The writer, in diapers, with her beloved role model and baking buddy — Evelyn Roth (a.k.a. Grandma). Grandma is holding the author’s baby brother, Nathan. Courtesy of Rachel Katz
Role models come in many forms, however for me, my role model lived right down the street and was my best friend: Grandma Evelyn Roth. The fondest memories I have with Grandma took place in her kitchen, where she would bake mandelbrot — a Jewish take on biscotti. I would watch as her arthritic hands sprinkle a pinch of cinnamon into the mixture and ask, “Grandma, where are your measuring cups?” She shook her head and smiled, “I just know.” I hoped that one day I, too, would know how to add that same “unmeasurable pinch.” However, this would be the last time I got to watch Grandma bake the family recipe.
Hoping to fill the void after my Grandma’s passing nearly three years ago, I was inspired to volunteer at a local nursing home when I was 14. I yearned to share Grandma’s effervescence with the residents of Daughters of Israel in West Orange, N.J., and recreate that same sense of acceptance and community Grandma always showed me. My “initiation” into the nursing home came when I became the caller in a game of bingo, but calling out “B9” to a dining room full of half-asleep residents was unfulfilling. I knew the only way to develop meaningful relationships with the residents was to learn their names, become their friend, hear their stories and connect with them.
I requested a meeting with the activities director and proposed a way to share a bit of my grandmother and our mandelbrot tradition with the residents — thus “Recipes and Reminiscing with Rachel” was born and became a monthly event.
Looking back on the first installment of my program, I vividly remember wearing my pink apron from home tied loosely at my waist as I stood in front of the dining room and 40 residents. I introduced myself as Rachel — Daughters of Israel’s own Rachael Ray — triggering toothless smiles. Meanwhile, I began adding the eggs and flour to the bowl. When I began to sprinkle the cinnamon a voice asked, “Rachel, where are your measuring cups?” I chuckled, “I don’t need them, I just know.”
Since that day nearly four years ago, I have been the sole leader of the cooking program. Each time I cook, I am greeted by the many friends I now have. Dorothy and Bernard sit in the front row by my side each week. Bernard, a former Navy officer, always reaches for the spoon to lick it as if he were in his own kitchen. Dorothy taps her manicured nails against the table to the sound of my voice. Each time I stand in front of my crowd, I have a genuine smile on my face, one that cannot be emulated in any other environment.
My cooking program was just the beginning; my efforts have blossomed into other large-scale events. For example, for three years I hosted a fashion show at the home where both residents and community members participate. From food, to music, to decorations, I do it all. The fashion show gained me recognition by NJ Biz in their Healthcare Hero Awards as I was a finalist for Volunteer of the Year in 2014. Additionally, I have hosted and organized a New Year’s Eve party and two art shows, showcasing work from the residents and students in my high school.
No matter the size of the event or number of residents I interact with, volunteering at the nursing home has taught me what it means to be an “elder.” To some, a senior is just someone who has reached an old age, but to me it is someone who has gained wisdom and deserves the utmost respect. This image of elders is expressed throughout the Torah as it is said to be a mitzvah to “honor one’s elders” — one I am proud to have done. Moreover, the sacred text explains the value and meaning age adds to one’s life. “In the aged is wisdom and [in] length of days understanding” (Job 12:12). I have been fortunate to experience this first-hand and now understand the mitzvah of helping the elderly.
It all began with the relationship I had with my Grandma; but the relationships I now have at the nursing home are the reason I know that surrounding myself with seniors will be part of my future. More important, I know my volunteer work is the vessel that allows me to channel my Grandma, make her proud and connect with my Jewish identity.