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Jewish Journal

Senior Seders

Helping the sometimes neglected elderly celebrate

by Leilah Bernstein

April 13, 2000 | 8:00 pm

The Passover holiday contains countless traditions. There's the matzah and the sweet wine, the charoset and haggadot, the gefilte fish and the good fortune we celebrate. But perhaps most importantly, there is the gathering together of family and friends -- the people who make the singing, reading and eating around the seder table meaningful and special.

It is a fact not lost on the various directors who run L.A.'s Jewish senior and retirement homes. Each year these men and women organize seders for the elderly residents who may no longer have family or friends to join them. Full Passover menus are planned, dining rooms are decorated, the best silverware and glassware come out of the cupboards. And together the seniors sit down to a seder where they ask the Four Questions, recite the blessings and -- yes -- even sip the wine.

"Although some may have family, unfortunately many do not," says Desiree Williams, the rental coordinator at Westwood Horizons near UCLA. "This is the only opportunity they have to be with folks of similar beliefs and continue the Passover tradition."

For the most part, residents do not prepare the food as they once did in their own homes. Many are frail now, with little stamina. But to the seder table they bring an earnest desire to sing and help recount the Passover story. And in doing so, they find companionship in one another and in the staff members who assist them. This human element -- the fact, at least, that they have each other -- becomes as important an ingredient as the apples and nuts and hard-boiled eggs.

"There's involvement," says Williams. "And that's the key. The interaction is there."

At the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda, a "traveling microphone" will circulate through the dining room so that residents can participate in the service. According to Rabbi William Gordon, who will lead the seder, residents also make suggestions as to what should be on the menu.

It is, indeed, a fancy affair. Betty Brown, director of Food Services, plans to use real china and silverware, white and mauve tablecloths and strictly kosher ingredients. Flowers will adorn the tables and servers will wear black and white -- "their gala uniform."

Some residents leave the home to have Passover with family, but most remain. Family members are invited to join them there, says Rabbi Gordon, though "too few come." This year, Brown and her staff will feed approximately 350 people for the first seder. Her menu includes matzah ball soup, gefilte fish balls, roast turkey, matzah stuffing, honeyed carrots, stewed fruit compote and sponge cake.

The average age of the residents is 90, says Rabbi Gordon. But that doesn't stop them from following the paperbound haggadah that he and his wife, Deena, have compiled.

Age, however, does make a bit of difference at Stanford House, an independent and assisted living home at Olympic and Robertson Boulevards.

"Because of their age, they tend to be impatient," says executive chef Jeffrey Cooper, who will lead the seder this year for 128 residents between ages 55 and 101. In 1998, during a 40-minute seder, "they were crawling the walls," recalls Cooper with a laugh. Last year, he cut it down to 20 minutes. But this year he'll try for half an hour -- "short and sweet."

The menu will be "kosher-style," with gefilte fish made from scratch, matzah ball soup, asparagus and a choice of matzah-stuffed veal roast with demiglaze or Cornish hens with orange glaze. Then for dessert, residents will find a mouth-watering assortment of brownies, sponge cake with strawberries, baked apples with apricots and store-bought Passover candy.

Cooper ensures that all chametz is removed from his kitchen, and he fondly remembers one resident who helped him burn the bread crumbs each year. (The man passed away a few months ago at 97.)

"It's very depressing," says Alan Goldstein, director of Shalom Retirement Hotel in the Fairfax district. "Very few have family, so we have rabbis that come talk to them, and the staff is here to lend an ear. It's important to be accessible," he continues. "It's like we're one big family."

Of the 150 residents between ages 65 and 100 who will attend this year's seder at Shalom, approximately 70 percent used to make their own seders. Now, "a very sumptuous [kosher] menu" will be prepared for them, explains Goldstein. It will include matzah ball soup, salad, roast turkey, brisket, sweet potatoes and cake. And each person will receive his or her own seder plate.

Residents will light the candles, pour the wine and sing with the accompaniment of a live music ensemble -- familiar activities for these seniors who celebrate Shabbat together each Friday night.

At Westwood Horizons, residents also regularly lead Shabbat services and will participate in the singing and reading for Passover as well. According to Desiree Williams, the rental coordinator, more than 200 residents are expected to attend the seder, and some have invited family members. Some may have aides with them at the table, but "the majority are on their own," says Williams. "They develop friendships with one another."

Seniors who wish to participate in a seder this year can also attend various community seders. The Jewish Home for the Aging will offer a second-night seder, which it expects will draw 450 people. The Westside Jewish Community Center will hold a first-night seder for 75 to 150 people. Both will feature kosher food.

While some families do attend, "most people who come don't have anybody," says Olga Moler of the Westside JCC. "They are mostly the elderly -- those who are alone." So transportation to and from the JCC will be available for a small fee.

Above all else, say the seder organizers, the goal is to create a warm, haimish environment for the elderly this Passover. For the seniors living in mostly Jewish retirement homes, "we do everything to accommodate that," says Williams of Westwood Horizons. "It's important for them to be in a Jewish community."

The Jewish Home for the Aging Community Seder, April 20, 5 p.m., $35 for family members of residents; $50 for all other adults and seniors. Call (818) 774-3015 for reservations. Westside JCC Community Seder, April 19, 6:30 p.m., $25 for adults and $19 for senior members; $30 for adults and $24 for senior nonmembers. Call Olga Moler at (323) 938-2531 ext. 225 for reservations.

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