“You shall rise before the aged and show honor to the elder.” — Leviticus 19:32
That’s a directive Jeanette Gross has taken to heart, and repeats often, especially on Friday mornings. That’s when the Oakland resident convenes a sacred chant group at Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville, something she’s been doing for the past 11 years.
Once a month, Gross comes to the Reutlinger synagogue, where she leads residents in an hour of chanting Hebrew phrases from the Torah or other Jewish sources, as a way to welcome Shabbat.
With chanting, “we repeat the same phrase over and over,” Gross told the 12 elderly participants at a recent session. “It’s a different way of prayer. It’s a meditation on the prayer. And by repeating it many times, we look at the prayer in a different way. We take a new approach to the prayer by singing it over and over.”
Gross was introduced to Jewish chanting in the mid-’90s. Her husband went on a retreat led by Jewish Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein and Rabbi Shefa Gold, who is known in the Jewish Renewal movement for her beautiful chanting. Even with two small children at home, Gross’ husband wanted his wife to experience what he did. And when she did, she was hooked.
She attended Gold’s Kol Zimra leadership training program in New Mexico, and now is a trained chant leader.
“Chanting is magical for me, it opened up prayer in a whole new way,” said Gross. “I fell in love with this practice.”
Though Jewish Renewal congregations have long been incorporating chant into their services, Gross belongs to Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah, which is Reform. “I didn’t know of any chanting groups, and I was wanting a chanting community,” she said. She began such a group at Isaiah in 1997, and after Reutlinger opened in 2000, Gross was asked to come chant with the residents as a one-time gig.
“The first time, I had someone storm out with her walker,” she recalled. But even with that less than auspicious start, she was asked to return, and now is in her 12th year of leading a monthly group. “It fills me up to chant with them, even with the ones who don’t like it.”
Each time, the group is a mix of regulars and newcomers. Gross passes out a sheet of paper with that day’s chants on it, so everyone can follow along. Some chant with her, some just listen and some doze off.
And sometimes, residents speak up about what a certain verse or prayer means to them; others ask questions.
Geraldine Gluckman, who is 104, has been coming to the monthly chanting sessions since the beginning. She says the chanting gives her a “relaxing feeling,” a nice way to bring in Shabbat.
Bess Meek, 79, also has been coming since the beginning. She had never done anything like it before, and the experience inspired her to write a poem about it. “I hope it never ends,” she said. “It brings me peace.”
Gross spends the hour moving from prayers expressing gratitude and thanks to God, to those for healing. After each chant ends, the group sits in silence for a few minutes, to meditate or reflect on the words that were sung.
“We all need healing in some way, either physically or somewhere inside,” Gross told the group. “We all have those places that are hurting, broken and bruised, as well as times in our lives that hurt us.”
One chant incorporated arm movements, which some of the residents performed, waving their arms above their heads as they sang.
At the end of their time together, Gross got up and made eye contact with each resident, as the group sang “Shabbat Shalom” together. This can often be the most meaningful time for her, she said; even if the seniors have been dozing during the chanting, at this moment, they are very much awake.
“I learn something from them each time I come,” said Gross. “It really is such an honor for me to do this.”
Ellen Schaefer, a member of the activities staff at Reutlinger, said the chanting circle brings something unique to the residents.
“It’s a chance to get away from the everyday worries and chatter that goes on in their minds,” she said. “Over time the class has become larger, with many more residents participating now.
“We do a lot of group activities here, but this is very special, there’s nothing else quite like it.”
Through the front entrance at Danville’s Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living, past the spacious dining room, in a bright recreation room overlooking the front lawn, Claudia Felson is inspecting a pair of worn-out blue socks.
“Are these your favorite socks?” she gently asks their owner, an elderly resident who has brought them to be darned. Across the table from Felson, Nancy Price is ducked behind a whirring red-and-white sewing machine, carefully hemming a pair of men’s slacks.
In their day-to-day lives, both of these women are heavy hitters in the Bay Area Jewish community. Felson is president of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay and Price is president of the San Francisco chapter of the American Jewish Committee. But to folks at Reutlinger? They’re simply “the menders.” Once a month for the past three years, the friends have lugged sewing machines to the seniors’ residence and held court in a rec room for a few morning hours, patching, hemming and darning anything residents bring them to sew.
Well, almost anything. This particular sock owner admits she has plenty of other socks and that perhaps the blue ones are beyond repair. But she stays to chat for a few minutes anyway.
“A lot of the residents here have just moved here because their kids want them to be close. They’re originally from back East, or other communities, and they can kind of be on their own here,” said Felson, who lives in Castro Valley. “So when people come in, we try to ask where they’re from, just get them to talk. Around the holidays there are lots more people, and we always talk about recipes, our families — just engage as much as possible.”
Some residents have brought in the same item multiple months in a row, and the women are certain that others search for things that might need even a few stitches, just to have a chance to come shmooze.
“We have people who find stuff for us to mend just so they can come and talk,” added Price, who’s based in Orinda. “More than anything, it gives them a chance to tell their story.”
As if on cue, another resident ambles in with a sweater whose sleeves need shortening; she quickly takes a seat and joins in the banter. The room’s current topic: how sewing is becoming something of a lost art. Both Price and Felson are lifelong seamstresses, Price professionally: From 1983 to 2007, she ran a textile business, Nancy Weil Price Fabric and Trims, supplying material to customers such as Levi Strauss and Gap. “That’s why I still have all of this!” said Price, taking out an overflowing Ziploc bag of zippers, buttons and ribbons.
Felson’s love of sewing was inherited: “My grandmother sewed, my mother sewed, my nana sewed,” she said. “I still have my first doll dress that I sewed when I was 5.” These days she makes clothes for her grandchildren.
Turning their love of sewing into volunteer work was a natural move for both women. In 2009, the federation’s women’s philanthropy board was holding a routine meeting at Reutlinger (“I think it’s good to have board meetings at different sites, actually get out into the community we’re talking about,” said Felson). When Reutlinger employees mentioned mending as a task that could use volunteer help, Felson and Price checked their calendars and began the program that very month.
Since then, the two have become regulars at the facility. Residents with clothing in hand are usually waiting in the rec room when the women arrive, lugging their sewing machines on dollies. They write up a waiting list and get to work, the hum of the machines providing a backdrop for the conversation. More often than not, the morning will take an amusing twist at some point, said Felson.
“One time, we had this man in a walker bring in a cushion from his couch that had ripped, and I fixed it but we didn’t want him to have to shlep this thing all the way back with the walker,” she recalled. “And Nancy had just cut this big hem from some lady’s dress, so we just tied the thing onto his walker with it. We get creative.”
Aside from the laughs, the women keep coming back because “we leave here and we feel good,” said Felson. “We happen to have a talent that we can share, and we feel like we’re doing such a big mitzvah by putting it to use.”
“We’re both kids of Holocaust survivors,” said Price. “I think that has something to do with it — giving back, especially to the Jewish community, has always been paramount.”
Judging by the looks of these Reutlinger residents and the atmosphere in the room, the duo’s bubbly presence is a gift in and of itself.
“I feel privileged to be able to write a check for causes I feel passionate about, but this is something we get to do one-on-one with a recipient,” said Felson. “We both have a lot going on in our volunteer lives, but this will always be special.”