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Dancing with Elders

“I was really not looking forward to doing this, and I was really uncomfortable at the beginning. But now, I don’t want to go home.”

Who would have predicted a response so positive from a high schooler who’d just danced with a wheelchair-bound senior at an “intergenerational prom” at a nursing home?

The Matza Ball has been conducted for the past two years by the Hebrew High School of Temple Sholom, a Conservative congregation in Bridgewater, New Jersey. To prepare, a week before the Matza Ball, parents of the 80 Hebrew High students joined their teenagers for an evening of learning and discussion. The program was entided “Hiddur P’nai Zaken—Honoring Our Elders” and parents and students studied traditional texts focusing on aging. A heartbreakingly real, minutes-long trigger film about an aging woman at the supermarket, her loneliness, her straitened circumstances, and the indifference around her, sensitized them to the existence of ageist prejudice in our society.

Volunteers and staffers from the Central Jersey Jewish Home for the Aged prepared them for what to expect there. High school faculty suggested “conversation starters” and social cues for the prom itself: “Be sure that you are on the appropriate level to speak eye-to-eye with the elders.” “Speak slowly, clearly, and loudly enough to be heard.” “Always ask if you may wheel their wheelchairs—don’t just whisk them away. And NO WHEELIES with the wheelchairs.”

On the day of the ball, students, parents and faculty were assigned to tables, with equal numbers of residents at each. Then the Temple Sholom contingent fanned out among the residents, introducing themselves (often using the “conversation starters”) and then going on to more spontaneous talk. When the keyboard player struck up dance tunes, high schoolers, parents and faculty moved onto the dance floor with their “dates.” Strapping high school athletes gently maneuvered fragile elders around the dance floor, adjusting their loping strides to the gait of residents with canes and walkers. At the end of the prom, students presented their dates with “party favors,” Judaic key chain/zipper pulls made in the school’s Tikkun Olam course, and then escorted the residents back to the nurses’ stations of their residential wings.

Students and their parents, in car pools heading back to the Temple, talked not only about feeling good for doing an act of gemilut chesed (loving-kindness), but also about having had a good time. Later, staff of the Home reported that residents who rarely spoke had talked and sung and laughed with the teens, and several who could scarcely remember what they’d eaten for breakfast talked for days about “when the teenagers visited.”

Halevei (it should only be) that this annual evening will serve as a catalyst for more frequent visits by high schoolers to the Jewish Home and with other elders in the community. In the meantime, if it sensitizes participants to the mitzvah of hiddur p’nai zaken, honoring our elders, dayenu.