Gloria Lenhoff's music debut was her bat mitzvah. Instead of reciting Torah, she amazed guests with a chapter from the Song of Songs, singing in a pitch-perfect soprano voice.
Since then, she has performed in a dozen languages on prominent stages, starred in a television movie and picked up the accordion. Now 47, she currently sings gospel with The Miracles, a touring choir of residents from Baddour Center, a 120-acre, Methodist-backed village for the mentally retarded in Mississippi. Since Gloria joined the choir, after relocating two years ago from Orange County, its repertoire has expanded to include Hebrew melodies. She also occasionally serves as cantorial soloist at Tupelo's Temple B'nai Israel.
Placing their daughter in a lifetime-care haven -- one that emphasizes music but lacks a Jewish environment -- was wrenching for Howard Lenhoff, 72, a retired UC Irvine biology professor and his wife, Sylvia, 70, a retired administrator, who had lived in Costa Mesa for 35 years.
"There is no comparable place in the Jewish community," fumes Lenhoff, who also relocated to Oxford, Miss., to remain near his daughter. "We're quite angry about this. Who wants to disrupt their whole lives?" he asks, describing the predicament confronting aging parents of developmentally disabled children. "It was not an easy choice."
Though time is against him, Lenhoff is praying for a second miracle. He already witnessed one. In 1991, an organization he co-led succeeded in relocating 60,000 Ethiopian Jews from famine-plagued Africa to Israel, an 18-year effort.
Last month, seizing the pulpit at an annual dinner of the Jewish Community Foundation, Lenhoff challenged Orange County's Jewish community to fill what he described as a "glaring gap in social services." He asked the community to join him in creating the first regional campus for the Jewish retarded, one comparable to villages most often supported by Christian denominations.
"Non-Jewish groups are doing something about it," he says. "Why can't Jewish kids end up in a Jewish environment?"
The couple, who issued their challenge in a letter read at the event, was honored for establishing the foundation's first gift annuity, a $300,000 charitable donation in proceeds from their home sale. Income from the annuity will cover their daughter's living costs until her parents' death, and then it will be dispersed for developmentally disabled causes, such as a local facility.
Lenhoff's timing may be propitious, because a similar plan, one that has foundered for years, appears now to be gaining outside support.
In 1995, Orange's Rose Lacher, 81, founded the Jeremiah Society to provide 40 developmentally disabled adults, including her 53-year-old daughter, Amy, a supportive atmosphere for socializing and practicing Jewish rituals. They meet at the Jewish Community Center.
Lacher's dream is Jeremiah House, an arrangement for independent living for up to 15 people with some communal facilities, such as a kosher kitchen and garden, which she estimates could cost $5 million. "They would have a community, have friendships, know they're not alone," she says, calling Lenhoff's suggestion for a regional facility "a splendid idea."
Her own plan has won the philosophical endorsement of top county officials, but not the financial windfall needed to fulfill it.
"I'm excited about where we can go with this," says Bill J. Bowman, executive director of the Regional Center, the contract nonprofit agency that annually dispenses $125 million for housing and services from the state Department of Developmental Services to the county's 13,000 developmentally disabled. He met with Lacher last month.
"It's not a problem we want to ignore," concedes Bunnie Muldin, chief executive of the Jewish Federation, which this year and last allocated $4,000 to the Jeremiah Society, in part to increase its visibility. "We can't possibly give them all the money they need at once," she says.
The need for permanent living facilities has intensified in recent years, as several parents of society members have died. "We talk about it all the time," says Natalie Mandel of Newport Beach, who has two developmentally disabled adult grandchildren.
"We're afraid to die," adds Lacher, pointing out that private group homes cannot guarantee continuity of care like a nonprofit entity. Even the best-run ones, she says, would not reinforce Jewish practices at an appropriate cognitive level. "They don't know they're Jewish anymore," she says.
Given the state's fiscal crisis, such a proposal may seem quixotic. Yet, at least one contrarian thinks Lacher's timing is perfect.
"Is this a good way to float a project that will save the state money?" asks Joyce Hearn, chief executive of Orange County's ARC, formerly known as the Association of Retarded Citizens. "I think it will be well received," she predicts, adding her group could help with administration.
"Maybe it's time for a committee to formulate a plan," she says, cautioning that potential donors are likely to be persuaded by a concept drafted with specialists in real estate, construction, architecture and finance.
"Or is it just a kosher kitchen?" she asks.