Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

Touching Lives, Leaving a Legacy

Touching Lives, Leaving a Legacy

The world stands upon three pillars: Torah, divine service, and acts of loving kindness.

~Pirke Avot 1:2

At the end of this month, the staff and residents of the Jewish Home will bid a fond farewell to Rabbi Anthony Elman. Rabbi Elman came to the Home as an intern in 2004. He became rabbi of Grancell Village in 2006 and director of spiritual life for the Home in 2012. The impact Rabbi Elman has had on everyone at the Home is truly remarkable. His intelligence, kindness and compassion have served us well at every turn, in times of tremendous grief and sadness, joy and laughter, and teachable moments.  

Before beginning life as a spiritual leader, Rabbi Elman had three very full careers:  attorney, social worker, and psychotherapist. “Law is about being organized and being able to write,” explains Rabbi Elman. “Psychotherapy taught me how to listen in a way that can bring out what really may be going on. These skills have been very helpful to me as a rabbi.”

While there are many memorable moments Rabbi Elman will take with him, a few really stand out.  “My first High Holy Days at the Home I gave two sermons. The first was formal and carefully prepared, given from the bimah. The second I went into with a few notes and sat on the front of the bimah. I talked about how God had opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw a spring which she hadn’t seen before,” he remembers. “I used that as an idea of how people may think they see nothing in their lives, but, if they could just open their eyes, they might see what was always available for them. Afterwards, a woman who was attending with her mother, a resident, told me how much those words meant to her and how she was trying to get her mother to be able to take advantage of what is here. I was touched to know a sermon could actually have the possibility of reaching people.”

Another of Rabbi Elman’s fondest memories is of working with three ladies who lived in the Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer Medical Center (JEKMC). Despite advanced age and medical issues, all three attended his classes and services regularly. Together they decided they wanted to be Bat Mitzvahed. They worked together and helped each other. “One day I was looking for them, and there they were, in the arts and crafts room, studying Torah together,” recalls Rabbi. One of the woman completed her studies and celebrated her Bat Mitzvah with family and friends.

And finally, on the day of Rabbi Elman’s ordination, several of the Home’s residents were in attendance.  “As my turn came to speak, Morris Steinberg stood up, raised his cane in the air, and exclaimed “That’s my Rabbi!” That memory still brings a smile to Rabbi Elman’s face.

There are many programs that were created or enhanced by Rabbi. His monthly letter reaches several hundred people, both here at the Home and in the community. He put great thought and care into creating a Friday Night Siddur for our residents. Rabbi was instrumental in our Seder at the Japanese Home as part of the Jewish Home’s Centennial celebration.  

“My most precious repeated event here has been the Friday night service in JEKMC,” Rabbi Elman confides. “Usually about 40 people are gathered together closely. As I’m talking and singing — although I’m not a singer! —  I just put all my energy into it. I believe the residents often feel lifted by that.”

Rabbi Elman also put his special touch on Veteran’s Day and Martin Luther King Day programs.  “My goal is always to lift people to some sense of awe and to educate. The two go hand-in-hand.”  And then there was Purim, a great day of fun and celebration…and dressing up!

As he prepares to move forward in the next chapter of his life, Rabbi Elman summarizes his years at the Jewish Home. “This has been the happiest time of my life. I’ve never found such joy as I have here. It’s like everything I give comes back to me double. How I will miss the residents and staff.”

Rabbi Elman, you will be greatly missed here at the Home. You have touched the lives of so many with your thoughtfulness. As a spiritual leader, you have lifted many. As a co-worker, you always went above and beyond and were the ultimate team player.  As a man, you are a mensch.

On behalf of the residents and staff of the Jewish Home, we wish you great happiness, health and peace. You will always be a part of us.

Rabbi Elman's Final Yom Kippur Sermon at the Los Angeles Jewish Home

It is a month till my retirement: for me a time for a great deal of reflection.  I want to tell you how I got here, and what I have got from here. I want to understand why my 9-year sojourn at the Home has been so special to me - a highlight of my life - and to see if you, as well as I, can find something to learn in this story.

So many places I could begin.  Shall I tell you about the gently Orthodox home I grew up in? How I spent a year teaching in India between school and university, and how that perhaps – who knows? – gave me an injection of  compassion?

 Or maybe how, after studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University (a period in which I embraced the rational and turned my back on religion), I entered one of those professions beloved of Jewish parents – the law? (I hastened to add that it was not my parents who urged me into that profession, it was my own decision based on a belief in the importance of financial security and social respectability (aspects of life that I soon came to realize were really my parents' values, rather than mine.) 

I think my preferred start is how I left the law, and the successful firm I had started with a friend six years before.  The words I uttered were: If I am going to spend my nights worrying, I would rather worry about something more worth-while than how much money my clients make from their contracts.  I didn’t at that stage have biblical or “God-language” to understand that move, but now I would see it as a “lech-lecha” moment, as though God were tapping me on the shoulder and saying: time for a journey into the unknown.  

My next step was to retrain and work as a social-worker – certainly a worth-while profession, but one in which I never really felt at home.  

Along with my professional story, I also need to add in my health story, for it was around this time that I had my first diagnosis of – and treatment for – cancer in my eye.

Eight years after entering social work, I was off on my journey again, this time to a holistic centre for cancer patients, and a training in transpersonal (or spiritual) counseling.  I was deeply affected by my work at the centre, but the major spiritual lesson was in my being fired from the centre by the medical director who felt my rivalry with him.  It was a colleague, a wise healer, who helped me trust that what appeared to be a nasty blow was in fact the right path, and I needed to trust that path.  

This became a central principle for me, and has been a teaching of mine here at the Home: when something bad (or apparently bad) happens, if I can trust it is right, then it will be right.  This has guided me through the ups and downs of my life.

What did happen to me after having to leave the cancer centre was indeed for the good.  I undertook a psychotherapy training and entered a long period of private practice as a psychotherapist.  Also during this period I felt a pull back to my Jewish roots, joined a synagogue (an orthodox one, not unlike the shul of my childhood), and eventually became president of it.  

There were also, over a short span of years, three bad experiences (ones which after the initial shock, I could once again accept as for the good) – the return of my cancer, a divorce not of my own choosing, and the loss of my eye. 

These events took me on a new journey, to aliyah (at the age of 60) and a new life in Jerusalem where I immersed myself in Torah study - until the real purpose of my aliyah became clear. (After all, if we follow a journey not by preconceived plan but by following where we are led by God, we do not know what surprises God has in store for us.)  I met Miriyam, came to Los Angeles with her, married her, entered an academy of Jewish learning and found that the place God had in fact led me to was a beautiful rabbinical training – not something I had ever intended.

I want to pause in my story a moment to ask: Who was this Anthony who was now studying to be a rabbi?  The answer, I think, is much the same Anthony who had studied law 40 years before, though with different interests, knowledge and skills, and with a pleasure in Torah study that hadn’t developed when I was young.

I ask that question, because when I came to the Home a year or two later, first as an intern, then as acting rabbi, than as full rabbi, I believe a more profound change in me began to take place.  If there is one word that can sum up that change, it is love.

I had certainly known love before – I had loved, and been loved by, parents and brothers, wider family, the women and the children in my life, dear friends…. But the person who has served the residents of the Jewish Home over these 8 or 9 years has found a whole new, and unexpected, part of himself – a gift from you residents and a gift from God.

I have come to realize that what has opened up in me, particularly at some of my services and classes, is a love for the residents that (I believe) makes space for God.  I have never before known such joy as I feel in this work, which I think of as holy work.  I learn that God’s Presence comes about within the connections of a group praying or singing or learning together; and that there are times when I may have a role in helping to allow this Divine Presence.

But it is not just in those holy moments of prayer or learning that I discover something new in myself: I feel a great love nearly all the times I am with residents.

People like to say to me that my previous professions of law, social work and psychotherapy prepared me for this work.  In fact I believe these professions – at least law and social work, did little to prepare me for what has been my vocation here at the Home.  

Psychotherapy more so, as that taught me how to listen.

It is true that through our lives, we develop new skills, new capacities, new attitudes.  We do this while remaining basically the same person as we always were.

But also in our lives we may discover that wholly new aspects of ourselves have come to the fore that we were never aware of before, that we had never allowed to develop, that we had never imagined in ourselves.  Because some aspects of ourselves lie hidden, in the shadows, in potential, perhaps waiting to be allowed to emerge, perhaps never to emerge.

This is my sense of what happened to me here. For the love that I feel here is unlike anything I have felt before, and the person I am leading services or other events, or teaching classes, is a person I don’t recognize at all from my previous life – or even from my current life outside the Home!

This way of being gives me such joy, such a touching of the divine – and I hope allowing others to touch the divine – that it is no wonder I speak frequently about my feeling of being blessed and my gratitude for this opportunity to be more than I have been before, and more than I had ever dreamed of being.

I want to ask you a question: how often have you ruled out some new activity or study or practice or music, with the words: that’s not me.  I’m embarrassed to admit I do that sometimes, though I am trying to let go of that habit.  I now believe that “who I am” – “who each of us is” – is much less limited and narrow than we tend to think.  There are all sorts of possibilities in us waiting to emerge, if only we choose not to think of ourselves as narrowly defined, and allow ourselves to discover the hidden aspects of who we could be.

I have never accepted that residents, just because they are advancing in years, or have some disability, or simply by reason of their living in an institution, are now stuck in their progress through life.  Far from it!  Pages of our personal book of life remain to be written, new chapters remain to be discovered.  Rather than choose what should come next, I invite you to be open to allowing all sorts of possibilities.  We can want and plan what we know about.  But allowing is about letting aspects of who we are emerge that we may never have dreamed about.

I am going to paraphrase two popular figures in the Jewish story: God and Al Jolson.

First God, at the moment he selected Abraham to have a special role in the development of God’s scheme for humanity:  Lech lecha, God said, leave behind everything that is familiar and go to a place in yourself which you do not yet know but I will show you.

As for Al Jolson, he virtually ended the silent movie era and ushered in the era of the talkies, when he called to the orchestra, on screen in "The Jazz Singer": You ain’t heard nothing yet!  

Well, you tell your families and everyone who treats you as though you had stopped growing: You ain’t seen nothing yet!

Good luck on your journey!

Rabbi Anthony Elman - October 2014

EV Residents Relish Friday Morning Discussions

EV Residents Relish Friday Morning DiscussionsEisenberg Village RCFE activities director Caryl Geiger makes it her goal to come up with compelling programming that motivates residents to engage with and learn from one another. This summer, she started a new program in which she facilitates a round table discussion between participating RCFE residents each Friday morning. During this activity, residents sit in a circle and discuss a pre-determined topic and share pertinent stories from their lives. Past discussion topics have included the kindness of strangers and healthy/unhealthy attachments.

On Friday, September 19th, dozens of residents showed up for their weekly discussion in the library. The topic of this week’s conversation was misunderstandings. Acting as facilitator, Caryl spoke a little about how communication can be difficult for some people and can quickly turn into a misunderstanding. After giving a few examples of situations in which people have misunderstandings, Caryl opened the floor to participants. Residents started speaking up and talking about instances in which they’ve experienced misunderstandings. 

Caryl suggested a few ways to avoid these challenging situations. “Making your statements precise is an easy way to remove confusion. Also, you can choose your words carefully, so you won’t make any offensive assertions. Always try to remember there are consequences to the words you speak.” Then Caryl closed on an inspirational note by giving the residents a gentle suggestion. “Remember, we’re not perfect. We might not always handle every situation in the best way. But we do handle situations in the way we’re best equipped to at the time. Take the time to learn from the misunderstandings you’ve experienced and strive to handle these situations more tactfully in the future.”

With another discussion concluded, the residents started to bid each other goodbye. Resident Myrtle Feenberg stopped to thank Caryl for the enlightening conversation. She loves attending the new activity. “I look forward to coming each week. It has a really warm and personal feeling. So many people are willing to share stories from their pasts. I think these casual group chats are a great way to get to know my neighbors and friends.”

Myrtle has the right idea. Caryl’s purpose was just that, to create an opportunity for residents to strengthen their relationships. “My intent in establishing the Friday morning discussion group was to create a place where residents are welcome to discuss their feelings and experiences. During our discussions, they are free to speak, listen, and share as much or as little as they like. It’s the perfect open forum where residents can gain a sense of awareness through each other’s experiences and bond as a group.”

Hawaiian Culture Comes to Jewish Home

Hawaiian  Culture Comes to Jewish HomeEach summer, Grancell and Eisenberg Village campus residents are treated to a festive luau-themed party. Participants are given the opportunity to enjoy a celebration with island inspired decorations, relaxing Hawaiian harmonies, and tasty tropical treats. This year, there were a few extra surprises in store for those in attendance.

At Grancell Village, residents enjoyed the musical stylings of the Van Bloem Singers. The merry band of troubadours performed the songs of the islands with a little help from musical director Elaine Paonessa and piano accompanist Bob Brandzel. Residents enjoyed spirited renditions of ballads from "South Pacific" and "The King and I" as well as favorites "Blue Hawaii" and "Tiny Bubbles."

A few miles east, Eisenberg Village residents took in some beautiful Polynesian dancing courtesy of the Granada Hills Aloha Hula Dance Studio. Hula dancers Maeva, Sandy, Danya and Luisa entertained their audience with impressive hulas from Hawaii and Tahiti. Residents were also given a crash course on Hawaiian dancing, language, and culture. They learned the meaning of the words 'aloha,' 'mahalo,' 'wahine,' and 'keiki.' At the end of the event, residents participated in some brain stimulating trivia to measure the extent of their retention.

After an eventful day, attendees were asked to reflect on the party and surprise performances. New Eisenberg Village residents David and Rhoda Newman particularly enjoyed the event. "This was my first time at a luau — I loved it. My husband David did too. He usually falls asleep at events, but he didn't shut his eyes for a second here!" In response, David said, "How could I ever! Those hula girls were incredible. I'm very impressed with their captivating performance."

Much like the average family vacation, these luaus are designed to give participants a break from their daily lives. Activities team leader Amanda Powell states, "We host a Hawaiian luau every summer. Because our residents don't have the means to go on vacation, we bring the vacation to them. We want them to enjoy a relaxing tropical atmosphere without leaving the comfort and safety of the Home. We hope the residents enjoy the event as much as we enjoy hosting it."

G•Z Residents Delight in Specialty Dessert Centerpieces

G•Z Residents Delight in Specialty  Dessert CenterpiecesThe Los Angeles Jewish Home takes great pride in the unique dining experience we provide for our residents. With beautiful table settings, individualized pre-ordered dishes, and courses served one by one, resident dining at the Jewish Home is comparable to the experience one would have in a fine restaurant. Providing the same exceptional dining experience to those with Alzheimer's disease and age-related dementia can be especially challenging. Goldenberg•Ziman Special Care Center clinical manager Anne LaClair explains, "The Jewish Home staff is constantly striving to improve the living situations of all our residents. While going through the various stages of Alzheimer's and dementia, the way in which seniors smell, taste, and recognize food can significantly change. Because of this, some of the biggest challenges we face are poor appetite and weight loss."

To address this challenge, department leaders strategized best practices for the nourishment of our residents. It was then they realized there was a simple solution to the dilemma they faced: edible centerpieces. EV administrator Douglas Tucker speaks fondly of the inspired moment. "One day we were brain storming and all of a sudden a light bulb went off. By adding appetizing edible centerpieces to each table we could accomplish two goals: we enhance our restaurant-style dining experience while inspiring residents to get excited about food."

Pleased with the new menu additions, activities team leader Amanda Powell remarked, "It's great residents have the option to choose from fresh Challah, mouth-watering cupcakes, attractive fruit arrangements, and a striking assortment of colorful Jell-O flowers each week." She explains, "We rotate these pieces of edible artwork in order to provide our residents with the constant visual stimulation they need to catch their attention and whet their appetites. So far, we are happy with the reception the new centerpieces have received and look forward to adding more out-of-the-ordinary desserts to our menu."