Pavilion songbird, Esther Portes, brings harmony to Savannah Court
"Happy Hours at Savannah Court have never been more joyous since singer and volunteer, Esther Portes, began serenading our seniors," said Jewish Pavilion volunteer coordinator Gloria Newberger, who shared that she had run out of song-leaders after six years of organizing weekly sing-alongs and ice cream socials at the Maitland facility, adding that most volunteers were more comfortable dishing out ice cream than "the Golden Oldies." Newberger continued, "Soon after my plea, this angel, Esther Portes, walks into our office to volunteer, and asks if we need anyone who can sing with our seniors. My daughter (Executive Director Nancy Ludin) almost fell on the floor with surprise at the coincidence. Esther connects beautifully to the seniors, and her lovely voice has made her the songbird of the Pavilion."
During the past year, Portes has entertained Savannah Court's seniors dozens of times at the Monday afternoon Happy Hours. The energetic Newberger (at 86 years young) takes incoming residents under her wing, assisting with seating and snacks, while nightingale Portes handles songbooks and senior requests. On Monday, July 14, more than 20 residents joined Portes for a trip down memory lane, with the Pavilion songbook serving as a guide.
"Music can be healing, as well as a blessing in so many ways," said Portes. "I try to pick songs to share that bring back fun memories, and also songs with a bit of romance. It is touching to see husbands and wives reach out and grasp hands, while singing to one another. I also try to choose songs that will stay with the seniors, and keep them company throughout the week."
Following a rousing chorus of "My Bonnie" and "America," Portes invited attendees to move into the mostly empty front row. Like audience members of all ages, this crowd was reluctant to sit front and center.
"There's room if anyone wants to move up to the expensive seats. We won't charge you anymore (for the free concert)," joked Portes.
Virginia, the lone senior in the front row, remarked that she comes every week because "the music is fantastic," and that the singer is such a professional.
Portes has spent a lifetime bringing harmony and song to seniors. In 1964, 2-year-old Portes entertained local seniors, with her grandmother at her side, at a nearby nursing home in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, her hometown.
"My grandmother would put me on top of a table so people could see me. She would feed me little songs and poems to help make them smile. Later, I accompanied my father on visits, as well. I saw first-hand how music connects seniors to the past, and also makes them more engaged in the present," she said.
In the early '60s, political turmoil made daily life increasingly discordant in her native country. The music stopped for Portes when her family became refugees, and she witnessed horrific violence at a young and an impressionable age. Her family fled to Puerto Rico in 1965. They relocated to Apopka, Florida, in 1977, so she and her two sisters could have better access to higher education. Portes received her high school diploma from Seminole State in Sanford and her bachelor's degree in computer science from Florida Metropolitan University. She worked in computer programming for 25 years for a major healthcare organization, rising through the ranks to become sole e-mail distributor, before taking a recent medical leave.
While Portes' family escaped the Dominican Republic physically unharmed, the emotional upheaval of her early life took its toll, resulting in bouts of depression. "While I am a bit reluctant to talk about this part of my life, emotional illness is something we need to talk about more openly. I hope to help remove the stigma, and to allow others to see it in a more loving light," she stated.
Portes had always been a spiritual person, and found religious study to be an outlet for emotional healing.
"The more I learned, the more I became convinced that the Jewish faith was where I belonged," she remarked. As a first step in Jewish learning, she attended services at the Congregation for Reform Judaism (CRJ), as she had been studying with a prayer book from the Reform movement. There, she befriended congregant Joanne Fink, who "had a very open heart," making Portes feel "welcome all the way." Though she enjoyed her time at CRJ, Portes felt like a Conservative Jew at heart.
She found healing through prayer, and began to attend the community minyan, where she met Cantor Robuck, who invited the talented songbird to join the choir at Ohev Shalom, where she is now a member.
"Taking part in minyan, volunteering with the Pavilion, singing with the choir, and my conversion this past month has been more healing for me than any kind of medicine. For the past year I have been healing from the inside-out. All of a sudden life has had incredible meaning," she exclaimed.
As the most recent Happy Hour came to an end, Virginia beckoned to Portes to sit beside her. Portes, energized after belting out golden oldies for the past half hour, settled down next to her with a warm smile.
"You have a fantastic voice. How long have you been in the music business?" Virginia asked.
"Well, professionally, I have been employed as a wedding singer, but I have been making meaningful music with my elders almost all of my life," Portes replied.
Help the Pavilion take steps to fight senior depression and loneliness.
Join with Pavilion members for the fourth annual family festival titled "A Walk in the Park" on Sunday, Oct. 26 at 9:30 a.m. at Cranes Roost Park. Visit http://www.jewishpavilion.org to become a vendor or call 407-678-9363.