Turning Dreams Into Reality at Los Angeles Jewish Health Leads to Prestigious AJAS Award

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Turning Dreams Into Reality at Los Angeles Jewish Health Leads to Prestigious AJAS Award

Mar 5, 2024

Seniors move to Los Angeles Jewish Health for a wide variety of reasons. Many have specific medical needs; some are isolated and seeking community; others require skilled nursing care. Whatever the reason, members of the compassionate Los Angeles Jewish Health team are dedicated to fostering an environment where older adults don’t simply survive – they thrive.

“Someone might arrive at Los Angeles Jewish Health thinking, ‘I have come here to die,’ but we believe just the opposite: They have come here to live!” says Chief Mission Officer Rabbi Karen Bender. “We challenge residents to think that it’s entirely possible that the most meaningful moment of their life has not yet happened, and, that it’s going to happen here at LAJH. They might also touch someone else’s life, get to know them, and build the closest friendships and relationships they’ve ever had. Los Angeles Jewish Health is a place to find fulfillment and make new memories.”

To that end, last year Rabbi Bender and Ilana Springer, CEO/administrator at Los Angeles Jewish Health’s Joyce Eisenberg Keefer (JEK) Medical Center, launched Achieve a Dream, a pilot program focused on helping residents look forward to a future-oriented goal, inspiring a sense of growth, and enabling them to reach for something beautiful.

“We asked ourselves, ‘What would we want for our residents if they were our own mothers and fathers?’” Ilana says. “The idea was to create experiences that would bring them joy.”

In partnership with an with interdisciplinary staff including Susan Leitch, Claudia Crespo, Katie Abelson, Stacy Orbach, and Julie Lockman-Gold, the two piloted the program in the Joyce Eisenberg Keefer Medical Center, Los Angeles Jewish Health’s 239-bed skilled nursing facility, where the average resident age is 91.

“We felt the greatest need was with residents who require the highest level of care because they may be the least able to make dreams come true for themselves,” Ilana says.

First on the list was Elaine. One morning, Rabbi Bender visited her room and asked whether there was anything she dreamed about doing. Elaine immediately pointed to the photographs of horses hanging on her bedroom wall.

“She said, ‘Every single day of my life I was with horses, until 10 years ago. I haven’t even seen a horse since. I know I can’t ride, but I just want to spend quiet time with a horse.’” Rabbi Bender recalls. “So, we arranged to have a horse brought to one of the beautiful courtyards at Los Angeles Jewish Health, and Elaine enjoyed 90 minutes of one-on-one time. For an hour and a half, this was her horse; she had space to have a beautiful moment with an animal that meant the world to her.”

Since then, many more dreams have come to fruition:

  • Efraim, a rabbi living in the JEK Medical Center, had a dream of leading one last service. He was able to do so while also providing amazing musical accompaniment. Toward the end of the service, he poignantly said to his congregation of peers, “Look, I’m just like you. I can no longer walk or sing or do many important things I was once able to do, but we make do! And I couldn’t have done it without the encouragement of my best friends Joe and Richard” – friends he made at Los Angeles Jewish Health.
  • Andy had been in a rock band back when he attended an Ivy League college. He wanted nothing more than to jam on a bass guitar like he once did, though as a stroke survivor he couldn’t fully play anymore. Working with the care team, Rabbi Bender and Ilana found a college student who was a music major. The young man brought several electric instruments and electronic equipment and enabled Andy to experience “playing” the bass while his wife looked on adoringly. She later said it was one of the most meaningful experiences of their marriage.
  • Harriet, who had a love for chocolate, requested a chocolate tasting for the campus community. The Office of Volunteers went above and beyond arranging for a personal visit by three renowned chocolatiers, including a former White House chef, followed by a demonstration and tasting where the rest of the skilled nursing community was invited to enjoy the sweet treats.

In recognition of the program’s success, the Association of Jewish Aging Services (AJAS) announced Achieve a Dream as this year’s recipient of its prestigious Programming Award. Rabbi Bender and Ilana accepted the honor in person at AJAS’ national conference, which took place in late February in San Diego. Los Angeles Jewish Health Chief Executive Officer and President, Dale Surowitz, Board Member, Judy Friedman-Rudzki and Board Chair, Andrew Berman joined in the celebration.

“We are proud of this award but even more proud that Los Angeles Jewish Health is empowering seniors to come here and live with as much – if not more – fullness and purpose as they had before,” Rabbi Bender says. “This is a place where dreams really can come true.”

The Association of Jewish Aging Services (AJAS) awards Los Angeles Jewish Health's Achieve a Dream initiative as this year’s recipient of its prestigious Programming Award.
The Association of Jewish Aging Services (AJAS) awards Los Angeles Jewish Health's Achieve a Dream initiative as this year’s recipient of its prestigious Programming Award.
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