In the Ellsworth Unit at Charles Morris, a foot taps, hands clap and arms wave like a maestro’s. A woman, nearly silenced by Alzheimer’s, hums along to a familiar tune.
The voices rise, but the bodies don’t. And for a brief period each week, Carol Congedo and her wheelchair-bound congregants escape to a spiritual world of prayer and song.
Years ago, Congedo never saw the power of music. As a child, she sang on Sundays at Yiddish school and productions at summer camp. “I was never a great singer, but I had a lot of ruach,” she said. In high school, Congedo’s spirit guided her along another path. “At 16, I decided to be a physician.”
After college, she became a physician and specialized in otolaryngology (ears, nose and throat). For 10 years, Congedo practiced surgery. Except one day when she became the patient.
Congedo developed lupus, an autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system becomes hyperactive and attacks normal, healthy tissue. She retired from medicine.
“When I stopped being a practicing doctor, it was a big blow,” she explained. “It was all I had focused on between the ages of 16 and 42.”
With her surgical career behind her, Congedo began reinventing herself. She taught religious school at Temple Sinai, completed an Agency for Jewish Learning class on Jewish teacher training, obtained a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, worked for the AJL, educating teachers on effective pedagogy.
Despite the teaching, Congedo missed using her hands, so she entered a local sewing machine store one day and enrolled in a quilting course.
“Tuesdays had been my major surgery day, so I started quilting on Tuesdays,” she said.
Some of Congedo’s quilts became gifts to friends and family, others were donated to shelters. One of her quilts hangs at Temple Sinai in a space formerly used for the informal Shabbat Morning Minyan. Tracings of each of the minyan-goers’ hands adorn the quilt. Assembling seven rows, the numerous hands form a menora, as the words “Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing,” rise above the flames.
During services at the Morning Minyan, participants sit in a circle chanting Hebrew prayers, while Rabbi James Gibson plays his guitar. The intimate setting enables worshippers to create a community within a community.
One of Congedo’s friends, Pat Friedman, used to attend the minyan. “After Pat passed away, I started studying mussar online,” Congedo said. “I remembered how Pat volunteered at Charles Morris, so I approached Sharyn Rubin, director of resident and community services at the Jewish Association on Aging.”
Modeling the Morning Minyan, Congedo developed a modified Reform Shabbat service for residents at Charles Morris. She worked with a friend to create a siddur, only to realize that many of the residents could neither see nor hold the prayer book due to physical constraints. So Congedo adapted the siddur to PowerPoint and projected its pages onto a giant television screen.
Her Friday afternoon service at Charles Morris incorporates prayers, kiddush, motzi and a drash. In each of these elements, Congedo encourages residents to join her, and they do. One woman nods her head as Congedo chants, while another shouts English translations to the Hebrew.
Congedos chants “Mah yafeh hayom,” and the resident cries, “It’s a beautiful day.” Congedo announces, “L’cha Dodi,” and the resident exclaims, “Here comes the bride.”
“It’s fun and I love it,” Congedo said. “At the end of the service, it’s like I have a dozen bubbies telling me not to trip over the wires or asking whether I brought a coat.
“It’s important for residents to have an outlet for spirituality,” she continued, “to forget they’re in a nursing home.”
On Friday afternoons in the Ellsworth Unit at Charles Morris, through songs sung with gentle voices, Congedo and her residents escape their surroundings. No longer the surgeon, now the guide, Congedo has abandoned the scalpel but is still curing ills.
“It’s a different kind of healing than I did as a physician,” she said. “I can’t help with the body parts, but I can help with the spirit.”
(Adam Reinherz, who writes about life in Jewish Pittsburgh, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)