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For Arizona Retirees, Age Is Just a Number

by Eric Berger – Chabad.org

Officiating at funerals is a normal part of the job.

That’s what happens when you serve a largely senior population, as Rabbi Ephraim and Mushkie Zimmerman do. They also make hospital visits a regular part of their lives.

But Arlene Appelbaum, 72, was a different case. In April, her daughter Barbara, 52, was involved in an accident with a distracted driver, and as a result of her injuries, passed away in September.

“They have been there from the moment the accident occurred; they are still there for me,” says Appelbaum, a retired administrative assistant originally from New York. “The rabbi calls constantly. He went to visit her, I can’t tell you how many times.”

The Zimmermans, co-directors of Chabadof Oro Valley, Ariz., moved there from New York in the summer of 2012. Never mind that they are decades younger than most members in their community (Mushkie Zimmerman is 28, the rabbi is 30, and they have four young daughters); they have been able to connect with the significant number of retirees who now call this warm-weather state home. That’s not only because they teach Torah and adult-learning courses that speak to their constituency, or because of their inviting Shabbat meals that bring people together each week, but also for a very simple reason: They are reliable, according to community members.

In other words, they are unswerving in their mission to support Jewish community members.

“I remember the day I started calling him my rabbi,” says Marlene Burns, a 68-year-old artist and mother of two from Cleveland, “when you finally know that there is somebody you can go to with your questions, with your good news, with your health. He just exudes joy, and as we get older, life gets more complicated; it doesn’t get easier.”

‘Open Up Our Minds’

Chabad has had a long presence in the Grand Canyon State—40 years, in fact. Chabad Lubavitch of Arizona was founded in 1977 by Rabbi Zalman and Tziporah Levertov, who will celebrate four decades of life and work there at an anniversary dinner and silent auction on Sunday, Feb. 26. Chabad of Scottsdale, directed by Rabbi Yossi and Dina Levertov, is celebrating 25 years in the state with the dedication of a new Torah.

Today, 21 Chabad centers dot the landscape, serving all age groups, from students at the University of Arizona in Tucson to seniors in Oro Valley.

Zimmerman whole-heartedly enjoys the Arizona weather (having spent 22 years in Chicago, where he is from; his wife is a native of Jacksonville, Fla.). “I was a summer boy,” says the rabbi, “and in Arizona, you get summer year-round.”

The suburban town of Oro Valley lies six miles north of Tucson in the western foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. In order to cut down on light pollution, the local government enforces an ordinance that strictly limits artificial light. While that may make it one of the best cities in the country for star-gazing, it can adversely affect older drivers.

Those wanting to attend Jewish programs, classes or events once the sun set have a problem. “It’s not safe to drive at night,” says Burns.

So the rabbi and his wife tend to hold programs during the day, including classes and “lunch-and-learns.” For occasional events held in the evening, like the popular “Musical Musings,” which offers shtetl melodies, Jewish contemporary artists and Chassidic niggunim, “participants get rides with other people who don’t have an issue driving in the dark. It makes it all very communal, and we do like to offer a variety of events with times that work for everyone’s different schedules.”

Burns grew up in a largely Jewish community in Detroit but moved three decades ago to Arizona, where she discovered a much smaller Jewish population. She started a chavurah eight years ago that drew about 30 people and rotated among community members’ homes, which were fairly short distances away. When the Zimmermans opened a Chabad House nearby, many of those people then started to attend meals, services and programs at their home.

Burns, a widow, recalls one of their first classes, focusing on “what happens to us after we die.”

“I’m sure a lot of people who attended wanted some hard evidence,” she says. “What the rabbi was able to do was open up our minds to different possibilities, and I think for the group, that gave a lot of people hope.”

At one of the first Friday-night meals at Chabad she attended, the women in attendance heard Mushkie Zimmerman talk about the importance of lighting Shabbat candles. It touched a chord. Burns started getting more involved, even using her natural talents to teach art to children at the Gan Israel summer camp the emissaries run. She also gets to be around the company of the Zimmerman children, a multigenerational experience for all.

‘The Deeper Side of Life’

For her part, Mushkie Zimmerman, who runs a Jewish Women’s Circle and “Torah and Tea” for ladies, among other programs, says that “working with retirees has taught me an incredible amount, and it has humbled me. I have a lot to learn from people who are older than me, and I am honored to share with them what I can.”

The rabbi notes a very germane fact about Oro Valley, where about 1,000 Jewish families reside: Retirees actually have time for classes. He sometimes draws 50 or more people to any given session. “It’s an easy demographic to work with,” he says. “I really believe that with age comes wisdom, and people are just a little bit more in touch with the deeper side of life at this stage.”

As for Applebaum, she mentions a real learning curve for residents. She acknowledges not knowing much about Jewish burial practices when her daughter died. More than 200 people wound up coming to the funeral, very few of them Jewish. “They were in awe of the rabbi,” she recalls. “They thought they wouldn’t understand anything, but he explained it all thoroughly.

“As young as he is, he has insight,” she says. “And the way he delivers everything is just amazing.”

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