The Jewish ritual of Shabbat takes place once a week from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. The event designates a time of rest from the work week; it is a time to unplug cell phones and computers, attend religious services, light candles and reflect on the many blessings of life. The Asheville Jewish Community Center’s (JCC’s) volunteer group, the Mitzvah Corps (good deeds corps) offers Shabbat services to elderly residents of all faiths in local nursing homes, allowing participants to experience the warmth and camaraderie of the weekly ritual.
Welcome Shabbat began as a partnership between Jewish Family Services (JFS) and the JCC. In 2014, Mitzvah Corps members offered to help JFS recruit volunteers for its Friendly Visitors Program, an initiative designed to send volunteers to visit isolated Jewish homebound seniors in Asheville.
“Most of the Friendly Visitors Program opportunities seemed to present themselves in a caregiving capacity rather than a visitor capacity,” says JCC volunteer coordinator Natalie Kramer. “While some volunteers found the experience fulfilling, the majority wanted opportunities to spend time with active seniors creating a more uplifting experience.”
Coincidentally, while JCC volunteers were participating in the Friendly Visitors Program, an active, elderly Jewish community member moved into an assisted living facility and contacted the JCC to see if it could provide programming. “Several members of our Mitzvah Corps now had the opportunity to provide a Friendly Visitors Shabbat replete with challah (traditional Jewish bread), grape juice, prayer, live music and discussions about various topics,” says Kramer.
Kramer and her volunteer corps quickly discovered from participant feedback that the residents wanted more. “The combined energy of those participants who knew the holiday and those who were curious about it filled the room with a general sense of happiness and togetherness,” she says.
“I was excited to offer the community’s Jewish residents a monthly worship opportunity,” says Reverend Tonya D. Hill, chaplain at Deerfield. “The marvelous result is that this service has been welcomed and attended also by residents of the Christian faith as well as some who claim no formal faith connections.”
Friendly Visitors Shabbat eventually became Welcome Shabbat and now includes programming on the second Friday of each month at the Crossings at Reynolds Mountain Retirement Community and Deerfield Episcopal Retirement Community as well as Bella Vista and Givens Estate on the third Friday of each month.
“Some of Welcome Shabbat’s participants suffer from cognitive challenges,” says Kramer. “And it’s not uncommon for the comfort of Welcome Shabbat’s songs to bring a resident out of an unresponsive state and into an actively participatory state of celebration.”
Welcome Shabbat was previously funded by a grant from the Blumenthal Jewish Home Foundation. Unfortunately, these funds are no longer available. The JCC Mitzvah Corps is currently seeking private donations for the program’s continuance. To find out more about the Mitzvah Corps or to make a donation to the Welcome Shabbat program, visit jcc-asheville.org.