By Maya Pogrebinsky, Special to the Jewish Sound
When was the last time you paid a visit to a resident of an assisted-living center? When was your most recent encounter with an elderly member of the community who wasn’t a relative? A group of about 15 students from Northwest Yeshiva High School have contemplated this very question, and we decided to start visiting The Summit at First Hill to learn from and with each other through informal programs.
The Summit is a Jewish retirement living community located in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood with a large variety of services available to suit all of the residents’ needs. Through a program called Better Together, NYHS students and Summit residents meet once a month to engage in various activities. The goal of this program is to unite the older and younger generations and bridge the “age gap” that seems to be distancing the two groups. This year, the theme of all our programs is “Your Stories.”
The first time we visited, we were intimidated and didn’t know if the residents would react positively to our presence. Many of my peers had never visited The Summit before and had very little exposure to the life of elderly people. My grandparents live in Israel and I’m rarely able to see them. But as the residents slowly filled the room, the mood drastically changed. Each resident warmly greeted us and sat down with a smile. This small reassurance eased all my fears, as I understood that the residents loved visitors.
Our first activity together was led by Mrs. Chubotin, the art teacher at NYHS, in a program called “Your Portraits Tell Your Stories.” As we learned to draw with oil pastels, we quickly became friends with the residents of The Summit. The woman I sat with told me about growing up in Europe as a Jew during World War II. I had visited Poland last summer and learned about the atrocities of the Holocaust. Many of the places and events this woman told me about were still fresh in my mind. Seeing a person who lived through these events humbled me. She was so joyous and happy despite having lived through something I could not even begin to imagine.
Dora, another resident, didn’t know if she even wanted to come to the program. She figured she would come to see what it was and then leave after a few minutes. Though she wasn’t particularly interested in art, Dora stayed. She told us her story. Growing up in Hamburg, she escaped to Sweden where she lived with her uncle and enjoyed a relatively easy life during the war. Ultimately, she ended up in Ohio and then Seattle. We learned about her Jewish education — speaking, reading and writing Hebrew. She told me about Seattle in the 1940s. She attended the University of Washington while her husband fought in the Army. As she talked about her late husband, her face lit up and she began to smile.
The next time we visited the Summit, some of the residents recognized us from the previous time we were there. Because it was the first night of Hanukkah, we sang songs and lit candles as part of “Your Songs Tell Your Stories.” Although not everyone knew all the words, it was beautiful to see so many elderly people coming together and rejoicing. We celebrated together, bonding over songs of our past and present singing in Hebrew, English, Yiddish and Ladino.
Each resident I spoke to left me extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to spend part of my day with them. As this program continues, I hope to further invest in my relationships with these amazing people. They have truly opened my mind and heart to new experiences that I previously discounted.
Maya Pogrebinsky is a junior at Northwest Yeshiva High School and the chair of the Chessed committee.