For a while, I have dreamed of volunteering at a senior center in Israel. I love working with the elderly- their sense of perspective, wisdom, and warmth always inspires me, as does the power of a simple conversation, smile, or “hello” with them. That’s why I was so excited when I heard from Marla about Melabev. I was very happy to hear that she and Terry found an opportunity for me to apply my passion for working with seniors in Israel, and in a place where I could improve my Hebrew in an Israeli, Hebrew-speaking environment. And what a shidduch (match) they made!
Melabev is a senior center dedicated to supporting and empowering those with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Their approach is unique in that they stress the positive and what the seniors are capable of doing- whether it is singing, dancing, art, exercise, or conversation. The “day program” is not known as such; rather, it is framed as a “moadon,” or a club, where participants come for much needed social contact, two delicious meals, and a wonderful community.
Melabev has exceeded my expectations for both personal growth and for opportunities to serve Israelis. From the first hour the staff encouraged me to jump right in, helping model physical exercises and speaking with seniors, serving meals, and assisting transportation. Knowing I am in rabbinical school, they encouraged me to speak about the weekly Torah portion and to share songs and experiences with the seniors. I felt like part of the team from day one.
I can credit the seamless transition into volunteering to the relationship Terry and Marla have developed with Melabev. They streamlined the application process and set me up for success, briefing me on what to expect and making sure the Melabev staff knew what were appropriate roles for me to play. From day one I knew where to go and what was expected of me, which enabled me to concentrate my efforts on what was most important: the seniors.
It’s easy to interact with the club members in the uniquely professional and “homey” environment Melabev has created. With Israeli Sherut Leumi (National Service) members and volunteers, the seniors receive a unique personal touch as the professional staff and specialists direct intentional therapy and memory exercises. One of my favorite parts of Melabev is that everyone pitches in with everything- therapists and volunteers and social workers eat together and serve food together and even help out in the kitchen. The staff is a mini-microcosm of Israel- Ethiopian and Russian and Arab and Sabra and American and religious and secular working together and sharing the responsibility to provide an excellent, personal experience to the club members.
That personal touch is what for me distinguishes Melabev from other senior centers and nursing homes I have worked at. I’ll always remember how staff and volunteers warmly escort members to their dining seats, quite literally offering that “personal touch.” The staff knows each participant in and out. They deliver a food plate and coffee just for each person, and quickly notice and address if a club member has a change in mood. They are familiar with each member’s personality and interests as well, and deliberately form therapy groups based on interest and cognitive ability, so that each club member gets the most out of the experience.
One of my favorite parts of Melabev is to watch faces transform. In the “multisensory” room, club members stimulate their senses with neon water bubblers and mood lights, smooth skin cream, and soothing music. They practice meditation and benefit from massage and a warm group environment. When the neon lights came on, I heard “how beautiful” and their faces lit up. When they left the room, the participants were all smiles. It is so gratifying to be part of a place that brings such joy to people.
It is also, for me, one of the greatest honors I can think of to serve this population. It is not only a great mitzvah to honor the elderly, but moreover, in the words of one of the musical specialists, these club members literally built the Israel we enjoy today. From countries around the world (Morocco, Iraq, France, Russia, to name just a few), they worked in professional fields ranging from government to industry to teaching and food preparation and fought the wars that defended Israel. Moreover, they built the people of Israel through their families; they worked hard to raise children and grandchildren and great grandchildren who have families of their own, and who make up today’s Israel. They are the foundation, the rock on which Israel is built. It is therefore profoundly meaningful for me to serve this population, to not only gain insight into Israel- to hear their stories of childhood games and of singing Shalom Aleichem on Jerusalem balconies, but also to feel like I am a part of their Israel, to give back to those who gave so much, to put my foot into the collective Jewish project that is Israel.
I am so grateful that Melabev and SVFI enabled me meet the people who created Israel generations ago, and enabled me give back to them today. I already miss the club members- their smiles, their energetic singing of “Oseh Shalom,” their life advice and love of family, their greetings of “Tihyeh bari- be healthy,” and their genuine joy in life. As much as I contributed my time and energy, I gained so much more from my relationships with some of Israel’s most amazing people.
Ben Chaidell Summer 2014