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Month: April 2023

Volunteer Brings Joy to Residents Through Music

Written by: Sydney Clevenger

Watching our slender volunteer Alan Moses lug his 21-pound accordion through the halls of Cedar Sinai Park to then set it on his knee for a playing and singing session with the residents is truly a lesson in dedication.

“It still feels like I’m wrestling an octopus every time I strap this thing on,” said the self-deprecating Alan, with a chuckle, as he nibbled an apple between gigs at our Home. “I found some great videos on accordion ergonomics, and I’m working my technique, but I think the main thing is just not to play too many hours in one day.”

Alan is typically at Cedar Sinai Park once or twice a week, in between playing for a hospice group, and helping to care for his pre-teen grandchildren.

“Knowing viscerally that you have made a difference in a person’s life is a great experience,” said Alan. “I knew as soon as I retired that I wanted to find an avenue to give back.

“I like to envision myself as helping, but it’s such a great feeling for me; it just feels good to do.

This National Volunteer Week, please thank our beloved Cedar Sinai Park volunteers, like Alan, who help us daily with the care and support of residents.

Alan grew up in the Santa Barbara area in a musical family, and learned to play the piano as a child, participating in bands and other group settings. As a young parent attending camping festivals, he was frustrated that his given instrument was not portable and that he couldn’t participate. Then in the early 1990s, his wife Nancy Friedland found him an accordion.

“The right hand of the accordion is similar to the piano,” said Alan. “The biggest difference is that the accordion is a wind instrument. So, if you run out of breath in the bellows, it doesn’t make any noise. So that took me a while to get my head around. And then the left-hand buttons are quite different than anything I’d ever used.

“My right hand feels at home, and my left hand feels lost. It’s kind of an interesting challenge. I still feel like a bit of a duffer.”

Alan’s audiences certainly don’t agree with that assessment. “Oooohhh, I love that song,” said Ruby, as Alan charges into a rousing verse of Yankee Doodle Dandy.

“The accordion looks funny,” said Alan. “It puts people at ease.”

Alan and Nancy used to perform at senior centers in California (Nancy plays the mandolin). The couple moved to Portland in 2014 with the birth of their second grandchild. Both retired—Alan said he was in “middle management at a university”—he began volunteering as a musical companion for bedside visits to a hospice organization.

“My mother moved at the same time we did. She said ‘you can run, but you can’t hide!’ Eager for a change since Alan’s father had died a handful of years previously, Marilyn Moses called Rose Schnitzer Manor on her own and made a reservation for a guest visit. After two weeks, she said, ‘do I have to go back?’”

Marilyn lived at Rose Schnitzer Manor from 2014 to mid-2020 when she unexpectedly had a stroke.

She loved the place, the quality of care she got from everyone,” said Alan. “This place does an incredible job of staffing so she had a last good phase of her life while she was here. I am just so impressed with this organization.”

After Marilyn passed, Alan began volunteering for Nancy Heckler [Adult Day Services Director] on the Robison side of campus, and he has steadily bumped up his volunteer time ever since.

“It’s not performance; it’s about getting everyone to participate and comfortable with the singing, and the chatting in between,” said Alan.

“Being able to bring music to people in various times of their life is very gratifying. The benefits of music become really visible.

“When my wife’s dad was in cognitive decline, we would play for him. He was no longer able to remember Nancy’s name, but he could recall every word of the folk songs. We were able to see how much the music brought to him. At a time when he was confused, he could sing a song and feel competent.

“I learned a lot of the songs from my parents,” added Alan, “so there’s a feeling of connection there with my family, too.

“I feel connected to this place, as well. It’s one of the things that keeps me coming every week.”




Sonia Liberman

Written by: Sydney Clevenger

It’s Doctor, Actually

Sonia Liberman, a diminutive great-grandmother living at Rose Schnitzer Manor, quietly lives her life as a national treasure. Unassuming and dainty at 4’9”, you might imagine she is a delicate flower; demure and quiet. But her life story belies her appearance.

She is one of less than 100 Holocaust survivors whose oral history has ever been archived at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education. Her extraordinary story is also immortalized in Washington, D.C., at the United States Memorial  Holocaust Museum.

Yet this remarkable story is not all that makes Sonia shine. What she accomplished and became—in the wake of such a history—makes her truly extraordinary.

Sonia— then Sonia Berkowitz—was born into the dark world of early 1930s Poland. Her family, owners of grain mills, served as leaders in the Jewish community of Kletsk. (Kletsk, not often known, is actually within Minsk, where so many Ashkenazi Jews claim ancestry.)

In 1940, Sonia’s family’s mills and income were misappropriated by the Nazis, and the entire Jewish community was forced into a ghetto. Her parents, filled with foreboding about what was to come, moved Sonia and her two older siblings to the farm of a family friend—“Uncle Kashemish.”

Kashemish, though not Jewish, was a progressive teacher who had previously lived with the family while running a school in Kletsk and had grown to care deeply for the Berkowitz’s. Sonia’s parents fervently hoped she and her siblings would be safer on his rural farm. Her father extracted a promise from Kashemish: that he would do all he possibly could to care for the children and ensure their survival.

Initially, Sonia and her two siblings were safer on the farm. But in the autumn of 1940, her older brother and sister decided to return to their parents’ home in Kletsk simply for the High Holidays. Sonia, they felt, was too young to travel through treacherous forests by night with them. They left the farm and never returned. Along with Sonia’s parents, they were rounded up and brutally murdered by the Nazis between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,. Sonia, now orphaned, was only seven.

Somehow, Kashemish always “stayed three steps ahead of the Gestapo.”

Kashemish kept his word and somehow, “always stayed three steps ahead of the Gestapo,” Sonia reports. At his own peril, Kashemish shifted her from farm to farm and family to family throughout the War, a young, grammar-school-aged Jewish girl undercover, pretending to be a Christian.

Sonia slept in the woods of the Black Forest, learned to gather milk and eggs from cows and chickens, moved quietly and quickly in the night, and was shuttled from convents to orphanages to worse—families dependent on her for grueling child labor but withholding all but an occasional crusty bread.

Somehow, she survived. Yet once liberated following the war, her story did not become appreciably easier. As an orphan, she was transported through Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany, each in turn rejecting her and children like her, until she finally landed at an orphanage in France.

Sonia ultimately made her way from there to Israel, finding distant relatives of her parents. As a young adult in then-Palestine, she met her future husband, soon married, went on to have three children, and eventually made her way to the United States with a growing family.

“I felt I have to survive.”

It would make sense if someone with Sonia’s history became embittered, distrusting, pessimistic. Instead, Sonia determined she had to bring good into the world.

“I felt I have to survive,” she says. “I wanted to start my own family to replace the family I lost. I didn’t know how, I didn’t know if it would happen, but that was my plan.”

Sonia had never learned to read and write as her would-be school years were all spent in hiding. But she learned. She received her bachelor of arts degree at University of Judaism the same year her son Gershon received his (aka Gary, Technical Services Director for Oregon State Hospital). “My father told me I would be a good teacher,” she says simply, “so that’s what I did.”

She went on to acquire a master’s in Judaic Studies and became a one-woman Jewish teaching institution. She instructed day school and Hebrew School students for 50 years across Los Angeles. She moved to Portland in 2017 to be closer to Gary and his wife Esther (a bead artist and member of ORA Northwest Jewish Artists), and into Rose Schnitzer Manor.

Instead of becoming cynical and disillusioned with humanity, Sonia’s dark youth intersected with a scrappy, discerning personality, tenaciously turning her into someone always seeking to be a mensch—a good human.

“I am not the best person in the world,” she admits, “but I try to be good to people. G-d gave us good and bad,” she adds.

“When I see someone who is homeless, for instance, I don’t judge. We are not better, smarter, than they are. We shouldn’t judge. We need to ask, ‘What happened to them to make them this way?’ There is always a reason,” she insists, having long been traumatized and homeless herself.

Ever the master educator, Sonia now visits students at local high schools, sharing the history and truth of the Holocaust. She offers messages we would all do well to heed:

“If you strongly believe in justice, fight for it. Stand up. Not with your fist—if you are able to do so, talk and reach resolution. Talk. You have to try. But,” she raises a finger as a caveat, insistent, “in Judaism you only have to ask forgiveness three times. If the third time someone is not willing to forgive you, that’s their problem, not yours!”

She lives her words and has been known to “get in trouble” for ceaselessly defending others. She will take someone aside and tell them, “’That was not right, you embarrassed that person in front of other people. You should apologize. I will nag you until you apologize!’ And you know what? They do. They apologize!”

“’Ima, do you have to fight so much for justice all the time?’” she says her son Gary asks her, “’Can’t you leave it alone, even sometimes?’”

“I can’t,” Sonia confesses, shaking her head. “I am a human and I have rights too. if I am here in this world, I should at least speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves.”


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