Photo credit: Jewish Family Service
Fay May has found a solution for social isolation. Every other week, she happily welcomes K’vod Connect Chaplain Miriam Karp into her home.

Submitted by Jewish Family Service 

As Fay May was thinking ahead to her upcoming 92nd birthday, she eagerly shared how she was planning for a special ‘Birthday Shabbat’ at Rockdale Temple. “I’ll have to take my walker, of course,” Fay said. “And I have an eye problem, so I can’t strike a match. Rabbi Meredith Kahan will have to light the candles on the bimah — so I don’t burn the temple down,” she added with a mischievous grin. “And then, I will say the barucha (blessing), and they’ll bring the wine and the challah to my seat. I’ll have special flowers, and nosh. And my son is coming in from Houston.” Fay’s excitement was palpable, yet also reflective of how infrequently she leaves her home to socialize. Due to mobility and transportation challenges, her face-to-face interactions with others are rare, which is why she is so grateful for Chaplain Miriam Karp — of Jewish Family Service’s K’vod Connect program — who visits Fay every other week. 

When Jewish Family Service (JFS) launched K’vod Connect in early 2021, it was responding to a newly identified need in the community: countering the harmful impacts of social isolation in older adults. “In 2018, the Jewish community created a task force called Aging Services 2.0,” said Ann Sutton Burke, JFS’s Vice President of Client Services. “From this effort, we decided that a strong referral network of community members and resources could combine to reduce social isolation among this vulnerable population.”

Two and a half years later, the goals of K’vod Connect remain the same, but significant demand has led to the program’s expansion. What began with just two people — Rabbi Yair Walton and June Ridgway, Director of JFS Resource Center and AgeWell Cincinnati — has grown threefold to include Rabbi Jennifer Lewis, Chaplain Karp, Aging Services Social Worker Andrew Boiman, and Program Manager Dara Wood. Despite this growth, the need for K’vod Connect to improve the quality of life for isolated seniors, by addressing the myriad issues they often face, is as pressing as ever.

“I have a lot of contacts, but very few visitors,” Fay said. “Miriam’s visits are very meaningful to me. She is coming later today, as a matter of fact,” she said, looking pleased. “I didn’t know her when (we) met, and now she’s like a friend. We talk about personal things, and Jewish things, and it’s really good to have her here for a visit.”

Karp enjoys getting together with Fay — and other participants like her. “It’s great how we can support all these people — Jewish and non-Jewish alike,” she said. “Through K’vod, we can offer personalized care that meets folks where they are. That aspect of care might be a schmooze, some supportive listening—hearing their life stories and finding the thread of meaning — helping them navigate the many challenges of aging, or, if desired, more spiritual care such as sharing Torah insights, studying texts, sharing spontaneous or formal prayer. It’s hard to think of spending time with our participants as ‘work,’ so I feel very fortunate in what I do. I am so enriched by the resilience, humor, and deep humanity of the wonderful individuals I’m honored to spend time with.”

Karp, who’s been with K’vod Connect since early 2022, explained how her chaplaincy training led to a dream vocation for a Judaic educator deeply interested in psychology and personal growth. “I grew up an atheistic humanist and embarked on a journey and search,” she said. “In addition to intensive Jewish studies in seminary, I received an MA in Creative Jewish Expression. As a board-certified chaplain, I had several years of specialized training in pastoral care. What this means for my K’vod work is that I am comfortable connecting with, supporting, and relating to people of all backgrounds and philosophies. I provide non-judgmental emotional and spiritual support that’s tailored to the individual.”

Fay deeply appreciates Miriam’s even-handed demeanor. “She is easy to talk to because she’s not proselytizing or insisting that she knows best. She’s not judgmental. She doesn’t tell you what she thinks you should or shouldn’t do. I don’t ever feel like she’s here to instruct me. She’s knowledgeable about the secular world, and the Jewish world, so you can speak to her on any topic and have a good and meaningful conversation.”

77-year-old Judy Schechter, also a K’vod Connect participant, is another admirer of Karp’s spiritual and intellectual gifts. “I have always believed in HaShem [G*d],” Judy said, “but Miriam has really helped me deepen my relationship with, and understanding of, HaShem. I’m getting better at accepting that I don’t have total control of everything; that I shouldn’t always try to be a superhero; that what is happening is what’s meant to happen for my growth, even when it can be hard to see that. Miriam helps me release having the sole responsibility over every little detail of my life and offer it up to a higher power.”

Judy, who has lately been dealing with serious health issues, explained how the in-home visits have helped her, not only with decision-making but with her overall prognosis. “The way it works for me is — I can imagine Miriam’s positive perspective in my mind, even when she’s not here,” Judy said. “She might say something like, ‘Look, Judy. This is happening. You can’t really change the outer event, but you can work on your attitude about it, which may even open the possibility of it working out better, too.’ Miriam says the best thing I can do is to just talk calmly to myself. And when I do that, it really helps. When I share that with her, she’s always quick to turn it around and compliment me. She’s just tremendously empathetic.”

Judy and Fay have additional insights into appreciating the work Miriam is doing; they both have counseling qualifications of their own. As Fay explained, “I had a very good Jewish upbringing and an excellent Jewish education. Partly because of that, I became a para-rabbinic fellow. I’ve led services, and taught classes, so I can really relate to Miriam and what she’s doing.” Judy’s education was just as intense and serious, but, ultimately, unfulfilled. When nearing the end of her studies to become a mental health counselor — at Xavier University, in 2009 — her husband, Max, suddenly developed signs of serious dementia. “I was so busy worrying about him that I couldn’t finish my schooling. And so, I had to quit.”

Judy noted that her experience with counseling only served to make her more appreciative of Karp’s work. “I couldn’t feel more positive having Miriam in my life. And Cybele, too. (Judy was referring to Cybele Elloian, JFS’s Geriatric Clinical Social Worker.) They really help keep me stable. Miriam knows what she’s talking about. She knows what she’s doing. And I know that everyone else involved in the program — from the social workers to the rabbis to Cybele — are just as confident and capable as Miriam is.”

Fay believes there is no downside to calling K’vod Connect. “I would recommend that anybody who would like a connection to just reach out and try it,” she said. “I would think it would be good for folks to know that people like Miriam are available. People should try—they should say, ‘I’d like to meet her.’ I mean, goodness, you certainly don’t have to be afraid to have her into your home if she represents Jewish Family Service of Cincinnati.”

Karp confirmed that she and her talented team are safe. “It’s true; We don’t bite,” she laughed. “And you never know. The power of having someone there just for you — to listen, care, and support — can really make a difference.”