the ethos is kindness and respect. Everyone who works or volunteers there demonstrates this and there is a peaceful and happy air about the place. I feel privileged to be able to help the angels who run Melabev make the lives of their clients,  who have been through so much in their lives, feel safe and happy. I look forward to volunteering there again when I come back to Israel in October.

Vickie Fuchs, Volunteer July 2012

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