I went to Fordham Preparatory high school, a fine Jesuit institution in the West Bronx. All seniors, in order to graduate, had to complete 70 hours of service. Given the Jesuit commitment to diversity, there were several organizations and services I was able to volunteer at, although once I chose one, I was committed to fulfilling the entirety of the requirement at that location. Several of my friends opted to work at an Irish cultural community center in Woodlawn, the Bronx’s largest and most vibrant Irish neighborhood. This site, if I may speak freely, was the equivalent of a Union no-show job, as it required little to no effort. Furthermore, given my background, working in a center that catered to the Irish community would not be anything new. Rather, I chose to work at the Hebrew Home for the Aged, a Jewish retirement home located on the banks of the Hudson River. Kolvenbach writes, “Some Jesuits worked in very poor villages, refugee camps or prisons, and some fought for the rights of workers, immigrants, and foreigners” (23). Certainly, I would never compare the Hebrew Home for the Aged to a 3rd World Country. In fact, the campus was quite nice. However, as an Irish Catholic living in a fairly insular neighborhood, a Jewish nursing home may as well have been El Salvador or Kenya.
Down Riverdale Avenue I would walk every Saturday afternoon, stopping at the pizza place on the corner for a coke and a slice. Once I came to the campus, I was subject to a variety of security clearances, which I later found out were for the protection of resident’s stricken with dementia, as well as to counter any and all anti-Semitic threats. Because I was not a licensed nurse, I was not allowed to administer medication, nor have any physical contact with the residents. The extent of my service was limited to wheeling the infirmed from location to location throughout the campus and serving meals.
Despite my limited responsibilities, I found the work very rewarding. It was pleasant to speak with residents as I wheeled them throughout the facility, listening to their stories. The home, after all, was composed of member’s of the Greatest Generation, the Americans that defied tyranny and built this nation. I always thought it a shame that, in American culture, the elderly are viewed as a burden, rather than an asset or treasure. It was Emerson, after all, who argued that the young had never and would never learn anything significant from their elders. I doubt the average, apathetic teen is in touch with the philosophical tenants of Emerson, but they share similar, antagonistic attitudes.
Of course, that is not to say that every interaction was positive. Many times, I encountered residents that were neither eager nor receptive, but bitter and turned inward. I could not help but think of my experience at the home when Callie, during her presentation, asked about people in need who refused assistance. They were hostile for many reasons: bitter because they lived in an assisted living center, rather than with family, depressed at the deaths they have witnessed throughout their lives, or simply disinterested. Furthermore, many residents were stricken with the truly horrifying disease dementia, which stripped them of the majority of their mental capacity.
Finally, Kolvenbach writes, “From our origins in 1540 the Society has been officially and solemnly charged with ‘the defense and propagation of the faith” (25). Based on my experience, I would redefine this charter. I would say working at the Hebrew Home for the Aged served to “test and reward my faith” in that I was confronted with indignities and crushing sites, but also unforgettable and life-changing moments. I was able to overcome my own misonceptions or misunderstandings and connect with people, who prior to this, I would have given no thought to.