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Where Torah Teachings Are Lived: Rabbi Jon Malamy and Jewish Home Lifecare
Mechon Hadar fellows perform acts of hesed as part of their intensive community experience
Hadar fellows don’t just sit in the beit midrash all day; they are expected to live out the teachings they are learning about as well. “At Mechon Hadar, we believe in learning—and living—a Torah of hesed,” said Rabbi Shai Held.
Enter Jewish Home Lifecare, an assisted living community on New York’s Upper West Side, whose partnership with Hadar enables that to happen. Hadar’s full-time fellows spend one afternoon a week during their year program visiting with Alzheimer’s patients at the home.
Rabbi Jon Malamy is Director of Religious Life for the Manhattan campus of Jewish Home Lifecare, which also includes branches in the Bronx and Westchester.
With space for 514 individual patients at the Manhattan campus, Rabbi Malamy is a busy chaplain. So when he got the offer for a dozen or so adults committed to Jewish learning and performing acts of hesed to join him at the home and help take care of the spiritual needs of his patients, he couldn’t resist.
“Finding support from other groups is how we can provide care and support to maximum effect,” he said.
The partnership allows Mechon Hadar fellows to support their learning to maximum effect as well. What they experience at the home is integral to what they do back in the beit midrash.
“The experience that they have here is supported, supervised, digested, and reflected upon, so that the experience becomes another kind of text to be studied,” said Rabbi Malamy.
The work at the home varies, depending on the needs of the residents and the instincts of the individual students. Fellows are assigned to one or two floors, so that they develop ongoing relationships with a few residents. Sometimes they offer pastoral care and sometimes just friendly visitation.
Fellows take different lessons away from their interactions. “Some of the students who are thinking about the rabbinate or social work may approach these interactions with that in mind,” said Rabbi Malamy. Others “see it as ‘I’m here to be a friend.’”
Visiting with this population also enables Mechon Hadar fellows to experience making connections with people in a very different way than they are used to. Their typical days at Hadar are full of conversation; studying texts, sitting in lectures, and working with a havruta are all activities that require a high-level of verbal communication. But when they walk into Jewish Home Lifecare, an entirely different type of communication is expected. More than 50 percent of the residents have Alzheimer or another kind of cognitive impairment.
“Poring over texts is a very mental and verbal activity,” explained Rabbi Malamy. “When you try to connect with people who are not conversational and may not be able to connect intellectual, it is a real and important stretch for the students. They develop other vocabularies, and an understanding of the use of touch.”
Usually the Mechon Hadar fellows visit for two hours and then gather together for a one-hour processing session to discuss experiences, study relevant texts, and share reactions.
The effect their visits have on the residents of Jewish Life Home Lifecare is clear.
“Hundreds of residents have received regular, supportive visits and companionship from interested, caring Jewish students,” said Rabbi Malamy. “It has been enlivening to a lot of people.”
But the learning and care is a two-way street. Rabbi Malamy tells the poignant story of one fellow, who was saying goodbye to a resident at the end of her year-long program. The resident began to cry, and the student assumed it was because she was sad the visits would be ending. “I didn’t realize I was so important to her,” the student thought to herself. But the resident lifted her face and explained her tears, “I’m just crying because I’ve taught you so much.”
This two-way street can go a long way in helping the Hadar fellows as they return to their home communities and strive to make an impact based on everything they learned.
“What emerges from this experience is relationship,” says Rabbi Malamy, “and that is a building block of community.”
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The visits to the Jewish Home during the summer and year programs.
Also, click here to browse Mechon Hadar's online resources on Judaism as the path of Hesed.