Paul Mendelson, a resident at the Harmony Hall assisted living community in Columbia, loves to discuss history and religion any day of the week. But he is especially excited on the second and fourth Fridays of the month when Rabbi Hillel Baron, the Federation's Community Chaplain, visits Harmony Hall to conduct Shabbat services.
Although about one third of the residents at Harmony Hall are Jewish, they have only recently begun to gel into a community at Rabbi Baron's visits, which include kiddush, homemade challah, and some thoughts on the weekly parsha (Torah reading) or a recent holiday.
Thanks to Rabbi Baron's pre-Shabbat visits, "we’re getting more and more participation, not only in terms of the number of people who attend but in terms of how much people participate," Paul says. "Rabbi Baron makes everyone, regardless of their religious education background, feel involved and comfortable."
When Paul has to miss a service, he is truly disappointed. The sense of community among the Jewish residents has become so strong that if he is absent, someone will notice and question him about it later.
"You feel you were missed," says Paul. "If you’re in a facility such as this, there is a feeling of isolation—you’re away from your family. Now there's a special sense of family in a way that I didn’t expect."
Thanks to Rabbi Baron's visits, the residents share a special bond based on their Jewish identity. "It’s not like playing bingo every day," says Paul. "You really feel like you’re getting something spiritual and enlightening. You leave services a happier person."
Now many Jewish residents at Harmony Hall are seeking more ways to mark Shabbat, whether lighting a special Shabbat light on Fridays or requesting more Jewish foods be added to the Friday night or Saturday lunch menus.
As Federation's Community Chaplain, Rabbi Baron regularly visits local assisted living facilities and nursing homes, including Vantage Point, Brighton Gardens, and Heartlands Village
"It’s all so very, very special, the continued connection and friendships that I have with these residents," says Rabbi Baron. "I feel like I’m the Rabbi of many congregations—in every single assisted living or nursing facility that I visit. This is what unites us all. A community that cares for their elderly is a true community."