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What nerve! What spirit! What chutzpah!

Imagine traveling 6,000 miles to view the history of one's heritage, faith, and homeland for the first or possibly the last time. Imagine also that you're 70, 80, or 90 years old, might need help with every-day tasks, and rely on a walker or wheelchair to get around. With such limitations, most people would balk at visiting the Holy Land, especially in these unsettling times, but ten elderly nursing home residents had the heart, desire, and courage to seize the opportunity because they carried within themselves a secret ingredient for success--chutzpah, the Yiddish word for nerve or supreme self-confidence.


Inspired by a Rosh Hashanah service last year, Daniel Reingold, executive vice-president of The Hebrew Home for the Aged at Riverdale (New York), hit on a novel idea: He thought it would be wonderful to take a group of residents to Israel as a show of solidarity and an inspiration to others. "Our facility already shows its support for Israel by purchasing Israeli goods. We also set up an online flower shop where we buy flowers from Israel that families can give to residents. I immediately began thinking of all the reasons why this trip would be impossible," recalls Reingold. Dismissing all the negatives involved, Reingold started to plan his sales pitch.

Making the Impossible Possible

Key staff members thought Reingold had lost his mind when he presented his idea to them, and yet they were intrigued. The Hebrew Home's board of directors didn't flinch when he approached them with the idea. In fact, they were unanimously supportive and immediately offered seed money to get the project going. As word of this venture spread, donations were received from residents' families and other well-wishers outside the Hebrew Home community (The trip cost approximately $36,000, which was covered by donations). With the thumbs-up from staff and administration, and funding in place, the first-ever nursing home Chutzpah Mission was no longer a possibility; it was going to happen in March 2004.

"The first planning meeting was loaded with questions," Reingold remembers. Who can go? What if someone gets sick? Staff addressed every situation that might arise. Lists and logs were kept by everyone so a template for future excursions could be designed.

"All for One ..."

To assess residents who expressed interest in the trip, Charlotte Dell, director of Social Services, met with care teams. "The residents had to be cognitively intact, able to dress themselves with assistance, and mobile, either independently or with walker or wheelchair assistance," says Dell. The idea still took some getting used to, though; resident Julie Miller, 86, was invited on the trip and remarks, "When a social worker came to get my passport, it was the first time I thought she might be serious."

After the ten suitable candidates for the trip were chosen, the purpose and parameters of the Chutzpah Mission and the proactive steps needed to ensure residents' health and safety were explained to each family. "An individualized checklist was prepared for each resident, which included resident disclaimers, diagnoses, advance directives, medication regimens, pertinent lab work, EKGs, and emergency notification information," says Dell, adding, "Each person's meds were blister-packed and carried in separate carryon luggage for easy access."


To escort the residents, staff who brought different skill sets to the mission were selected. Among those chosen were a staff physician, two nurses, one CNA, one orderly, a development staff member fluent in Hebrew, and two social workers.

With the list of Chutzpah missionaries in hand, Debbie Drelich, director of RiverWalk (one of Hebrew Homes' senior apartment communities), made the travel and tour plans. "We worked with a travel agency to put the tour together," explains Drelich, noting that "accommodations and dining requirements were arranged with the King Solomon Hotel in Israel." She also retained a guide to escort them to selected sites. Additional wheelchairs were secured through Yad Sarah (an Israeli organization that lends durable medical equipment) for those who might need them on the more strenuous ventures scheduled.

"Everything the residents did to get ready became an activity," comments Reingold. Securing passports, shopping, and packing were just a few of the events tied to this nine-day sojourn. And finally--planned, publicized, and prepared for--the journey's day of departure arrived.

Sharing the Mission

"On the day we left," says Drelich, "the entire facility held a farewell breakfast to send us off on our adventure." Although most of the facility's residents remained in Riverdale, they shared in a virtual pilgrimage via the daily e-mails and photos describing each day's events and impressions. Families remained in constant contact with their loved ones through the Social Services department.


And, while the group may have been small in number, it carried the hearts and wishes of many. Prior to their departure, a replica of the Western (Wailing) Wall was erected in the Hebrew Home and, as is the custom, everyone was invited to place written wishes and messages within its cracks. Later, these papers were removed from the replica and carried to Jerusalem, where residents and staff placed them in the true Wailing Wall. As an emotional Sadie Hankin, 91, placed her message in the Western Wall, she remarked, "You think of the ones who have gone and you say a prayer for them."

Touching Down and Touching Hearts

Because of the extensive news coverage the Chutzpah Mission enjoyed before the El Al flight ever touched down in Israel, a crowd was on hand at the airport to greet Israel's newest celebrities. The mayor of Jerusalem and other dignitaries met the plane, while local news telecasts documented the arrival of this bold band of American seniors that had defied all odds to go to the Holy Land. "Wherever we went, people asked if we were the Chutzpah Mission and would stop to talk to us," says Drelich. Children would serenade them and others would join on walks.


On foot, by bus, minibus, and cable car, these seniors came to bear witness to their collective history and their private pasts. Bela Friedman, 79, a Holocaust survivor and one of Israel's first immigrants in 1948, had planned to return with her husband before he passed away in 1993: "We always said that we could come back, but my husband didn't make it."

At Caesaria, most of the residents needed wheelchair transport for safety as the staff battled huge cobblestones to take them inside an ancient Roman amphitheater. At Masada (the site of a Roman fortress where Jews committed suicide rather than be taken captive by their enemy), they rode cable cars. On this plateau, 82-year-old Arthur Rosenberg shrugged off Dell's suggestion that he should take in the sight from his wheelchair. "If they can die here, I can walk here," he said poignantly. Then, alone with his thoughts, he sifted the sands of Masada through his fingers.

From the heights of Masada, these determined elders soldiered on with their caregivers/companions to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth. Upon arriving two hours later, residents were cautioned not to stay too long in the water. "Because the salt concentration is so high and older, fragile skin can dehydrate in moments, residents were advised not to swim or wade for any length of time," explains Reingold.

Nine-year-old Rebecca Reingold also traveled with the Chutzpah Mission and was an active, participating member of the group, doing what needed to be done without being asked. "Once my daughter discovered a microphone on the bus, she kept everyone entertained on the journey by leading them in song and making announcements," laughs Reingold. To reward her for all her service and kindness, she was treated to a camel ride while en route to the Dead Sea. Residents wanted to share in her excitement; one gentleman climbed aboard the camel and, according to Drelich, he had tears in his eyes--to be in the south of Israel doing something as wonderful and inconceivable as sitting on a camel.

Later in the week, the group visited Galilee, the Old City, and Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to the Holocaust. But because Saturday, the Sabbath, is the traditional Jewish day of rest and the seniors would be relaxing at the hotel for the day, Reingold organized an excursion for his multicultural staff.

"Our staff is culturally diverse and many are of Christian faiths," he states. "Because Israel is also the homeland of their beliefs, I thought a trip to the Christian Quarter would be in order. There they could walk on the same streets as Jesus did and travel the Way of the Cross. This was a very powerful experience for them, and they were profoundly grateful for the chance to experience their faith. Demonstrating their chutzpah, some residents decided that they were interested in experiencing that part of Israel, too."

Entertainment was in great supply. Yaakov Sivek, 63, a man who had lived in Israel and France for some years, was hired by Drelich to escort the troupe around the country. Familiar with the destinations to be visited, he planned the excursions to allow time for walking, minimize stair climbing, and ensure that there was easily digestible food available. At the end of the trip, he arranged for the group to spend the night in guest accommodations at a kibbutz and arranged for them to plant a tree. That accomplished, the Chutzpah Mission stopped at a children's youth village and visited with youngsters who had no family or whose family could no longer care for them. Finally, the adventure ended as the residents arrived in Tel Aviv for the flight home.

A Heroes' Welcome

After an 11 1/2-hour flight, the weary but fulfilled travelers were home, and all of the Hebrew Home family gathered en masse to greet them. Their celebrity status continued when they received an unexpected invitation to participate in New York's Israel Day Parade in May. The theme of their float embodied the philosophy of the Chutzpah Mission--"If we can do it, you can do it."

"This journey proved that life for seniors is much more than choosing between boiled or mashed potatoes," comments Reingold. "Life is full of risks. Why not plan a trip to a significant destination? Why can't a Catholic nursing home plan a trip to Rome? If you have a large Swedish or Latino population, why not go to Stockholm or Madrid? What a miracle to be 90 years old and travel to your grandmother's birthplace thousands of miles away."

Indeed, lifetime dreams can come true at any age.

For more information, Daniel Reingold, Executive Vice-President at The Hebrew Home for the Aged at Riverdale, can be reached at (718) 581-1000, or visit To comment on this article, please send e-mail to


A collaboration of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging and Nursing Homes/Long Term Care Management Not-for-Profit Report, appearing in every issue of Nursing Homes magazine, addresses issues of particular interest to long-term care's not-for-profit sector. It provides nonprofit aging service providers with an additional information resource. Topics have been identified in collaboration with the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. Nursing Homes welcomes comments and suggestions for future coverage.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Not-for-Profit Report; The Hebrew Home for the Aged
Author:Hoban, Sandra
Publication:Nursing Homes
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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