When the Shofar Sounded: Holocaust Survivors receiving JFS Rosh Hashanah Bags

By: Yaffa Podbilewicz-Schuller, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist, Holocaust Survivor Care

Their eyes shone with expectation, knowing and remembering as they prepared to hear the sound of the Shofar. Some, who had not spoken much, found their lips moving expertly reciting the ingrained blessing, others retrieving them from the recesses of mind now dimmed by dementia. Tears welled in anticipation, hands moved to their hearts, pausing, while heads tilted up from their wheelchair-bound selves in attention. Husbands reached out for their wives’ hands, adult children extending their arms around their frail parents’ shoulders, while others stood defiant and independent on their own, walkers put to the side as the sound of the shofar was sounded.

This past week I delivered 25 holiday bags to Holocaust survivors living in the DFW area. With stops in Arlington, Fort Worth, Mesquite, Garland, Heath, Dallas, Plano and Frisco, routes expertly crafted by the JFS Community Engagement team. There are many things that I had hoped for when I first joined Jewish Family Service of Greater Dallas six months ago. I came onboard to expand Holocaust Survivor Care Services following a Person Centered Trauma Informed approach and conduct outreach under a grant from JFNA. What this week brought was certainly not something I had imagined… life’s blessings often catches us unaware.

Our work as clinicians has been challenged by the pandemic in many ways and our resilience as professionals has helped us adapt. With acceptance for what our world demands we have moved to thrive with modifications in our practices most had not conceived of before – group therapy on Zoom, Telehealth platforms, phone psychotherapy, and working from our own makeshift home offices. We have adapted away from the standard 45 min session, recognizing the limitations that exist when our clients are hard of hearing, have dementia or are simply too frail.  The times have forced us out of our comfort zones and have infused our work with creative solutions.

When I heard that our agency would be sending volunteers to deliver Rosh Hashanah bags to many homebound older adults, I saw an opportunity to strengthen the therapeutic alliance with those I serve and thought, if I could bring someone to blow the shofar we might be able to create something special.  In no time, I was joined by an amazing contingent of skilled shofar blowers who answered the call to participate on this mitzvah. Many thanks to Rabbi Stefan Weinberg, Rabbi Matt Rutta, and Cary Rudberg for bringing each their precious shofars and lending their presence, spirit and Jewish wisdom to these unique visits. Together we created moments of reflection and meditation helping to guide everyone’s attention into the opportunities that our holiday bestows upon us. To review our lives and engage in Tikun Atzmi (healing of the self), to clarify our intention for our life, and bring our hearts and minds together to focus our wishes, needs, and desires for our world. Engaging in such a way allowed us to bring our will, intention and motivation to articulate our private prayers, right there, as the sound of the shofar imbued our experience with its magic, creating an opening, a holding space, a connection and pathway to elevate our spirit.

Many thanks to Rabbi Stefan Weinberg, Rabbi Matt Rutta, and Cary Rudberg for bringing each their precious shofars and lending their presence, spirit and Jewish wisdom to these unique visits.

We were greeted in porches, front lawns and opened-up garages, safely distancing and wearing masks. I wore a clear mask intended to allow those with hearing challenges to read lips, though most just remarked on how nice it was to see my smile – a reminder of how much we have taken for granted before the pandemic.

I will always cherish this experience, the beauty and singularity of each encounter, the opportunity to see the shining faces of each of the survivors I serve, taking in their resilience and strength even in their time of need. I am touched by many notes of thanks received after the visits and extend my own gratitude to all involved in making this happen.

Above all, I am filled with a most unique and almost intangible awareness gifted by this experience. As a sense of gathering – of coming together. I know it may not make sense, as I visited each one separately and we were never together. This three-day journey of delivering the holiday bags, of conducting milieu therapy, of showing up to serve another – being fully present – created something very special. As if the sum of each of these profound encounters amalgamated by the powerful and atemporal sound of the shofar brought us into wholeness, connected to our peoplehood and to humanity. A glimpse into oneness.

May you all be blessed to hear the sound of the shofar and feel you are standing among your people as one, humbled in the presence of God to do our highest to bring wholeness to our shared world.

Shana Tova uMetuka,

Yaffa