About 40 seniors gathered in a sunny community room at Leo Baeck Temple on a Wednesday morning as Fredda Wasserman, adult program director of Our House: Grief Support Center, discussed the nuances of mourning the loss of a loved one. Many clutched tissues and dabbed at their eyes throughout the presentation.
“Grief doesn’t just disappear over time — it’s what we do with that time that heals,” Wasserman said. “How do we re-engage in a warm, full life? How do we honor that relationship? How do we treasure it?”
Some in the audience, as they jotted down notes, might have been thinking about their relationship with their recently altered synagogue. A new rabbi, overhauled worship services and a dramatically remodeled building, all in the last eight years — it was too much change at once, elderly members of the Reform congregation said. They felt displaced, like they no longer fit. Many of the old ways were gone.
But out of grief came togetherness, and a new community was born. Leo Baeck’s Community of Elders, or Havurat Vatikim, gives seniors a forum in which to share their hopes and concerns, with ongoing learning and leisure opportunities to feed both body and brain. For this population, it has been a way to re-engage with the synagogue — and with each other.
“Our intent was to bring this age group together and back into the temple,” said Community of Elders chair Judith Farber Weissman. “We recognized that a large slice of the original temple population was not there anymore, and thought that if we could be responsive to those people through interesting programs, they would be participants again.”
Community of Elders organizers have appealed to seniors with a full day of activities on the second Wednesday of each month, featuring a light breakfast at 9:30 a.m., two lectures on topics of interest, a BYO-lunch break and a choice of yoga or open Scrabble or Bridge through the afternoon. The group holds half-day programs all other Wednesdays with just lunch, games and yoga.
Now in its second year, the Community of Elders draws 50 to 100 people to its events and continues to attract new members. One key to its success is that it’s a grass-roots, volunteer-run program created by seniors, for seniors. Another is that it’s free.
What matters to organizers is that it works. “This has really brought a community together,” Farber Weissman said, as attendees rose from their seats and chatted after Wasserman’s talk. “I see people come to our classes and then show up at Friday night services. They are participating much more in the synagogue.”
That’s music to the ears of Leo Baeck Senior Rabbi Kenneth Chasen, whose installation in 2003 marked the beginning of big changes for the 700-family congregation.
“The reality was, we went through a lot of changes at the same time,” said Chasen, who at age 37 became only the third senior rabbi to lead Leo Baeck in its 62-year history.
Chasen’s arrival was followed in 2009 by the double whammy of a massive facility renovation and the departures of Cantor Wally Schachet-Briskin and Associate Rabbi Leah Lewis. American Jewish University (AJU) hosted the congregation until the $11 million remodel was completed in September 2009, when congregants returned home to a reconfigured sanctuary and an extensively modified campus.
Chasen and Cantor Linda Kates have also done “a ton of experimenting” with different approaches to prayer, Chasen said, such as incorporating more music and holding Friday evening Shabbat services earlier, at 6 p.m., so they’re more convenient for families with children.
“It really was a loss for older people — they didn’t know what their place was,” said Harriet Soares, a Community of Elders organizer. “Some just didn’t feel connected anymore.” Added Farber Weissman, “People felt kind of helpless. We have this wonderful young rabbi and it’s beautiful to watch so many young people joining the congregation, but a lot of elders thought, ‘Where do we belong?’ ”
The clergy has taken steps to soften the transition. Once a month and during the summer, for instance, Leo Baeck holds Friday evening services at 7:30 p.m., the way it used to be.
But nothing has moved seniors to rally around their synagogue like the Havurat Vatikim, Chasen said. “The Community of Elders has really brought down a lot of barriers,” he noted. “It gives seniors the chance to be real stakeholders here, not just witnesses to these things happening before their eyes. They’ve come and they’ve claimed their temple as their home.”
And they’ve filled a widespread need for friendship in the process.
A founding group of seniors first proposed the idea in late 2009. After that, they didn’t wait for others to stumble onto the program by chance. Instead, a dozen volunteers placed personal phone calls to everyone 65 and over on the Leo Baeck roster.
“These were not just ‘come to our event’ calls,” said Assistant Rabbi Rachel Timoner, who has helped advise the group since its inception. “They were about human contact and listening: ‘How have you been lately? Do you feel connected to the temple? What kinds of things would you want to do here? How can we make Leo Baeck feel like home for you?’ What came from that is not just a program of activities — it’s about really deep relationship-building.”
Over the past year, the same volunteers have continued checking in with their peers to see if the Community of Elders has made them feel more welcome at synagogue.
Guest lecturers have included photographer and former L.A. County District Attorney Gil Garcetti; former California Sen. and Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl; and Gordon Davidson, founding artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum. Classes on grandparenting, watercolor painting, memoir writing and Bridge have been popular. Organizers also arrange trips to the Getty Center, the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and public viewing parties for the Metropolitan Opera.
“We have tried to cover the spectrum of interests,” Farber Weissman said. “It’s thrilling to us. It has made a big impact on our population. It has built a lot of camaraderie. We’re getting enough people so that it’s telling us it has value.”
In a nod to the synagogue’s roots, the Community of Elders invited founding Rabbi Leonard Beerman, who led Leo Baeck from 1949 to 1986, to speak to members last year. Beerman, 90, said the group’s creation was a “wholesome response” to the unique needs of seniors within the congregation.
“What the elders do is listen to one another,” he said. “That’s a very ennobling thing. It gives everyone a sense of significance. Something we all want is to feel like we matter, to feel wanted.”
Organizers are still exploring how to appeal to more of Leo Baeck’s male population — in the audience of 40 for Wasserman’s talk, there were four men — and how to extend the group’s energy to community service projects outside the synagogue walls.
After lunch, two dozen women arranged themselves at small tables for Bridge. At the “beginner’s table,” Jean Tilem, 81, called the Community of Elders a “stimulating, emotionally satisfying” bonding experience. “It’s a privilege to have a group like this with similar interests and kvetches,” she said. “There’s a feeling of connectedness between people who have known each other for a long time and people who have just met.”
Gripes with the new building aside, Tilem said, “It’s still the same group of people that I joined the temple for 20 years ago — caring and socially active. That’s the important thing.”
And Leo Baeck’s seniors have come a long way from their first, stunned steps into the redesigned synagogue back in 2009. At a recent intergenerational event, Farber Weissman said, “It was the older people who knew their way around. It was the young people who needed a map.”