Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

Helping the Spirit to Soar

As we begin the New Year and consider how to boost our physical and mental health, we need to include another important component of wellbeing: our spiritual health. Just as there are steps we can take to boost the health of our bodies and our brains, there are ways to enhance our spiritual fitness, regardless of our age.

In fact, Rabbi Rita Hertzberg, the Los Angeles Jewish Home’s Campus Rabbi for Eisenberg Village, believes our spirituality has the potential to expand as the years go by.

"As the body ages and the mind ages, the spirit grows," she says. "It’s the only part of us that doesn’t decline."

Scientists disagree on how and whether spirituality and religion influence health. Some studies have concluded that religious faith increases our ability to cope with illness, disability, loss, and mortality. Others have reported lower blood pressure and depression levels and longer lifespans among individuals with a strong personal faith who regularly attend religious services.

At the same time, some researchers believe there is not enough scientific evidence to conclude that spirituality is associated with health.

But perhaps it doesn’t matter whether the scientific evidence is conclusive. Experiences of residents at the Los Angeles Jewish Home clearly demonstrate that spirituality affects emotional health and quality of life.

"If we can get [spirituality] to kick in and to grow brighter, this becomes a light that can ease the darkness we feel that is natural in the aging process," says Rabbi Hertzberg.

Working with residents, Rabbi Hertzberg and her colleague Rabbi Anthony Elman, the Home’s Jack H. Skirball Director of Spiritual Life and the Campus Rabbi for Grancell Village, have both seen tremendous changes in individuals who have discovered or enhanced their sense of spirituality.

Rabbi Elman recounted the story of one resident who had lost her eyesight quite abruptly. Despite her loss, he said, "She is full of thanks to God for God’s help and to the Home for giving her a place to thrive and for gifts such as having the ability to dress and do other things for herself."

Another resident who was 85 years old and declining rapidly went through the process of having a Bat Mitzvah. She learned verses of the Torah and read them in Hebrew. "It was very meaningful for her and for her family," says Rabbi Elman.

Rabbis Elman and Hertzberg say that there are multiple avenues to spirituality. Certainly religion can be one path. "There's a statement in the Talmud which says that when two or more people study Torah, God is present. I believe that," says Rabbi Elman. "I [also] believe that prayer and a feeling that somehow I'm not alone – that God is with me – can help."

At the same time, he stresses that religion is not the only path to spirituality. "I try to introduce a sense of awe – which I take to mean opening oneself to something greater," says Rabbi Elman. While that may take the form of thanking God for our blessings, says Rabbi Elman, it can also involve marking occasions, such as Veteran’s Day or Martin Luther King’s birthday, where "people can be lifted to feeling and recognizing something greater than themselves."

Music can also be a source of spiritual enhancement. Rabbi Hertzberg says she sings a lot with residents, and that songs can be "a spiritual connection to the past" for them. "I've found music to be an amazingly powerful and spiritual vehicle," she says.

In addition, she believes many residents feel spirituality in their sense of community and connectedness. They may not know anyone when they arrive at the Home, but they soon establish relationships with staff members and other residents.

Whether through prayer, study, music, community, meditation, or other means, humans have the ability to enhance their spirituality at any stage in life.

As Rabbi Hertzberg puts it, "We don’t stop being a spiritual being until we take our last breath."

Nancy Sokoler Steiner Nancy Sokoler Steiner is a freelance writer and author based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and Lifestyles Magazine, among other publications.

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