Putting Relationships First

The summer of 2020 was our first summer of coronavirus. I was scheduled to be the Jewish Foundation (TJF) intern working with the chaplain at the Cedar Village assisted living community. As I set up the project, I envisioned sitting with the residents, learning their stories, and recording their favorite meals and memories. The summer was planned to culminate with a delicious communal meal made of those recipes. 

But the swelling pandemic landed like a grenade in a barrel of oatmeal. Everythingwas impacted. The novel coronavirus pandemic and the varying responses to it have been the unexpected, mystery ingredients in our summer, and no one had experience handling anything like it. The rosy-warm vision I had of what my time at Cedar Village would be like vanished with a phone call from my TJF advisor one day early in May. “Edie, HUC-JIR and Cedar Village are in agreement. You cannot go onsite to interact with the residents. Everything will have to be remote. If you want me to arrange for another internship, we can do that.”

I took a breath. I wanted to work one-on-one to learn, to listen, and to appreciate glimpses into a valued life and a different time. My imagination played this out. How do you develop a relationship with a person when you are not in the same room with them, when you can see neither their expressions nor their body language? How do you just let there be the pauses and the silences that are part of face-to-face conversations? How does it work to be on a phone call with a person you are just getting to know? 

I realized that I did not want to give up on this project, and that I would do anything to find a way to make this work. I am a second-career rabbinic student, joining Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion from the world of software development. One of the many things I know from my former world is that technology must always be secondary to human relationships. Technology must enable us to connect with each other, not be a stumbling block. I would not abandon the residents of Cedar Village. The precautions for COVID-19 were reasonable in the desire to preserve health and life. Cedar Village residents were already isolated enough, and I could not contribute to the loss of yet another potential connection with a world beyond their television set and their existing community. I would add one more person to their lives—someone who wants to take the time to listen, who thinks they are special, and who really wants to hear and learn from their stories.

This is how I came to spend between three and five hours on the phone with residents on most days. Sometimes, those calls were just leaving a voicemail and hoping a resident would return a call from an unfamiliar 704 area code phone number. As residents called back, or as they answered their phones, I began introductions, explanations, and then listening. Then the baking started. By the third week of the internship, I was baking one hundred small challah rolls every week.

The phone calls and the residents’ answers to my questions broke long-standing stereotypes I did not realize I carried with me. My stereotypes were based on my own upbringing, with an engineer father and a mother who was a trained chemist but served as homemaker. My initial concept of family meals prepared by the mother as a primary expression of Jewish identity changed and became richer.

Yet I learned how two kids and a father supported their mother by cooking most evening meals as she completed her master’s degree in teaching. I listened as a retired realtor shared with me how she listened to people to learn what type of home they were seeking, how she still has connections with the people she helped… and that she never cooked if she could help it. I listened in awe to an audacious story from the father of a family with two children under ten who bicycled from their home in Washington state to Cincinnati in the 1970s. They did this because his dear artist wife had read a book about another family completing that adventure, and she wanted to try it.

I learned to listen very, very carefully. When people have a conversation in person, there are so many nuances of facial expression and posture that transmit additional information about the spoken words. You can also see the items they choose to have around them. All of these unspoken visual cues give you a fuller picture of the individual. This past summer, I asked: “What books are in your room?” “What art do you have?” “What music do you listen to?” These and other questions unlocked engaging stories.

My experiences at Cedar Village taught me that, with persistence and patience, human connections can be forged without in-person contact. Every one of my conversations happened over the phone. Because phone calls can be tiring, I worked to keep conversations at twenty minutes or less. As we got to know each other, our conversations became longer. I heard stories of resilience and tenacity. Many would call me back to share additional details. Their voices, colored with east coast, midwestern, and west coast inflections, reached out to make a connection.

Then there is the matter of baking and all those challah rolls…

This summer, I began to learn about baking “at scale.” To me, food is an expression of affection and connection. As I spoke with so many residents who were feeling cut off from their families and friends due to COVID-related safety precautions, I was inspired to make challah for them. 

Every week, Tuesday through Thursday, I baked one hundred three- or four-inch challahs, each little roll placed in its own pretty little bag. After baking, cooling, and bagging, I performed contactless delivery to the porch of my supervisor. I had never baked for so many people simultaneously. The residents were kind with their feedback, showing patience as I learned baking in small sizes on this larger scale. They only had to put up with scorched challah for two weeks.

I experimented with different herbs and spices. Monday follow-up calls to ask their opinions were a highlight. Their feedback was a gift. I found that different flavors evoked strong responses from the residents, and often new stories. One resident shared her story of the horrors of serving raw-in-the-middle challah to her mother-in-law. I also quickly learned that Cedar Village residents fell into two main camps: sweet-cinnamon people and savory, “everything bagel spice” people. Victor, a resident, was especially fond of the Italian-seasoned challah. I think I made more of those rolls because of his enthusiastic commentary and phone calls to me to share his thoughts. 

This was not the summer I had envisioned. There was no sitting with folks in sunny rooms listening and watching as they shared their memories. I cooked no big communal meal to close out the internship. This summer was different. I feel lucky to have been there, because I still became the recipient of stories, recipes, and shared laughter. True fellowship is not about food. It is the connections we make among ourselves, along with the flexibility and determination to maintain them. There is no such thing as too much friendship, even across distances. The coronavirus became another opportunity to learn what is really important.

Edie Yakutis is a second-career rabbinic student based in Cincinnati, who was accepted to HUC-JIR after working with Microsoft Corporation for twenty-three years in a number of customer-facing management roles.

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