Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Jewish Pavilion volunteer spotlight: Shirley Schoenberger


Shirley Schoenberger with Brookdale Island Lake resident Jack Levitt, who celebrated his 100th birthday in March.

Whenever Shirley Schoenberger visits, the room always gets a little warmer. That's because Schoenberger, an active Jewish Pavilion volunteer for more than four years, brings with her a wonderfully upbeat attitude and a warm and caring way wherever she goes.

"Shirley is a ray of sunshine. She is so warm and friendly. Her smile is contagious," said Nancy Ludin, executive director of The Jewish Pavilion.

Schoenberger helps with the weekly Shabbat services at Brookdale Island Lake in Longwood, greeting and chatting with residents as they enter and passing out challah and wine before the blessings during the service. She usually comes early or stays late so she has plenty of time to talk with people one on one, catching up with family news or just letting them talk about whatever's on their mind.

"They're very open, and they're eager to share experiences-and sometimes things that they can't even tell their family," said Schoenberger. "So I become like their surrogate family." She also makes regular individual visits to a few of the residents at Savannah Court in Maitland, having formed close relationships with them over the years.

It's clear from the way the residents react when they see her that her friendship is highly valued. On a recent mid-week visit to Island Lake, Schoenberger sat on a sofa in an area across from the dining room, and friend after friend came over to greet her with a hug.

And, of course, they stayed for a chat.

The chatting is an important part of her work as a volunteer, and it's clearly something that Schoenberger enjoys. At the weekly Island Lake services, she also likes to bring a "treat" each week-sometimes homemade.

At those services, she's known as the "Bim Bom girl": she leads the song and brightly encourages everyone to join in and raise their arms to shout an enthusiastic "Hey!" after every "Shabbat Shalom."

"It's hysterical to watch," she jokes, "because they all know that they better do this or they're not getting their treats!"

Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Schoenberger moved to Orlando with her husband, Peter, more than 20 years ago after working together for many years in their retail business. She has always been involved in volunteering for various organizations, and when she learned about The Jewish Pavilion she immediately felt that it would be a good fit.

At the time, Schoenberger's mother was nearing 90 and living on her own in South Florida. Schoenberger had very much wanted her mother, who was having increasing health problems that made her life difficult, to move to Brookdale Island Lake so that she could get the help she needed. But her mother could not be persuaded and rebuffed other efforts to help her, leaving Schoenberger frustrated that she couldn't do more.

Volunteering for The Jewish Pavilion was her way of "fulfilling what I couldn't for my mother," Schoenberger said.

With her sunny personality, Schoenberger has a way of making Shabbat and holiday programs special. She dresses up in themed outfits for all the holidays, including a blue dress with dreidels and menorahs printed on it that she wears for Hanukkah. "It's the tackiest dress you will ever want to see, but they love it," she laughed.

Jewish Pavilion program director Emily Newman has been working with Schoenberger for years and values her highly. "Shirley has added warmth, enthusiasm and pure joy to the Shabbat programs at Brookdale Island Lake," Newman said. "She's both generous and dependable in every way. She not only develops a relationship with the seniors but with staff and family members as well."

Schoenberger also frequently brings her grandsons, Noah and Jared Weiss, with her on visits. Of her three sets of grandkids, Noah and Jared are the ones who live in the area, and other grandkids have also joined her when in town.

"It's amazing to see the rapport they have with the older people, because sometimes kids can get very intimidated," said Schoenberger. "My grandsons do the service sometimes. I'm so proud of them, and the residents love them!"

The relationships Schoenberger forms with many of the residents don't only develop during her regularly scheduled hours. When they become ill, Schoenberger visits them in the hospital or rehab center. The hardest visits have been to people she had grown very close to who were clearly near death. Schoenberger takes these losses very hard.

After volunteering for a while at Brookdale Island Lake and Savannah Court, she met Gloria Newberger, a longtime and very active Jewish Pavilion volunteer-and the mother of Nancy Ludin. Newberger told Ludin about Schoenberger's warmth and energy, and Schoenberger was invited to join the Friends of the Jewish Pavilion Board.

"The people that I've met through The Jewish Pavilion-the other volunteers and staff-have become more than friends. It's another family of mine," Schoenberger said. "You know that if you need these people for anything, they'd be there for you. And that's a good feeling, because it's more than just a volunteer job, it's a way of life."

This year, Schoenberger is co-chairing The Jewish Pavilion's annual gala, which will mark the organization's milestone 18th anniversary. Gems and Jeans 2018 will be held at Hilton Orlando North in Altamonte Springs on Oct. 28, 2018.

"Our celebration of the Chai anniversary will be a fabulous and fun event," said Schoenberger. "We're planning a great evening that will entertain our guests and leave them feeling good about giving their support to such an important organization in our community."

Schoenberger said that volunteering gives her a sense of purpose. "I've always taught my children to give back. And this is my way of giving back. Because I really do feel like I'm doing something good," she said.

"I really probably get more out of this from the residents than they do from me."

Volunteering for The Jewish Pavilion can be rewarding in so many ways. With more than 1,000 Jewish seniors living in 70+ facilities around town, there are many opportunities to get involved. For more information, go to JewishPavilion.org or call 407-678-9363.


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