By Rabbi Michael Goldman
The High Holy Days culminate with Yom Kippur, known in English as the “Day of Atonement.” The word’s etymology matches the way it is spelled, if you break it down into syllables: at-one-ment, a perfect reflection of what it is about--unity between a human being and G-d. In less metaphysical terms, it is about the process of returning to a sense of feeling right with the world. This process ideally begins before the actual holiday, as we apologize to people whom we’ve wronged during the past year. We express our regrets and make an earnest effort to correct our misdeeds. Ideally, by the end of that process, we can stand among those same people—possibly, at the Yom Kippur service itself— and feel a sense of connection to them, rather than alienation from them.
The liturgy and music of the synagogue service that are, for many, so familiar may reinforce and amplify this sense of connection with the divine, with the world, and/or with oneself. I dare say that anyone who returns every year to a synagogue for the Day of Atonement has experienced some modicum of this feeling; otherwise, we’d all just stay home and read a book about it.
As the leader of the WJCS Senior Program and as the founder and Director of Seivah, I work closely with two groups of people whose lives are intertwined but who experience the Day of Atonement in radically divergent ways. One of these groups is comprised of people with dementia; the other—their caregivers.
For many people with dementia, at-one-ment can come very naturally. He or she doesn’t so much listen to music and feel the swaying of the crowd but rather is embraced by it, becomes it. A person with dementia doesn’t worry about the past or the future. It’s enviable, really; a person with dementia can accomplish during High Holiday prayers what the rest of us have to work long and hard to do. He or she can be totally in the moment.
Alas, for the caregiver it’s just the opposite. From the very outset, the caregiver has to make a choice: should I leave my loved one at home and face all those people who ask, “Where’s your loved one?” or bring him or her and risk breaking with decorum? Will he talk during the silent part of the Amidah? Will she get restless during the Torah reading? The caregiver has to work hard to be at-one, having perpetually to think for two.
Seivah and WJCS are working to address this quandary by creating spaces and events where a person with dementia and a caregiver can both have meaningful Jewish experiences. We have just received a grant from the Westchester UJA-Federation Services Cabinet called Dementia-Friendly Synagogues, to make our synagogues more inclusive to persons with dementia and their caregivers. Our first program is a collaboration with four congregations in Northern Westchester (Temple Bet Torah, Temple Beth El, Congregation B’nai Yisrael, and Temple Shaaray Tefila). It is the Memory Minyan, a dementia-friendly, prayer service designed to allow people with dementia and their caregivers to be at-one together on the High Holidays. If you are reading this prior to the event (September 16th, at Temple Shaaray Tefila) and know someone who might be interested in attending, or if you are interested in volunteering, please contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org).
And wherever you find yourself during this season, you don’t need a program to make your place of atonement more dementia-friendly. If you see a stressed-out caregiver, offer to stay with his or her loved one and offer that person a few minutes of respite. Tolerate a little noise from anyone in a cognitive reality different from yours. You might find yourself at-one-ing with them.
Rabbi Michael Goldman is Coordinator of WJCS-Westchester Jewish Community Program’ Senior Program and Director of Seivah: Life Beyond Memory. To learn more about the many programs offered by WJCS, please go to wjcs.com.