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'God Willing, We'll All Be Elderly One Day'

April 13, 2006
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Rabbi Sandra Berliner
Rabbi Sandra Berliner sums up the work she does for the elderly rather simply: "If you can't get to a shul, I'll bring the shul to you."

As an employee of Jewish Family and Children's Service, the Melrose Park resident works as a chaplain at the five Federation Housing complexes located throughout Philadelphia.

"Being there, I help emotionally, spiritually, and with ways to deal with issues that are beyond physical and religious," said Berliner, 50. "A lot of what I do as a rabbi is bring Jewish tradition and resources in to help wrestle with the bigger questions."

Though she recognizes that Judaism doesn't really label anything as a calling, the mother of three sons said she believes that working with the elderly is what she was meant to do in life.

As a young girl growing up in Toledo, Ohio, Berliner would visit relatives at nursing homes and help conduct services there. She continued the practice as a college student at Brandeis University.

She went on to receive a master's degree in social work, with the intention of making aliyah. Those plans never materialized, and Berliner enrolled in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Soon after, she melded her rabbinical education with her prior social work experience.

"Although I love working with all ages, the elderly is where I gravitate," said the rabbi. "I've learned a lot from the people I work with and love listening to their stories and helping with their spirits."

Though Berliner can't really name one memorable client or one experience that really stands out - "They are all wonderful," she said - she really saw the difference her work makes with one of her first hospice clients, Max. According to Berliner, Max was not a very religious man and, in fact, had lots of struggles with Judaism.

After visiting him once a week and talking about lots of different topics, including that of his faith, Berliner learned that Max recited the Shema, the traditional prayer before death, just before he passed away.

All in all, though, her favorite moments with her clients are when she is able to celebrate their 100th birthdays or other milestones in their lives.

Berliner works with other generations and groups as well. She teaches four classes at Gratz Hebrew High School on Sundays and just last week she led a seder for Jewish women trying to get back into the work force. Sponsored by the Jewish Employment and Vocational Service, the seder, she said, spoke to the needs of modern-day Jewish women, their challenges and their place in the religion and in the world.

Aspects of the seder included putting an orange on the seder plate - a recent tradition derived from an urban legend that a man once said women belong on the bimah like an orange belongs on a seder plate - and the introduction of Miriam's cup, instead of Elijah's cup, to honor Moses's sister and the strength of Jewish women. They also sang a modified version of "Dayenu" focusing on milestones in women's history.

Berliner led one other seder, this time for both genders, at the JCC Klein branch, and plans to hold additional seders during the holiday at each of the Federation Housing buildings.

Her line of work, she said, allows her to do something that she truly loves and allows her to make an impact on others' lives.

"I tend to be good at it and reap a lot of benefits, rewards and satisfaction," she said of working with the elderly. "God willing, we'll all be [elderly] one day."

 

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