Volume 78 / Number 1 - June 4 - 10, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

The author and Elizabeth Basch lighting Shabbos candles at the Village Nursing Home.

A spiritual awakening at the Village Nursing Home

By Patricia Fieldsteel

The Village Nursing Home was founded and saved by volunteers. In 1975, the city and state began a campaign to close down the then privately owned home because of gross mismanagement, poor maintenance, overcrowding, nursing violations and inadequate services and care. This was the era of New York’s notorious nursing home scandals and the Village facility was not immune. The 1906 red-brick building at 607 Hudson St. at W. 12th St. became Greenwich Village’s only nursing home in the 1960s. It had previously been a women’s residence owned by the YWCA. When I lived on Jane St., several neighbors had taken rooms there when they’d first arrived in the Big Apple. 

In 1976, a grassroots “Save Our Nursing Home” drive began. Volunteers went door to door with “Save Our Nursing Home” cans to collect money. Bake sales, auctions and benefits were held. The city set midnight Nov. 30, 1977, as a deadline; if $100,00 wasn’t raised by then, the home would be closed down.

Spurred on by Village legends Lenore Cahn Zola, Father Bob Lott, Lucy Cecere, Ann Wyatt and others, the all-volunteer drive raised $101,632 by 12:01 a.m. Dec. 1. The recently formed Caring Community temporarily took over the renamed Village Nursing Home. By 1982 an $8 million renovation had been completed. Priority from then on for the home’s 200 beds, saved through volunteer community involvement, would be for Village residents.

Around 1983, I responded to a call for volunteers. My apartment was a block away and I was free Friday afternoons. Tom Spicuzza, the chief social worker and director of volunteers, suggested I visit Charles Ormand, who’d formerly lived at 15 Abingdon Square. Mr. Ormand had been born in Bucharest, Romania, and had fled to Paris as a young man because of anti-Semitism. He’d come to New York before the war and had gotten his law degree. Much later, he’d fallen on hard times and had recently suffered a stroke. Charles was one of seven Jews in the home, which had formerly been almost all Jewish. At our first meeting, he confided sotto voce, “It’s nice to have someone of ‘our faith’ visit.” He eventually introduced me to the other Jewish residents, several of whom lamented the lack of weekly services. I suggested the possibility of doing a small Friday evening Shabbos ceremony. Tom Spicuzza loved the idea and made all the arrangements.

We were assigned a corner of the dining room next to the television. The TV was always on at full blare, and I requested it be turned off during our service. Initially there was resistance and resentment, but then other residents became curious and we acquired a number of regular non-Jewish participants, as well as a more private space. (The Manischewitz and pound cake, which the residents preferred over the traditional challah, probably didn’t hurt.) 

Although I’m Jewish by birth, my parents converted to Christian Science when I was 6 and became very “Christian.” By the time I was 12, I’d rejected anything to do with Christian Science and had embarked on a long spiritual quest. I’d started attending synagogue a year before I began volunteering at the home. Most of the Jewish residents were in their 80s and had initially come from Orthodox backgrounds. Some had come to America fleeing Hitler or earlier European pogroms; others had not been observant except for the High Holy Days and Passover.

I’d just begun to observe Shabbos at home and those first weeks I’d had to write out phonetically for myself the blessings for the candles, wine and bread until I had them memorized. Our early group was small — Charles, of course, who beamed with pride because he viewed me as “his”; Mark, learned, funny, quick to praise, quick to deflate, angry at the world and his fate; Joe had suffered several strokes and often wept during services, muttering along in Hebrew; and Helen, a secretary at the Caring Community before a massive stroke had left her unresponsive, mute and close to vegetative eight years before. Everyone except Mark was wheelchair bound; Helen was flopped over, tied into the chair. Her only response to anything was to grab as much cake as she could with her non-paralyzed arm and shove it all at once into her mouth with most of it dribbling out all over her for the rest of the ceremony.

Once we’d gathered around a table with the candles, wine and cake, I’d invite everyone to reflect over the past week and think back on something that for them conjured up the spirit of Shabbos. Over time, as our group grew to as many as 20 each week, people would share their memories or thoughts before we lit the candles. We’d discuss the weekly Torah portion, beginning with a brief interpretative “sermon” I’d prepared.

Before I left, I’d spend a small amount of time alone with each resident. One week Mark asked if his friend Zaira, a Catholic resident, could come. She became a regular member. Mark later confessed he’d never been to Jewish services before he started attending our little group. More Jews entered the home; some brought family members to our Shabbos gathering. Jessica, a dynamic businesswoman and next-door neighbor of friends on Charlton St., had suffered a devastating stroke; she and her husband, David, who visited daily, became active participants. After Jessica died two years later, David continued to come every Friday until his own death.

The home couldn’t provide assistance transporting residents to and from the Shabbos group. I was putting in two extra hours weekly for that. One night when I returned Helen to her room, I noticed well-worn books on kabbalah beside the bed. I asked if she’d read them, knowing I wouldn’t get a response. Then I asked if she’d like me to read the Torah portion to her. There was what I thought might have been a nod. I sat down and began, even though the doctors had assured me her brain was essentially “dead.” I did this for weeks, beginning to wonder if I were wasting my time reading to a so-called vegetable. One particular Friday, I was was especially tired and contemplated skipping Helen and going home, but I read the entire portion, wished her a good Shabbos, and got up to leave. A disembodied but clear, high-pitched woman’s voice said as I began to open the door, “You’re a beautiful woman. I love you. Thank you.”

Startled, I turned around to see a hairy and clearly once-beautiful face staring at me, forming a smile with a now badly misshapen mouth.

“I love you, too, Helen, and I always thought you could probably talk and understand every word.”

A few Sundays later I arrived with depilatory, nail polish and makeup and with Helen’s cooperation and direction, we worked on a makeover. Helen went on to become the leading member of the group. No matter what challenge she was given, her response was always the same, in her odd, loopy voice, “I can try, can’t I!” Those words and that voice will be with me until my dying day. Thank you, Helen.

Around this time, an extraordinary child arrived one Friday with waist-length black braids and an intellect and maturity to stagger if not outdo most adults: Elizabeth Basch, age 12, announced she was there to help as fulfillment of a 10-hour social service project required by the religious school at The Village Temple, where I’d recently become a member. Liz was crucial, a turning point. The residents adored her. I needed her, and when the 10 weeks were up, she announced she wanted to stay, which she did until she left for Yale.

“It’s not something I would have done on my own,” she confided, “but I’m glad I’m doing it. It makes such a difference in some of their lives without taking much of my life.” After Liz, other young people from the synagogue came from time to time to help out, as did many adults, who became regular volunteers.

Lenore Cahn Zola, who was president of the Village Nursing Home board and a member of the synagogue, took me under her wing. She and Nick Rango, the home’s new director before he became director of AIDS Services for New York State, made sure Liz and I had all the help we needed. At one point, with the assistance of volunteers and Liz’s mother, Deanna, as well as nursing home staff, we held monthly Friday night Shabbos dinners in the home’s sun room on the top floor.

I’d planned originally to visit “a resident” perhaps a couple of times a month for maybe a year. I ended up doing the services as a volunteer every single Friday for five years. Whatever small piece of myself I may have given, what I unexpectedly received back in return was beyond measure. My other mentor, Lucy Cecere, always said, “You don’t have to get paid for every damned thing you do.” And the things with the most value don’t have a price tag. Volunteer.

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