Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Traditional and safe

City rabbi designs prayer shawls specifically for elderly people

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The Dalai Lama has one, and so does Archbishop Desmond Tutu, but the most important people wearing prayer shawls specifically for elderly people are right here in Winnipeg.

"It's become standard in our chapel," explains Rabbi Neal Rose of the Jewish prayer shawls he designed for use in the Saul & Claribel Simkin Centre.

"It's interesting to see a room full of white (shawls)."

The recently retired chaplain of Winnipeg's only Jewish personal care home realized early in his tenure that the long fringes on a traditional prayer shawl -- called tallit in Hebrew -- were a safety hazard for people using walkers or wheelchairs.

"The pragmatic (concern) was that it would be as easy (to use) as possible and accident-free as possible," says Rose, 74, who retired from his spiritual care duties in December.

Measuring about 130 by 30 centimetres, the cream polyester shawls are shorter and narrower than traditional ones, often made from a natural fibre such as wool or cotton. Rose modified the shawl to feature shorter-than-usual fringes securely knotted through a buttonhole at each corner.

The collar of the shawl features Hebrew letters embroidered in gold thread spelling out a commandment from the Torah to respect elders.

"The whole purpose was to create something that would be a badge of honour for elders," says Rose, who plans to offer marriage counselling to retired couples during his own retirement.

Wearing a tallit has a long history in Judaism. It was originally a four-cornered fringed piece of clothing, similar to a vest, worn by rabbinic leaders. Then it evolved to a rectangular shawl worn by all Jewish men for religious purposes. More recently, women from the Reform and Conservative traditions also wear the shawls.

With the help of donated fabric and sewing services, Rose produced dozens of the modified shawls, and gave several to his longtime mentor, Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi of Boulder, Colo., who promptly passed them on to the Dalai Lama and the South African archbishop while attending an event with them.

"He gave them to Tutu and the Dalai Lama and explained the Hebrew to them," recalls Rose.

That modified shawl is just a small example of how Rose accommodated the religious and cultural needs of the Simkin Centre's 200 residents throughout his 13 years on staff, says consultant Bill Weismann, now preparing a report on the future of spiritual care at the personal care home.

"He was able to leave that legacy -- he was inclusive," says Weissmann, who serves as Shammes, or sexton, at Congregation Shaarey Zedek.

"It's inclusive Judaism, being aware that residents might be Orthodox, might be secular."

Rose also adapted and shortened weekly and High Holiday services, arranged for Jewish and Yiddish music to be performed for and with residents, and introduced practical adaptations such as large-print prayer books, electric Shabbat candles and a portable ark for the Torah.

"What I found very quickly was that certain things communicated to people, like music and ritual items people could touch," says the former religion professor at University of Manitoba.

"The physicality -- touching, seeing, smelling -- still registered long after the cognitive (ability) was impaired."

Rose hopes one of his retirement projects might be producing more shawls for continued use at the Simkin Centre and beyond.

"I would like to do another run so there is a good supply," he says.

"I think it would be a wonderful thing to sell to other nursing homes and to individuals."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 4, 2014 ??65528


Updated on Sunday, January 12, 2014 at 6:30 PM CST: Added colour photo, minor editing.

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