TORONTO — Coby Segall says, “Let’s go everybody,” as he runs around the room, dancing to the tune of Am Yisrael Chai playing in the background.
He stops to hold a guest’s hand and begins jumping up and down with his hands in hers, as she smiles back at him from her wheelchair.
Segall is dancing and singing with a group of students and the residents of Cummer Lodge, a long-term care home in Toronto. “I try to inject spirituality into their lives,” he said, at the Purim-themed event earlier this month. “I’m reminding them what it feels like to feel joy.”
Segall has been running monthly Jewish-themed programs at Cummer Lodge for almost nine years. It all started by accident, he said. In 2004, the rabbi who used to run Shabbat services at Cummer Lodge was away for a few months, and so Segall, newly observant, decided to lead the program. After the rabbi returned, he asked, “What can we do to keep this going?” That’s when Segall decided to commit one Sunday morning a month to Cummer Lodge.
Since then, he’s gathered a team of about 15 volunteers – high school and university students and young professionals – who wake up at 8 a.m. on a Sunday and head to Cummer Lodge. It takes them two hours to go to the different residents’ rooms and ask if they’re interested in coming downstairs for the program. Usually, about 60 residents will join. Then, he places all their wheelchairs in a large circle, so he can see everyone. The music starts playing, and Segall and his team of volunteers start interacting with each resident.
At first, many don’t want to stand up or even hold hands with the volunteers. But after a few songs, and after Segall has broken into a wide smile and has danced with many of the residents, the mood shifts. The residents smile, waiting for their turn to dance with a volunteer. One man who was moving his wheelchair back and forth in the corner, to the tune of the music, suddenly moves to the centre of the room, his lips mouthing the words of the song. Toward the end, one resident stands up and says, “This cheers me up. Thank you.”
He’s not the only one to feel that way. Sylvia Marsch has been living at Cummer Lodge for four years. She said she loves coming to the program because she gets a chance to interact with other people.
“I’m alone, and I like to be with people and share my thoughts,” said Marsch, 90. “I like the things [the volunteers] are doing. They’re helping people.”
For these residents, it’s a chance to feel like someone cares. “We’re empowering them, and bridging the generation gap,” said Segall. “There’s so much learning that we can do from the people that are here.”
One of these people is David Jacobs, a Holocaust survivor who says he was liberated by then U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower. He attends the programs with his wife. He came to Canada in 1948. “I was a tailor,” said Jacobs, who will turn 95 in July. “They [Canada] started to take people in. They needed tailors.” At one of the programs a few months ago, he brought pictures of him and his family, and other artifacts from the Holocaust to show the other residents. “I like it here. They know me.”
The volunteers end up forming a relationship with the residents so it can be hard to let go. “Sometimes people pass away. You miss people. You know their face. Then they’re not here, they’re gone,” said volunteer Eldad Ben Hamo.
The impact the program has on the volunteers is clear. “Seeing where life can take you, you go from dependence on parents to dependence on children,” said Julia Segal, another volunteer. “It puts all those trivial disagreements in your own family into perspective.”