It feels like Thanksgiving. The smell of a delicious homemade meal waiting to be served. The way the community members sit around one long table as a family—supportive, respectful, and open to dialogue. The sound of voices together in song—Hine Ma Tovhas become a community favorite. The way we celebrate our blessings, grapple with injustice, and pray for peace.
No matter what time of year, when I visit the Jewish Family Service Barbash Family Vital Support Center, where I serve as a rabbinic fellow, I cannot help but think that it feels like Thanksgiving.
There is a magic at theVital Support Center. There is a magic in the way the community cultivates a safe, sacred space where every individual is welcomed and appreciated. Every individual enters with unique struggles as well as assets.
During a recent Hebrew class, one member began to sing a song that reminded her of the prayer we were studying. I was astonished at how gorgeous her voice was; I had no idea how musically talented this woman is. I was even more astonished when she invited us to sing with her, and we did.
Most of us were unfamiliar with the words of this woman’s song, but still we sang with her because it was fun. Because she was so warm and inviting. Because Vital Support Centeris a place where individuals may feel comfortable to try new things, to grow, and to explore in a nonjudgmental atmosphere.
Connie Rosselot, the activity center programs manager, says with pride in her voice that everyone who comes to the Vital Support Centerhas a hidden talent. She tells members that if any of them have not yet uncovered their secret talent, she would be happy to help them find it.
This is the type of community where the staff and the members make it their mission to search for the holiness inside each person. While working at Vital Support Center, I met an artist who sketches complex, intricate drawings in a few quick minutes. I met an inventor who uses his imagination to create musical instruments out of objects in his kitchen. I laughed with a top-notch comedian whose sense of humor brings comfort to many of his friends at Vital Support Center. Each individual shares gifts with the community, making every gathering a potluck of wisdom and talent.
Some of the highlights of my time with this community were the holiday luncheons where staff and members came together to celebrate, sing, and study Jewish texts. During our Sukkot celebration, we walked outside into the sukkah and hung up our own prayers on fruit shaped pieces of colored paper. We shared our prayers with the whole community and sang Jewish songs while delighting in being outside in nature, the oldest beit midrash, house of study.
We learned Hebrew together as we focused on Jewish prayers, their meaning, and some of the different melodies. Most recently, we studied the prayer Adon Olam. We listened to an array of diverse melodies, including more traditional melodies as well as newer versions using songs by the Beatles and Broadway show tunes for inspiration. The group had a thoughtful and respectful conversation regarding members’ opinions of the different melodies.
A few members who initially preferred their favorite melodies from growing up said that they were inspired to learn new melodies. One participant said that he believes exposing himself to a variety of sounds is important for personal growth, and another participant said that it helps her connect with God on multiple levels.
While studying Hebrew, we also imagined ourselves at an Israeli restaurant practicing our vocabulary while ordering falafel. One day we found ourselves at a poetry café as we studied the poetry of Yehuda Amichai and learned about the inspiring life he led.
One of the biggest lessons I have learned while working at Jewish Family Service is the value of lovingkindness. I have learned that a smile, a few kind words, a hug, or a friendly gesture can bring healing and wholeness to an individual in need. I learned that a supportive community may be an individual’s dock as this person swims through the rough waters of life.
Rabbi Chaim Zaitchik, a Mussar scholar of the twentieth century wrote:
The Cornerstone service to God of Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel (the Alter of Slabodka) was loving-kindness. To him, this meant being careful of another’s honor and dignity, helping others, having one’s heart overflow with kindness, and utilizing every opportunity to benefit others. It meant that older students should learn with younger ones. Above all, it meant that one should greet his fellow with a pleasant countenance, because it makes the other feel good and binds people together in friendship.
The Vital Support Center is a place where lovingkindness permeates through the community. I can feel it when I walk in. It is a place without masks, a place where people may be themselves and be treated with love, dignity, and respect.
While at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I have learned to play guitar. Sometimes I feel butterflies in my stomach when I play guitar for large groups of people. I worry I will make a mistake or my music will hurt people’s ears. When I play guitar at the Vital Support Center, I do not worry. The butterflies are gone.
Instead, I feel comfort and peace because I know I am in a non-judgmental, loving, and accepting community, a community where we see the best in one another. A community where instead of focusing on wrong chords or strum patterns that feel a bit off, we hear the beauty in one another’s song. A community where lovingkindness is habit. A community where it perpetually feels like Thanksgiving.
As I prepare to be ordained as a rabbi, I reflect on my experience at the Vital Support Center. I am inspired by this community, and I will take what I learned here and bring it with me to the congregations I serve.
Jenn Mangold serves as a rabbinic fellow at the Jewish Family Service Barbash Family Vital Support Centerin Cincinnati through the Jewish Foundation. She is mentored by Fran Gafvert.
As quoted in Every Day, Holy Day by Alan Morinis.