Sending Out a Signal: SOS Smiles on Seniors

The recent Valley Jewish Federation study on needs of our senior population confirmed what many already knew: It is imperative that the Jewish community provide services, opportunities and care for our burgeoning senior population.

Enter Smile on Seniors, a national program developed by the Chabad and administered locally by Rabbi Levi and Chani Levertov. The dynamic young couple created the Valley program in 2009; in a relatively short time, they have touched the lives of thousands of seniors in a personal and meaningful way.

“I’m a dreamer, “Chani  admits. “I like to think big and then try to figure out ways to attain those goals. Sometimes Levi looks bewildered, but he’s happy to let me try and gets on board as well.”

One such dream was to offer a monthly Shabbat dinner for seniors. The logistics were daunting. Who would cook? Who would serve? Who would come – and how would they get there? How could costs be covered?

Together they worked on checking off one item at a time.

Rabbi Levi already had a great rapport with many seniors at a variety of living facilities where he regularly visits and presents Shabbat and holiday talks. He arranged with the various activities directors to bring seniors via their vans. A talented graphics and media maven, he publicized the events through Facebook, e-mail and mail, encouraging others to attend as well.

Chabad already had the center available at 2110 E Lincoln Dr. in the middle of north Phoenix, convenient to many. Add to that the fact that Chani is a fabulous cook, and she reached out to the general population to find a large cadre of volunteers who were more than happy to help. At a recent dinner, she had help from Susan Levy of Simply Scrumptious Kosher Catering, Tzipi Koehler of International Cuisine and at least a dozen other volunteers to assist with the cooking and serving of a savory four-course dinner, including everything from matzah ball soup to tasty desserts. A highlight was the presentation of six individual birthday cakes for each of the six participants who had birthdays that month. With an option of vanilla or chocolate, each cake was delivered with a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday.”

Levi and Chani greet each person by name.

SOS has a basket by the door and a $5 suggested donation for the dinner, but no one asks you or requires you to contribute.

That’s because Levi and Chani spend a great deal of their time finding those in the community who are willing and eager to help and support the dinners with both their time and their financial contributions. They seek out underwriters for each dinner and heartily acknowledge and thank each person involved.

Levi is part of the large Levertov family, in which the patriarch, Rabbi Zalman, has long been established as head of the Chabad Center on Lincoln. Of the seven children, five are back in Arizona, and each runs a Chabad program somewhere in the Valley. Levi and Chani came back from the East Coast in 2009 to establish a Chabad in the downtown Phoenix area. But they soon discovered that downtown didn’t have the anticipated needs and so they started exploring options.

Six years ago they decided to start offering Smile on Seniors programming. For their first Shabbat dinner they had about 60 RSVPs, “and then about 40 of them cancelled that day!” Chani says. But again, Chani likes to dream big and was not deterred. “The program has grown from a handful of people being served in the foyer of the Chabad Center, to using one-fourth of the sanctuary, to today where we serve over 200 people and take over the entire synagogue!” She admits it’s a bit of a trick to have everything back in order and set up for Shabbat services the next morning, but you can tell by the glint in her eye that she’s already thinking about how they can accommodate even more guests.

Monthly Shabbat dinners are just one of SOS’s many programs. Levi is a regular at places such as the Center for Senior Enrichment at Brookdale Christown, as well as Pueblo Norte, Sierra Pointe, Andara, The Terraces, La Siena, The Stratford, Pueblo Norte, Maravilla, Kivel and Westminster among others – and the list continues to grow. He offers chaplaincy services as well, and endears himself to the seniors with his jovial personality, poignant stories and his warm, somewhat mischievous smile.

The duo also offers a monthly lunch program that Chani hopes to expand this year, as well as a weekly “Sip and Schmooze” at the Starbucks at 32nd Street and Lincoln Drive in Phoenix. They provide training – including CPR and first aid – for volunteers to make “friendly visits,” providing nonmedical, socializing visits to seniors who live alone and may not have family nearby. They also arrange for “phone buddies” who will make friendly phone calls to seniors.

Chani is also part of a large Chabad family, where she is in the older half of nine children. She grew up in Binghamton, New York, where her parents still run a Chabad Center that serves over 450 students at the State University of New York. “The thing I treasure most is that each of the nine of us felt like he or she was the only child, always receiving individual attention from our parents,” she says. She and Levi were introduced through her uncle, and “it was love at first sight.” The young couple are parents to Mendel, 6, and Mushka, 4.

The couple couldn’t be happier with their work. As Rabbi Levi says, “Seniors are the ones we need to look up to for advice and counsel. Their life experiences can help us tremendously for our future if we would just listen. It’s our imperative to continue to give our growing senior population the opportunities to be engaged and involved in our community and in our beautiful traditions. It’s our turn to be there for them – they have already laid the groundwork for us.”

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