This year is different. This year, the words from the Book of Esther echo in our ears as we face this plague. It’s the moment when Mordecai challenges Queen Esther to save her people. He says, “And who knows? Perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”
This is how we feel about ChaiVillageLA, the first synagogue-based “village” in the nation: Perhaps it was created for just this moment.
ChaiVillageLA is a partnership between two Los Angeles synagogues: Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Temple Isaiah. It was established four years ago as a means of providing the kind of community that would enable synagogue members to age in place, in their homes. We thought people might join because they would need assistance — someone to do the grocery shopping as they recuperated from a hip replacement; someone to drive them to the doctor; someone to walk the dog when they could not.
Instead, we discovered people joined because they wanted community; they wanted friends. It turned out that our social capital really does constrict when we get older — when work colleagues are not so connected to us; when the friends we made when our kids were little are no longer in our lives; and when old friends have died. It turns out loneliness is real, an epidemic of its own that can result in death. ChaiVillageLA has helped us all find new friends and connect in so many ways, through joyfully sharing our talents, wisdom and experience with one another.
What none of us knew was that ChaiVillageLA someday would be life-saving.
Many of ChaiVillageLA’s 230 members are older adults who have remained in their own homes. A good number of them live alone and now are sheltering in place alone.
Many of ChaiVillageLA’s 230 members are older adults who have remained in their own homes. A good number of them live alone and now are sheltering in place alone. “During this pandemic, we have connected every Village member with another member,” said Executive Director Devorah Servi. “These buddy pairs commit to being in touch with one another regularly by phone, email and/or text. In this way, we have not only eased loneliness, but also we learn about the changing needs of our members (e.g. grocery deliveries or upcoming surgery support). All in a way that is safe for everyone. One buddy team learned that they had worked at the same place many years ago, and shared stories about the ‘good old days.’ It is good to know that even now — or especially now — members continue to make new friends and we are never alone.”
Because loneliness can be life-threatening, Village members offer virtual gathering opportunities — everything from an afternoon tea and film/book discussions to a virtual dress-up cocktail party! And because it is impossible to imagine Passover being canceled because of a plague, the Village is helping members create virtual seders, and we are making sure everyone in the Village is invited to one. To ensure members have a clear understanding of the coronavirus, recently the Village organized a meeting with nurses from Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Health to answer specific questions about how to navigate our lives with the threat of COVID-19. More than 45 people were on the 90-minute call.
By being a part of synagogues, one of the only truly intergenerational institutions that still exist in our lives, ChaiVillageLA has the opportunity to find new ways of creating intergenerational connection after this crisis is over.
It is a frightening time to be an older adult because people older than 60 represent 45% of COVID-19 hospitalizations, 53% of intensive care unit admissions and 80% of deaths. Even more frightening are the reactions of some people, especially on social media, that COVID-19 doesn’t matter much if it primarily afflicts older people.
A recent article in The New York Times by Louise Aronson called attention to this view and reminded us of the danger of accepting the second-class citizenship of an entire category of human beings.
Comments on Fox News like that of Dan Patrick, the Texas lieutenant governor, that he was not only ready for the country and the economy to get moving again amid the coronavirus pandemic, but also that he and other grandparents might be willing to die for that to happen, suggests the value of the lives of older adults should be an economic calculus.
Some of us worry that this virus and the way the country responds could exacerbate the kind of intergenerational tension reflected in the meme “boomer remover” that has appeared on social media. By being a part of synagogues, one of the only truly intergenerational institutions that still exist in our lives, ChaiVillageLA has the opportunity to find new ways of creating intergenerational connection after this crisis is over.
ChaiVillageLA was created for a moment like this. And although we hope there is never another moment like this, other local synagogues should be ready for the future by creating their own versions of a village. To that end, we have begun to explore how to help other synagogues reimagine their visions of becoming a genuine community through the newly created Synagogue Village Network.
Passover is coming up. We eventually will come out of the narrow place, the mitzrayim we live in now. We will emerge strengthened because of the deeper connections we have made with one another through ChaiVillageLA.
Pete Siegel is on the ChaiVillageLA board; Georgia Mercer is board co-chair; Barbara Meltzer is a board member at large; and Sherri Morr is co-chair of Synagogue Village Network.