“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy, when skies are gray.” The words of this well-known song surrounded us as I, the volunteer, helped my partner, the artist, sit at a round table covered in art supplies. As the voices in the social hall continued, I placed an artist’s apron over her head and a matching one over mine. Then I got out my sheet of vocabulary words and pulled up the translation on my phone. I braced myself for my weekly challenge: helping a woman with dementia who speaks only Russian complete an art project that she did not want to do.
I was sitting at this table as part of my Jewish Foundation Fellowship at Cedar Village, where I participated in a program called OMA: Opening Minds through Art. Each week, an artist and their volunteer partner completed art projects with the goal of allowing residents with dementia to make decisions, strengthen or maintain their cognition, and create beautiful works of art. For some volunteers, this Friday morning activity brought great joy. Their artists were able to make decisions, would willingly follow the steps of the activity, and, perhaps most helpfully, spoke English.
I struggled each week to learn new Russian words related to art and decision making, struggled to convince the artist to walk down to the social hall, and struggled to get her to buy into the art project. Usually, I ended up making a beautiful demonstration while she shrugged at me and refused to even hold the paintbrush.
After a few weeks of the same routine, which ended in a mostly blank piece of paper, I paused in the middle of our work. I decided to ignore the art activity altogether and use the materials to communicate with her instead of through words. On the paper on the table, I wrote her name, I wrote my name, and then slowly I wrote друзья—druz’ya–friends. Immediately, my partner’s eyes lit up. She grabbed the paper, still wet with paint, and shoved it into her pocket. Then she grabbed my hand and kissed it over and over again. On the way back to her room, we walked past the deli. Insistently, she pulled me toward the pastry display case and “bought” a rugelach for me and babka for herself. We sat at a deli table and ate together, communicating about our delicious treats.
As I ate my rugelach, I realized that it may have been a very long time since my friend had experienced something as normal as eating a snack at a deli with a friend. And suddenly it hit me. OMA is not about art. OMA is about creating relationships, making friends, and establishing a space that feels normal when everything else is new or different. OMA led the two of us to that deli, where my friend and I were able to cross our language barrier and have a sacred moment together. This simple moment is the definition of Avodat HaKodesh, sacred service.
OMA is designed to be person-centered. As rabbis, leaders, and members of a community, we have the sacred responsibility to treat others as b’tzelem Elohim, created in the image of God, whenever we can. We can never take for granted the power of treating another person with dignity and friendship. Our work becomes sacred when we can make someone feel dignity and happiness, even when their skies are gray, even if only for a few minutes in a deli.
Samantha Schapera is a fifth-year rabbinical student. Her Jewish Foundation Fellowship is at Cedar Village, the long-term care facility that serves the Jewish community in Cincinnati.