Fifty seders for 350 seniors-meet the ladies behind the scene
This coming March, Jewish Pavilion part-time area program directors Julie Levitt, Judy Procell, Emily Newman and Melanie Baxt are each hosting a Passover seder for between 10 to 50 guests. Like most experienced hostesses, they will prepare the traditional seder plate, set a festive table, and warmly welcome guests. And when these ladies are done leading their first seder, each will host approximately 10 more before month's end. Levitt, Procell, Newman and Baxt support Jewish elders in assisted-living and nursing home facilities by coordinating and carrying out Jewish holiday celebrations, cultural events and much more. As Orlando has no Jewish home for the elderly, the Pavilion acts as a "mobile Jewish home" with the program directors at its helm.
These women serve 350 Jewish seniors in more than 50 senior facilities, relying on the help of Pavilion volunteers to make every facility feel like a "Jewish home." Each coordinator works about 10 hours each week (which may vary depending on the holiday calendar), and is tasked with delivering Jewish cultural care throughout the year.
Julie Levitt of Baldwin Park has been a program director with the Pavilion since 2010. She noted that her job as coordinator for the Maitland, Altamonte and Apopka areas is a "perfect fit." The part-time position allows her to be an active mom to her two teenagers, while maintaining a vital role in the Jewish community. The Levitts make the Pavilion a family affair. Mother-in-law, Jackie, is a longtime member of the Friends Board, while their children, Brooke and Brandon, have grown up attending Pavilion events.
During the Passover season, Levitt will make more than 10 pounds of charoset and peel hundreds of apples. "The residents take such pleasure when we serve traditional holiday foods. It brings back a taste of holidays past. The seniors savor all aspects of our celebrations, even holding onto festive paper goods as decorations for their rooms," she said.
Levitt serves as a liaison between the Pavilion and the elder facilities. She shared that several facilities began serving traditional Jewish foods on Friday nights, as they became more aware of Jewish customs. Levitt and her colleagues have familiarized the kitchen staff at elder facilities with Jewish foods, sample menus, as well as recipes for matzo ball soup, brisket, and latkes. "I am thrilled that most of the homes I visit now serve latkes at Chanukah. During our Chanukah celebrations the seniors seem to enjoy a plate of latkes even more than their gift bags," she said.
For the last several years Levitt has spearheaded "Musical Mondays" at Savannah Court in Maitland, a weekly event that brings culture, entertainment, and variety to the facility's seniors. She also finds free musicians for monthly musicales at Horizon Bay. Over the years, Levitt has booked more than 150 musical gigs for the senior facilities she oversees.
"Thanks to Julie, Musical Mondays brought our seniors more than entertainment. Mondays can be lonely days at elder facilities, with the fewest visitors. The repertoire of songs, both old and new, sharpens the memory while resurfacing old ones. Music bridges all cultures and turns a drab Monday into a special day," said Nancy Ludin, Pavilion executive director.
Levitt has developed numerous meaningful relationships with both volunteers and seniors in her four years with the Pavilion. She hand writes a personal note to more than 60 volunteers several times a year to thank them for their support. "Witnessing first hand all the joy we bring to Jewish seniors makes all our hard work worthwhile. It gives me such pleasure to organize hundreds of Shabbats, holidays, and special programs at our elder facilities. Knowing that there are many Jewish seniors who can't physically share holidays with loved ones, it was my obligation not only to the Pavilion, but as fellow Jew, to bring holidays to them," she said.
Judy Procell shares Levitt's commitment to the Pavilion. Like Levitt, Procell joined the Pavilion as program director in 2010. "I had just finished a series of breast cancer treatments, when I received an inquiry from Nancy Ludin about a position as an area program director. My name had been passed onto Nancy from someone who thought that I would be well suited for this position and type of work. The timing was perfect, as I was looking to go back into the work force. My job as Pavilion program director for the Oviedo, Winter Park, and Winter Springs communities has proven to be healing in many aspects," she said.
Procell connects with more than 14 assisted living facilities and nursing homes, providing regular programming for about half, as the resident population fluctuates. She views the Pavilion as an extended Jewish family for seniors in elder care, and reaches out to local relatives when possible. "We take every opportunity to help our seniors maintain their connection with family. We all make a point to pick up the phone or shoot out an email to an aunt, sibling or an adult grandchild of an elder resident, welcoming them to an upcoming Shabbat or Chanukah party. Sometimes the Pavilion is the only holiday celebration the entire family attends. One relative of a Horizon Bay resident was honored to lead a seder for the first time in 30 years."
Like most directors, Procell snaps photos of her seniors and shares them with extended family, noting that residents in homes often don't have current photos. "The seniors we serve are in various stages of health. Sadly, our photos are often the last ones taken before they pass away. Grieving families are particularly grateful when they receive our photos, notes and anecdotal memories about their loved ones."
Emily Newman works double duty for the Jewish Pavilion. She serves as program director for the Lake Mary, Longwood, and Sanford area, as well as resource specialist of the Pavilion's new Senior Help Desk.
"My background is in geriatric social work so I have always enjoyed working with seniors. I have met many inspiring, smart, well-read, well-traveled seniors who continue to make a difference in the community in which they live and beyond. I continue to be moved when I am amongst elderly, perhaps, hard of hearing and even forgetful seniors, who recite the prayers at Shabbat and Chanukah, or even sing Hatikva, as if they had rehearsed it," she said.
Newman has the privilege of coordinating Jewish programming at Chambrel Assisted Living Facility in Longwood, known as "Congregation Chambrel" because of its steady attendance. Although the average Pavilion "congregant" is well over 85 years old, Chambrel seniors are active and vital members of the Jewish community.
Newman finds the opportunity to educate others as one of the most rewarding parts of the job. She shared about a director at Springhills of Lake Mary who was so moved by Newman's story of Tu b'Shevat, that she took it upon herself to order saplings for the residents to plant. In another instance, Newman helped familiarize extended family members with Kaddish rituals when an elderly resident passed away. "Often we keep on connecting with the family even when the senior is no longer with us," Newman stated.
Melanie Baxt joined the Jewish Pavilion staff one year ago and jumped right into her position as director for South Orlando, where she resides with her husband and three young children. Baxt shared that her "Jewish family" has grown tremendously since becoming program director last summer. "I have gotten to know 75 percent of the residents I visit on a level where I almost feel like they are my family. I have too many special connections to talk about here. As for their impact on me, that has been huge," she said.
Baxt avows that a key to running a successful Pavilion holiday is anticipating the needs of each facility, adding, "No matter how much you plan, each facility has its own schedule, and needs a varying amount of supplies. I feel that I need to make sure each home is happy with what they receive as well as the residents. This requires a lot of planning, and then a lot of last minute changes that comes with the job."
Baxt noted that Passover is a very special holiday with Pavilion seniors, as it holds so many special memories for them. Though preparations can be stressful, she welcomes occasions that allow her to take part in, and learn about the traditions the seniors had in their own homes.
Baxt finds year-round satisfaction as a Pavilion director, noting that each visit positively impacts Jewish seniors. "The most rewarding part of my job is when I'm visiting with a Jewish resident-sharing our mutual culture. There's an unspoken understanding and feeling of connection. They teach me things without even knowing it. I listen, appreciate, love and live a more meaningful life because of them."