For the past 13 years, Hebrew SeniorLife has welcomed full-time German volunteers to support programming in our communities. These young volunteers, typically 18 or 19 years old, have all come to us through Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, an organization that has been sending volunteers around the globe for over 50 years to work in communities that suffered from the crimes and horrors of Nazi Germany.
This year, two students came to the United States in early September to work with residents and patients at HSL. Lea Ward is volunteering at the Center Communities of Brookline, and Rahel Willmer is at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Roslindale. I spoke with Lea and Rahel to learn more about their experiences with the Action Reconciliation program, and hear some of their reflections about their first two months with HSL.
For Rahel and Lea, the ARSP program gives them an opportunity to travel to the U.S. to engage in meaningful, impactful work before they go on to university. They both appreciate the opportunity to show Americans that Germany has changed since World War II.
Lea described to me that the word used in the German name for the program, Aktion Suhnezeichen Friedensdienste, translates more closely to the concept of “atonement,” which she feels is a better description of the importance of her time here. Lea described that “reconciliation” implies work that is a broadly shared responsibility, whereas “atonement” is the repair that needs to come specifically from the German community to the Jewish people and others who were persecuted and murdered during the war.
For Lea, the Jewish exposure has been extremely rewarding. She most enjoys attending services on Friday nights, learning bits of Hebrew, hearing stories of residents’ lives over dinner or during one-on-one conversations in their apartments. As a result, she feels that she is creating lasting bonds with people throughout CCB.
Since coming here just a few weeks ago, both young women have had extremely positive experiences in their HSL communities. Rahel has learned to put her inhibitions aside. Even though she sometimes has difficulty communicating with residents (not because of her English, which is impeccable, but because of the dementia she encounters), she has come to see that “people are just happy I’m here.” She isn’t afraid to smile, dance around and make a fool of herself, or simply sit with a resident and listen to music, because she sees that the small things she does make a huge impact on others.
Rahel spoke movingly about one special relationship she has developed with a patient named Madlyn. Although Madlyn is often very confused and her language is frequently garbled and nonsensical, the two share a beautiful, positive attitude that continually lifts one another. When Madlyn is feeling down, Rahel now knows how to brighten her day. She talks with her about the things she is feeling, alleviates her confusion, and provides a warm and calming presence. Staff report that Madlyn has changed for the better over the past couple of months as a result. And, not surprisingly, Rahel has too.
The ARSP volunteers are supported by the Adam and Matan Adelson Multigenerational Program which brings together youth and seniors across Hebrew SeniorLife for mutually enriching relational experiences. The program recognizes our elders as resources to be cherished and supports their engagement with youth to foster a sense of shared joy, purpose, and meaning. Through this work, the program seeks to build a caring and compassionate generation of future leaders and redefine the experience of aging for the better.