THE EASTER SPIRIT / Worshiping and celebrating - with volunteer help at Parker Jewish Institute SIDEBAR: ON RELIGION (SEE END OF TEXT)
LOOKING OUT at the older adults gathered in wheelchairs in the auditorium at Parker Jewish Institute for Health Care and Rehabilitation, the Rev. Andrew Sioleti emphasized the hope in the Easter story of resurrection.
"The hope is not that we will win the lottery," he said last Sunday morning. "The hope is that we have love, that we have peace, that we have faith."
Among the group before him as he celebrated Easter Mass were short-term patients at Parker for rehabilitation and long-term-care residents, including people with dementia. For some of them, Sioleti said, the hope may be simply for less loneliness and more happiness.
The logistics involved on the holiest of Christian holidays at the historically Jewish facility in New Hyde Park reflect what one staff member has called "controlled chaos."
Volunteers, choreographed by the institute's staff, make the difference. About 50 helped this Easter, according to Myra Cohen, the institute's director of volunteers.
They come from different generations as well as different religious backgrounds. David Rand, 82, of Floral Park, came with his friend, Norman Hirsch, 75, of Little Neck. Rand's son, Mark, 36, also of Floral Park, joined them.
The phrase "controlled chaos," used by Jacob Berlin, senior therapist for therapeutic recreation at the 527-bed institute, was recalled Sunday by Steven Frost of Glen Oaks.
"It is controlled chaos," said Frost, 45, a volunteer from Temple Sholom in Floral Park, "but it works."
On Easter Sunday, the result was a respectful religious observance-attended by many of the patients and residents-and a festive holiday celebration including a special meal and a rousing and inspiring rendition of the song "Crazy" by a resident, Angela Lobriglio, 84...Angie, to her fans.
The challenge of the day was explained at the institute, which remains a kosher facility but is open to people without regard to religion. Most of the residents and patients at Parker cannot walk or lift themselves independently out of a wheelchair, said Dr. Conn Foley, the institute's medical director. So, for the Easter service and lunch, "We need large numbers of people to transport them," said Edith Shapiro, director of therapeutic recreation.
"Given the fact that it's a major holiday," she said, "staffing is not at its peak."
Rabbi Lowell S. Kronick, director of pastoral services at Parker, faced an unusual situation this year, as Easter Sunday coincided with the last day of Passover.
Sioleti, the priest who has officiated for a few years at the Easter Mass, is a friend of the rabbi's. He described himself in a light moment during the service as an Easter bunny who hops into the institute only occasionally. The priest serves as chief of chaplains at the New York Harbor Health Care System, which operates through various facilities in the region.
On the same morning as his friend celebrated the Mass, Kronick held a service for the Jewish holiday in another part of Parker. It enabled the participants of his faith "to commemorate the souls of their beloved, departed relatives" and reminded them of their roots and the Jews' exodus from Egypt and slavery.
The institute's mission, from a spiritual perspective, he said, is "to help all patients of different religions."
As an occasional holiday helper from the same temple as Frost, I have joined the volunteers, too. We wheel patients and residents from their rooms on five floors to the elevators; we take them in and out of the auditorium on the main floor; we serve and clear the meals in both the auditorium and a lower-level cafeteria.
We make connections, too, however fleetingly. Frost's 13-year-old son, Josh, recalled one Christmas when he wore an elf's hat his mother had given him. He remembered the reaction of some of the residents at Parker: "They were laughing and saying, 'Oh, look.' Some people, you can tell it makes them happy to see very young people around."
As usual, the volunteers began their day at Parker with a meeting where they received instructions from the institute's staff.
For the Frosts, the bridge to service at Parker has been their temple and its mitzvah program, meaning in the colloquial sense of the Hebrew word, to do a good deed and to help others. The literal meaning in Judaism relates to God's commandments.
An idea carried home from a meeting of temple brotherhoods or men's groups gave birth more than a decade ago to the bond that developed between Temple Sholom and Parker.
"This program reminds me that religion is more than just reading prayers from a book," said Frost, who works in an information systems job at an insurance company.
Like any teenager, Josh acknowledged, he would prefer to sleep late on Sunday. His rewards for coming to Parker, instead, both on Easter and Christmas, include a patient's smile and the good feeling he gets.
Said the father of his son's participation: "In the end I always say, 'It's your decision,' and he always comes."
Volunteer Michael Renna, an assistant principal at Hillcrest High School in Jamaica Estates, comes frequently to Parker with others from Our Lady of the Snows in Floral Park. He had read a blurb about his church's link to Parker in a parish bulletin, and he has been coming to the institute for 13 years now.
At his Catholic church, Renna sings baritone in the choir. At the Easter service at Parker, he served as the leader in song. Every week, he joins with a priest from Our Lady of the Snows and a group of adult and young teenage volunteers for Mass on Saturdays at Parker.
"This is a labor of love," said Msgr. Raymond Chappetto, pastor of Our Lady of the Snows, which, like Temple Sholom, is in eastern Queens, not far from Parker.
Jerry Landsberg, 67, of Great Neck feels the same way. "I don't do these things to be a do-gooder," Landsberg said. "I do it because I enjoy doing it."
Landsberg, president of London Optical in Nassau and Suffolk, is also a trustee of Parker, and he, his wife, Gloria, 62, and a contingent from Temple Beth-El in Great Neck joined with the other volunteers Sunday, just as they have in previous years.
Shapiro estimated that 175 residents and patients were brought to and from the Easter Mass, and even more for the holiday meal. Counting relatives, about 275 people shared the Easter lunch, Shapiro said.
The menu included brown sugar-roasted turkey or roasted leg of lamb with mint sauce, rosemary-roasted potatoes, a vegetable medley, wine and soda, and a holiday dessert.
For Laura Hausch, Easter has always been an important and joyous holiday, with attendance at a service, visits with relatives and a celebratory meal.
She cannot walk now, but she joins in a tai chi exercise program at Parker. She sparkles when she smiles and gives her age as 19, later acknowledging that she has reversed the numbers. She participates in a residents' council, where projects can be undertaken and suggestions given to the staff.
Hausch hopes the volunteers take an important lesson from their time at Parker-never to leave relatives who can no longer live on their own without visitors.
Her daughter, Lois Hausch, 55, of New Hyde Park is a frequent visitor. She helps decorate her mother's room with photographs that give a family history. "We make it as nice as we can, a home away from home," she said.
"My mother," she said, "always practiced her religion." So the daughter appreciates the volunteers who help make religious services possible for her mother. "It's no easy feat moving everyone from their respective floors, " she said.
Sitting at the same table as Laura and Lois Hausch for the Easter lunch was the woman known best at Parker as Angie, who gave the gathering the gift of her singing.
"I'm very lucky," she said. "I have all my senses." And a beautiful voice, too.
Robert Tuner sang and played the keyboard during the lunch served in the auditorium as one of the residents sat almost directly before him, tapping her hand to the music.
But the professional musician couldn't compete with Angie, the house favorite. Sitting next to Tuner in her wheelchair, she sang "Crazy" in the style of Patsy Cline. Angie had worked as a secretary but had dreamed of being a bandleader. On Easter Sunday, she did what she always does when she has an opportunity to perform. She put all of herself into her performance. "Crazy," she sang, "I'm crazy for feeling so lonely."
Then, back at her table, she gathered up the compliments from her friends and admirers.
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