Bringing a taste of Shabbat in a box


December 21, 2018

Shown here (l-r): Shula Levy, Stella Cohen, Sara Segal, Rachel Slavkin and Debbie Goldstein at a SPARK challah bake in October.

For Jewish seniors in skilled nursing and assisted living facilities, it can be a challenge to keep up the Shabbat traditions of lighting candles and saying the blessings over challah and wine. But with Shabbat Boxes, the Jewish Pavilion is able to give Orlando Jewish seniors the gift of Shabbat.

The boxes were the idea of Sarah Gittleson, who leads SPARK, the women's division of JOIN (Jewish Outreach Initiative) Orlando. She was baking challahs and preparing for Shabbat at home one Friday when she got a message that a woman who had been attending some of her monthly challah bakes had broken a hip.

"I saw that she was in a hospital right near my house," Gittleson recalled. She decided to go visit the woman, and she didn't go empty-handed. "I took one of the challahs I was making, I took some chicken soup, I took some grape juice." Her friend was very touched by the gesture and was happy to be able to experience Shabbat even in the hospital.

Gittleson has been leading the monthly challah bakes, at which women gather to bake four challahs for their families to enjoy, for about three years. As she talked to her husband, Rabbi Gabi Gittleson, who leads JOIN Orlando, the idea evolved of enlisting the women who attend these gatherings to help bring that Shabbat experience to more people.

"What if I suggest that people make one [extra] challah roll, and we can make these little boxes for people who are sick or in the hospital," Gittleson asked her husband. "And then we started to create these Shabbat Boxes."

The boxes represent an important Jewish value, chesed (kindness), and offer the women at the challah bakes an opportunity to do a mitzvah (good deed) while they are making challahs to bring home with them. "They say if you want to be happy, do something for someone else," Gittleson said.

At first, Gittleson and volunteers were only taking them to people whose families got in touch with JOIN, but Gittleson knew that the Jewish Pavilion had a large group of seniors who would benefit from the boxes. It was a "shidduch"-a good fit, said Gittleson.

The attractive black boxes contain a kiddush cup, electronic candles, a plate, a challah cover, a grape juice bottle, a pamphlet with Shabbat blessings and-in a starring role-the homemade challah. "I think if you give people store-bought challah it wouldn't have the same effect," said Gittleson. The homemade challah brings with it "that feeling of hominess," she explained.

One recent beneficiary of a Shabbat Box was Bernice Shapiro, a resident at Life Care Center of Altamonte Springs. Growing up and with her own family, she was accustomed to lighting candles and saying the prayers over challah and wine, often accompanied by a traditional meal of chicken, matzoh ball soup (which she called "knaidlach"), and kugel.

Jewish Pavilion CEO Nancy Ludin brought a Shabbat Box to Bernice Shapiro.

But living in a skilled nursing facility, Shapiro does not have the means to celebrate Shabbat as she'd like. She regularly attends the Jewish Pavilion's monthly Shabbat and holiday programs at Life Care, led by Pavilion volunteer Phil Brown. But she misses that connection to her past on other weeks. That's why she was so pleased to receive the Shabbat Box.

It also gave her the opportunity to show a little chesed of her own. "I wasn't drinking the juice, so I brought it to the Shabbat service," said Shapiro. "I still have the cup and candles."

The Jewish Pavilion and SPARK have distributed about 100 of the Shabbat Boxes so far. To make a donation to support the boxes, connect with JOIN/SPARK at And if you would like to help bring Shabbat and Jewish culture to seniors in living facilities, contact the Jewish Pavilion at 407-678-9363.


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