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Cross-cultural celebration: Jewish volunteers brighten Christmas Day at Spencer House

As many as 25 regulars at the Morris Street seniors day facility — ranging from their late 60s to early 90s — show up for the turkey dinner with all the fixings.
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lambie xmas
Accordion player Olga Kulakevich and flautist Linda Jonas Schroeder entertained seniors on Christmas Day last year at Spencer House. (EDNA LeVINE)

There’s nothing like a tinsel-coated symbiotic relationship where everyone benefits.

A group of Jewish people plans to spend Christmas Day serving up food and entertainment at a drop-in community centre for Halifax seniors.

“I can’t imagine it’s easy for them to be alone on Christmas,” Schuyler Smith told Local Xpress. “They get to share their holiday with us because I don’t know Christmas from a hole in the wall. But I get a heck of a lot of Christmas cheer when I go there.”

The volunteer gig started five years ago, he said.

“Spencer House prepares a lunch the day before in their kitchen and we come in and we cook everything that hasn’t been cooked. We reheat everything else and we make plates for everyone who comes,” Smith said. “For the people who can’t come and join us, we send lunches out to them with drivers.”

As many as 25 regulars at the Morris Street seniors day facility — ranging from their late 60s to early 90s — show up for the turkey dinner with all the fixings.

lambie xmas 2Schuyler Smith serves a Christmas dinner last year to a senior at Spencer House in Halifax. (EDNA LeVINE)

“There are usually more volunteers than there are seniors,” Smith said. “But that tends to be good because everyone has someone to talk to.”

Local musicians come in to play Christmas carols on the violin, accordion and flute, he said.

“It’s actually a really fun event and it’s really been growing year after year,” Smith said. “The seniors all have a smile on their face. They’re all super excited that they’re getting out and they’re going to spend time with their friends.”

Several of the volunteers are former Russians who came to Canada via Israel, he said.

“The crazy thing about a lot of these new immigrants is they all come with fantastic talents,” Smith said. “And they don’t necessarily get to use them every day. They have to look for a job that will pay the bills. But there are Israeli-Russian clowns and accordion players that finally get to come out and do what they’re meant to do, what they want to do, just because they can.”

Edna LeVine, director of community engagement with the Atlantic Jewish Council, has been busy organizing the Christmas lunch at Spencer House.

“A lot of these places are very short-staffed,” LeVine said. “Everybody takes off for Christmas, so they have nobody to open the centre or take responsibility for the place. So that’s what I’ll do.”

Helping the seniors enjoy a special day has nothing to do with faith, she said. “It has more to do with being part of the community … and this happens to be a day where we’re available.”

She likes the time spent at Spencer House.

“They have a Christmas tree there that’s lit, so it’s just a very festive atmosphere,” LeVine said. “They decorate the place very nicely.”

Many Spencer House regulars don’t have any family nearby or a special place to go on Christmas Day, said Bertha Roberts, executive director of the non-profit facility.

A Spencer House employee used to bring her whole family in to serve a meal on Christmas Day.  

“After she retired, it got harder and harder to do,” Roberts said. “Staff wanted to be able to spend time with their families. And the Atlantic Jewish Council approached us and asked if there was anything that they could do.”

While they may not know all the words to the Christmas carols, there are usually songbooks on hand and the volunteers still get a full helping of the warm and fuzzy feeling by lending their assistance.

“It’s nice to see one religion sort of helping another,” Roberts said. “They’re allowing the staff here to celebrate their Christmas. So it’s been really, really nice. It’s been a wonderful partnership.”

Most of the seniors know each other, she said.

“So it just provides some fellowship,” Roberts said. “It’s everything to them. It just brightens their day. The people who come here, especially those that come on a regular basis, really consider this to be their family.”

Home Instead Seniors Care donates gifts for the seniors. “So everybody has a present to open.”

Seniors can become members of Spencer House for $18 a year.

“We serve daily lunches,” Roberts said. “So that gives you a discount on your lunches and any special events or special meals.”



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Chris Lambie

About the Author: Chris Lambie

Chris Lambie is a journalist based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has worked at newspapers from Newfoundland to the Northwest Territories.
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