Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Jewish Pavilion honors its volunteers at JP Connections

Jewish Pavilion volunteers Norma Ball and Pam Ruben, as well as all Pavilion volunteers and members, will be honored at the Jewish Pavilion's annual JP Connections luncheon. As the two volunteers of the year, Ball and Ruben both understand how important it is to spend time with our senior citizens.

Longtime Pavilion volunteer Norma Ball never imagined she would spend her retirement years visiting seniors. The Sanford resident spent most of her working life in Jewish education in Albany, New York, specializing in middle school and high school students, both as a religious school teacher and as the principal of Albany Jewish Communal High School.

"More than 35 years ago my oldest daughter, Amy, told me she was going to be a geriatric nurse," Ball said. "I asked her, 'Why would you want to work with old people?' and she replied, 'Because they have so much to teach us.'" Ball continued, "After volunteering with the Pavilion for six years, I can tell you that Amy was absolutely right. It is imperative that we listen and learn from our elders, and pass their wisdom on to the next generation."

Ball, the grandmother of six, traded in the cold, dark winters of the Northeast for the year-round sunshine of Central Florida in 2002. As she said, "One blustery, freezing day I decided I'd had enough of the cold, the hats, the mittens, and the shoveling. I was tired of spending half of each winter day in the dark. My partner, Jola, had been wanting to relocate down South for years, and before I knew it we had moved to central Florida where everything was bright and sunny."

Zena Zulkes became an early friend, and introduced Ball to the Jewish Pavilion. The active senior was placed on the Pavilion's board of directors, but soon realized that sitting on the board was not the right place for her. As she said, "I had sat on boards many times, and I wasn't interested in serving an administrative role. I needed to do something hands-on that would help me get involved in the community."

Ball left the board, joined the Pavilion's Friends Board, and found the perfect fit. "The Friends Board has been incredibly welcoming, and is made up of a wonderful group of woman who do whatever is necessary to help the seniors and the organization," said Ball.

Nancy Ludin, executive director of the Jewish Pavilion stated, "Norma has been a fixture on the Friends Board for many years, and a hands-on volunteer since day one. She is an extraordinary woman who has made a difference in the lives of so many, and takes on whatever job is given, no matter how big or small."

Most recently, Ball took on the enormous job of serving as a co-chairwoman of the Jewish Pavilion's 4th Annual A Walk in the Park, which is its largest yearly fundraiser. Ball said the Walk is her favorite Pavilion event, as the generations come together and walk in step to honor its seniors.

In her role as a Pavilion representative visiting seniors at Lake Mary Rehab, Norma met Molly. Most seniors welcome their Pavilion visitors, but Molly was in a bad place at that time. As Ball entered her room, Molly took one look and shouted "GET OUT, I don't want you here!"

Never being one to give up, Ball went back each week, and each week Molly threw her out. "I would respect her wishes by leaving, but always left a small homemade treat behind. But I always went back, week after week... it was my job to visit Molly and I was sure she was lonely and eventually I could wear her down. Finally, I broke through!" Ball said.

"Molly's first words of acceptance, in her thick Yiddish accent, were, 'You don't give up, do you?'" recounted Ball. Because of her tenacity and her empathy for what Molly was going through, Norma became Molly's close companion for the next two years. They spent hours sharing stories, goodies, laughing and crying together.

Ball visited Molly through her last days, and was honored to be called to the hospital by Molly's daughter just before she died. "I said goodbye, gave her a kiss, and watched her gently slip away," said Ball.

Emily Newman, Pavilion program director and senior specialist noted, "Norma's relationship with Molly was really something special. Norma has extraordinary people skills, and turned a difficult situation into something meaningful and wonderful."

Ball believes that challenges she faced earlier in her life gave her the strength and tenacity to not give up on Molly. Ball's mother died when she was 24, and her father passed two years later, leaving her the matriarch of her younger siblings. "As a young adult I was forced to grow up quickly," she recounted.

As a Jewish educator in the mid-1960s, Ball was presented with the challenge of becoming one of the first Holocaust educators in the country. Renowned Jewish educator Phillip Arian asked her to teach a class on Holocaust education. Ball recalled, "At first I said, 'No.' Our conversation took place at a time when no one was talking about the Holocaust. It was too soon for survivors to come forward, and curriculum and textbooks books did not yet exist." Ball changed her mind about teaching the class when she came to realize that someone needed to start a conversation about the Holocaust, and it might as well be her.

She found texts wherever she could, and wrote her own curriculum with the intention of teaching Jewish educators. She stated, "The most effective way to pass on this information was to instruct Jewish educators. Then, they could pass on this information en masse to hundreds of students each year. In the early years, I would story tell, and then weave a piece of history through each story."

Soon, Ball was asked to speak at the first conference of Holocaust Educators in New York City about her pioneering curriculum that had reached so many. When she arrived at the conference she found that her name had been incorrectly posted as "Norman Ball." She filled in the administrators regarding the spelling error, and was told, "There are no women on our panel of educators." She replied, "Well, there are now."

As a direct result of her track record and reputation teaching the Holocaust, Ball was asked by the New York State Museum to create a permanent exhibit titled "From Holocaust to Haven," based on Ruth Gruber's book.

Once again, jumping in the deep end with both feet, Ball took on the monumental task with the same energy and drive that still defines her. Ball's whimsical side showed through when she commented, "The exhibit is a permanent testament to the strength and courage of the survivors, and the tenacity of one very short Jewish woman."

Today, Ball believes her years in Jewish education have come full circle. Once the teacher, she is now the willing student, learning a lifetime of lessons from the seniors that she visits.

Three and a half years ago Pamela Ruben met with Nancy Ludin, executive director of the Jewish Pavilion to discuss writing an article about the Pavilion. Now, more than 50 Pavilion articles later, Ruben has become the marketing director for the organization.

"There are so many things going on that I could write a story everyday about the wonderful things happening through the Jewish Pavilion," Ruben said. "Every time I spend time with a senior I'm floored by how much I learn about them or I learn about a piece of history they've actually touched and I think they add so much to our community. They are a living history and the best textbook possible."

Ruben isn't a stranger to nursing homes. She practically grew up in a nursing home back in Chicago because her grandmother lived with her family until she was 5 years old. "She had multiple strokes starting in her 60s and when she was in her late 60s, she was fully confined to a wheelchair and very ill and my mom couldn't take care of her anymore. So she was put into a nursing home and lived there for 17 years," Ruben told the Heritage. "I was with her from kindergarten until my junior year in college."

She would visit her grandmother at least two or three times a week. "I could see how much that added to her life, but the rest of the time was so quiet."

Ruben is by trade an educator and an author, dedicated to writing character-building children's books "with a dash of spice," she adds. She describes herself as a different kind of teacher and believes in visual teaching. Using Russian nesting dolls, she taught her third-grade students at the Hebrew Day School (now the Jewish Academy) how to write the introduction, body and conclusion of a story. "I was known as the teacher with the nesting dolls," she said with a laugh.

Aside from nesting dolls, Ruben is a serious writer who is making a difference one reader at a time through her children's books, movie reviews, and newspaper and magazine articles. Her anti-bullying book, "Don't Pick on Pepper," is used in schools throughout Florida.

Like Ball, Ruben also taught about the Holocaust, only her vehicle was a Holocaust writing contest. The requirements of the contest were to study one person who survived the Holocaust. Her eighth-grade students at Odyssey Middle School chose to study former Orlando Sentinel columnist Greg Dawson's mother, Zhanna Arshanskaya, who survived the Nazi occupation in the Ukraine by taking a new identity. It was a very unique and personal way to learn about the atrocities that happened during the Shoah.

Ruben started writing when her children, Jenny (now in college) and Andy (a junior in high school), were little. In fact, the whole Ruben family enjoys writing, including her husband Tony, who is a CFO in a local company and a financial writer.

However, when Jenny suffered a serious illness, Ruben became acquainted with New Hope Wishes for Kids in Maitland and the focus of her writing took a turn.

"The first thing I'd like you to know about me is that I am the proud parent of a New Hope kid," she says in her bio. "I feel fortunate that I can spend time with (New Hope's) committed staff, and give something back."

While ill, Jenny created an organization she called "Jenny's Chain of Giving" for Balei Chinski, a girl she befriended while in the hospital.

"Balei was very sick, and her family was about to lose their home. We held a fundraiser and silent auction at our home," Ruben shared. "Sadly, Balei died two days before our fundraiser, but we went on to raise several thousand dollars."

In explanation of the name of the organization, Ruben said, "Jenny's Chain of Giving comes from the fact that we are connected through the ripple effect of giving."

Kate Santich of the Orlando Sentinel wrote an article about Jenny's Chain of Giving and Ruben saw how Santich's article truly empowered her daughter and began using her writing talent to make a positive impact on others. First, through her children's books that cover topics about responsibility and friendship; through her work with the WISH Foundation; a writing workshop titled "You are what you write"; and now about the wonderful senior citizens who reside in the 54 assisted-living facilities where the Jewish Pavilion volunteers visit and bring a touch of love into their lives.

"Pam Ruben has been an extraordinary volunteer for the Jewish Pavilion for the past four years," said Ludin. "She has taken over a great deal of our publicity; always writing with passion and conveying the true essence of a volunteer's personality. Pam participates in many of our social events for seniors such as Yiddish class, ice cream socials and holiday parties. Her empathy and dedication are beyond compare."

JP Connections will be held at the Hilton, Altamonte Springs on Dec. 11 at 11 a.m. The even is open to the community. Couvert is $25. For more information about the event or the Jewish Pavilion, call Nancy Ludin at 407-678-9363.


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