At The Hebrew SeniorLife Synagogue, The Sacred Is Found In Song

September 21, 2020


Edith Klein-Dreezer sits in the front row of a synagogue in a senior home in Roslindale on a sunny November Friday.

At 89 years old, Klein-Dreezer bears a striking resemblance to her idol: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

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"Upstairs in my room, on the door, I have a picture of the Ginsburg lady," she says.

Around her, staff are wheeling in other residents into the open sanctuary. Hali Diecidue, the chaplain of the Hebrew SeniorLife rehabilitation center, stands at the front of the synagogue, holding a guitar.

"Are you ready, Edith?" Diecidue asks. Another staff member brings Klein-Dreezer a microphone.

Diecidue strums a chord, and they launch into the classic Bob Marley song, "Three Little Birds."

This reggae-inspired musical service happens at the Hebrew SeniorLife synagogue every Friday afternoon.

"I really wanted to sing that song," Diecidue says. "It's repetitive, and to me, it says what Shabbat is about. Which is: 'Everything's gonna be alright.' "

Diecidue used to only hold a Kabbalat Shabbat, the traditional Jewish evening service, on Fridays.

But Diecidue, who uses they/them pronouns, says they wanted to create a musical service beforehand that could appeal to residents of different faiths. Bob Marley was their inspiration.

"You've got this moment in time," Diecidue says. "Everything is gonna be alright. And so I changed some of the words and then I started saying it was the anniversary of Bob Marley's bar mitzvah. And, you know, the people with dementia were like, 'oh, all right!' "

It works for 78-year-old Mary Robashaw. She’s a Catholic who lives at the senior center and has been coming to the singing services for the past year.

"My sons calls from France and they say, 'Where’s Mary?' " Robashaw says. " 'She’s at the Synagogue.' And he says, 'Oh Mother of God help us, she’s at the synagogue!' "

Dozens of staff from the senior center accompany the residents, like activities coordinator Phillipa Robateau.

She says she grew up in Belize listening to gospel music. Now those songs now help her unwind at the end of her shifts. She says her favorite song is "Since I Laid My Burden Down."

She told Diecidue about it, and now, it’s part of the Friday service.

"Music is very, very important in the patient’s life," Robateau says. "Because some patients may not respond to nothing. Nothing. And the minute they hear music, their eyes could be closed, but you could see their hands or their feet moving."

Many of the patients at Hebrew SeniorLife have dementia. But staff seem to agree that music helps them connect to feelings, and memories, when language can’t.

"Seeing them go and really soak it in is amazing," says Susan Kalinda, a nurse manager on a dementia floor. "Music is universal."

"We're doing something good for them," she says. "Who knows what they're feeling when they are in that presence of the synagogue. It's definitely different from this routine ... so it does good for them."

Kalinda says she and her team are always looking for ways to connect with their patients. She says about half of her floor grew up speaking Russian — so she and her staff are learning Russian.

"Dobroye utro, Dobryy den," Kalinda says to Yvette Robinson, another nurse on her floor. "That's good morning, good afternoon"

"Ya tebya lyublyu. I love you." Robinson responds, laughing. "That's my number one. I love that phrase."

Neither Kalinda nor Robinson are Russian; one grew up in Uganda, the other in Panama.

In many ways, Hebrew Senior Life reflects the larger demographics of elder care in America. Immigrants from places like Haiti, Panama, Uganda and Samoa fill a disproportionate role in caring for an aging, mostly white population.

It’s hard work. Physically and emotionally.

Diecidue says they keep this in mind as they try to be a chaplain for both the residents and the staff in a place where death is a constant part of life.

"We sustain over 150 deaths a year," Diecidue says. "So people are opening their hearts and loving these people and then getting their hearts broken almost every day."

Robinson says that’s the hardest part.

"You feel a part of you is gone," she says. "And that's a hard thing ...  we wish everybody would be alive, but it ain't like that.

"It's not a beautiful process, but we feel at least we know that we did our part, to at least bring a little joy, in life."

One of those joys comes every Friday, when Robinson and Kalinda wheel patients down to the synagogue to sing.


In this space, this makeshift family from all corners of the world comes together to connect with something universal.


Source: At The Hebrew SeniorLife Synagogue, The Sacred Is Found In Song - WBUR