Is there a prayer book somewhere that includes “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”? There might as well be. We sang it, along with a few more conventional Shabbat table songs, at the “Memory Minyan,” which took place on the evening of April 28th, at Beth El Synagogue in New Rochelle. We were just finishing the evening with a short grace after meals so that people could leave before it got too dark. But they weren’t ready to go. Someone shouted “Hava Nagilah!” So we sang that old favorite. Then someone called “Heveinu Shalom Aleikhem!” So we sang that. Then another and another. And that’s what led us to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

“Minyan” (מִנְיָן) means “quorum.” Just as baseball is best played with nine on a team, by Jewish tradition a minyan requires ten adult (in some communities, male) Jews to be present for certain prayers to be said. “Memory” in the case of a Memory Minyan means deep memory, the melodies and chants and kitchen smells familiar from childhood. The Memory Minyan was a meditative, melodic, joyous Shabbat evening service, followed by a traditional meal, all tailored to a minyan of people with dementia and their loved ones, joined by a group of volunteers.

Of course, plenty of nursing homes hold Shabbat services, making sure that the liturgy and message are accessible to people with dementia and other cognitive impairments. What was special about our Memory Minyan is that it actually happened in a synagogue, with other members of the congregation. Not only did the Memory Minyan give people with dementia a chance for communal prayer; it also was an occasion for others in the congregation to reconnect with old friends. Beth El’s administrator for the project, the indefatigable Julie Rockowitz, had the inspiration to invite a few old friends of the couples who signed up, creating in essence a reunion.

I first got the idea of the Memory Minyan by taking part in what’s called a “Memory Café.” This is a concept created in the 1990’s by a Dutch geriatric psychologist named Bere Meisen. Troubled by the social isolation his clients with dementia experienced, Meisen created the Memory Café as a meeting place for people with mild to mid-stage dementia and their caregivers to “go out on the town” among others sharing their condition, free from the risk of embarrassment and the bewildering crush of most public places. Around the world Memory Cafés bring a sense of normalcy and social connection to thousands of families affected by dementia. Each Memory Café “serves as a safe haven and respite from the frustrations of living with a memory disorder. Participants explore art, music, and poetry, forming friendships, socializing, and laughing” (http://www.montpeliermemorycafe.net/a-brief-history-of-memory-cafes).

Over the past year, Seivah has collaborated with Westchester Jewish Community Services and the Alzheimer’s Association of the Hudson Valley Region to create a vibrant Memory Café in Central Westchester County. So I thought I would try to retrofit the idea for a dinner, combined with a prayer service.

With our partners from Beth El Synagogue, UJA Engage Westchester and Westchester Jewish Community Services, and Seivah, we pulled it off. Volunteers from UJA Engage, whom I trained beforehand in a half-hour “Dementia Communication 101” crash course, greeted participants at the front door. Seivah’s Cantorial Intern, Julie Womack, made a simple, color-coded Siddur and led us in spirited, easy, old-school melodies, including several that traditional Jews most likely heard seventy years ago. And almost as good was my rabbinic sermon, which consisted of three minutes of silence. We made Kiddush and Motzi, and dinner was served. Things got lively. A person dropping into the scene wouldn’t have known right away who had a diagnosis and who did not. We were all rooting for the Home Team.

For more on the Memory Café concept and history: http://www.montpeliermemorycafe.net/a-brief-history-of-memory-cafes

If you live in the lower Hudson Valley and you or someone you care about has dementia and you would like to attend a Memory Café together: kbonistall@alz.org

We will be holding our next Memory Minyan at Beth El Synagogue Center on June 16th. If you’d like to attend, either as an Engage-WJCS-Seivah volunteer or as a person dealing with dementia: jlbeyondmemory@gmail.com