by Ozzie Nogg
According to Jewish mystical writings, the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah possessed a special intelligence, understanding and intuition called binah — a Hebrew word which means the ability to see what is not obvious on the surface, to analyze and then distinguish between situations that at first glance may seem similar but are really quite different. To read between the lines, as it were. Our sages considered this quality of binah a gift that Jewish women brought to their families, community and society.
Our Omaha Jewish community, in particular the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home, is fortunate to have four “matriarchs” of its own: Bert Benson, Shelly Fox, Holly Hamilton and Andi Ross Willensky, who make up the Home’s Social Services Department. Their professional responsibilities may differ, yet each of these women possesses a special intelligence, understanding and intuition — binah — and each contributes to the wellbeing of the Blumkin Home Residents and their families.
Benson graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha with a degree in Sociology and a Certificate in Gerontology. “My husband, Bob, and I moved here from Missouri, and I started working at the Blumkin Home in 1985,” Benson said. “I was a young mom with two small children, and my first job at the Home was as a part-time employee in the Activities Department. I transitioned to the Social Services Department, received my Certified Social Worker license in 1990, and eventually became the Director of Social Services, my current title.” A 28 year staff member of the Blumkin Home, Benson is considered the unofficial RBJH archivist. By now, Bert estimates she has met approximately 1,900 Residents. “I’m so privileged to have known generations of families in the Jewish community, and, in some cases, the fourth or fifth generation. I hope they think of me as a constant, trusted member of the facility — someone they can call on for assistance at any time.”
As Director of Social Services, Benson’s responsibilities include documentation, assessments, care planning and assisting Residents and families in making decisions about day-to-day life at the Home — everything from what clothes to bring and what personal items to add to their room. “We discuss financial matters, roommate compatibility issues, referrals to medical and other professionals and end-of-life care. Each Resident has his or her own set of concerns that require attention.” Benson meets often with all staff and departments to discuss issues of the moment and to plan for upcoming events. “Working as a team is vital to providing great customer service,” Bert said. “Confidential email keeps everyone updated throughout the day.”
In Benson’s words, “Each member of the social services team has a niche they fill. I work with all the Residents, but particularly long-term Residents who make the Blumkin Home their home. Shelly Fox works primarily with older members of the Jewish Community, and Andi handles the RBJH admissions process. Holly works with some long-term Residents, but mostly with members of the community who plan to return to their own homes after a rehabilitative stay here at the facility. Right now, I’m Holly’s immediate supervisor.”
Which suits Hamilton just fine. “My responsibilities as a social worker are never-ending,” Holly said, “and Bert is a great mentor, helping me learn the ropes and become part of the larger team.” Hamilton graduated from UNO with a Bachelor of Social Work degree and is licensed through the State of Nebraska. “In this field, you learn to wear many hats,” Holly said. “Besides my role within the social work team, I interact with all the Blumkin Home staff — from therapy, nursing, dietary and housekeeping. Each department has its own unique personality and individual leadership.”
Hamilton’s career path has been diverse. She worked with a State agency that provided counseling and parenting to families separated by the court system; was lead teacher for two- and three-year olds at a preschool program, acted as site supervisor for an Omaha Public Schools after-school program, and then served for five years as Social Services Director at a private, for-profit facility. “I loved working with children,” Holly said, “but ultimately my passion was with the geriatric population because of the knowledge and wisdom they can pass on to us.” Hamilton has been with the Blumkin Home for 18 months. “My role as Social Worker gives me the opportunity and enjoyment of getting to know all the Residents and their families. I hope they would say my door is always open with a smile, that I’m there to help them when they need help, and that they were heard when they took the time to share personal feelings or concerns with me.”
Holly considers the other three women in the Blumkin Home Social Work Department her role models. “We each bring our own piece of the puzzle to the Home that helps make it complete, and we all learn from one another. We’re each unique in the way we deal with families and Residents, but we all put the families and Residents first. We meet whenever needed, whatever time of day, for however long is necessary. We’re in communication daily and extend support to each and every Resident, not just the ones specifically in our charge.”
Open communication is a mantra among the Blumkin Home social work foursome. “I have direct contact with RBJH Residents and their families every day,” said Shelly Fox, MSW, Director of Jewish Senior Outreach Services and Director of Admissions at the Blumkin Home. “My office is located right between two Resident neighborhoods, so I’m lucky to have many folks stop by to check in or just say hello. When a Resident or family member needs to discuss private matters — a referral for more care for Mom at home, a community member requesting Kosher meal delivery, or an individual in crisis who is reaching out for immediate help — I shut my office door and try to provide the appropriate interventions and attention that ensure the safety and health of our community elders. I consider myself an advocate for older individuals and their families. The most important thing I can do is make sure I’m available and responsive. Every situation is so different. We can’t always fix everything, but we can always listen and give someone the time and attention they deserve.”
Fox makes a point to visit Residents in their rooms and to attend Blumkin Home activities when her schedule permits. “It’s so important for us to be available, to provide a trusted ear, to make sure no one ever feels they’re a bother or that you don’t have time for them.” Shelly has been a member of the RBJH staff for ten years. She began her career at the facility as she was graduating from the School of Social Work at UNO and went on to earn her Master’s degree while working at the Home. Shelly often finds herself meeting off-campus with older Jewish adults in the community. “In my Outreach work I spend time with clients in their own homes. It’s such a privilege to be invited into someone’s private space and have them share their story with me. In some cases, after several years, these clients become Residents of the Home. I’m hopeful that the familiarity we’ve established is helpful as I assist in their admissions process. I’m lucky enough to form close, trusted relationships with amazing elders and their family members. My work is challenging, rewarding and always a privilege. It’s not unusual for me to become actively involved with folks during a serious illness or at the end of their lives. My goal is to offer help or reassurance to families as they experience a loss — to be there if needed and offer support. The work I do can sometimes be sad, but I also have fun and experience joy from meeting wonderful people and developing special relationships.”
Echoing her social work cohorts, Fox also emphasizes the importance of teamwork. “We meet first thing each morning and many times throughout the day, if needed. Each one of my teammates brings a special talent to her professional role. We work collaboratively, performing different roles, and we’re always there to cover for one another and assist our elders and their families.” As Director of Admissions, Shelly assists Andi Willinsky in adjusting to her role as Admissions Coordinator.
A relative “newbie” on the Blumkin Home social work team, Willensky comes to the position with impressive credentials: a B.S. in Speech Pathology from Syracuse University; an M.A. in Speech Pathology from California State University, Los Angeles; and an M.S. in Clinical Counseling from Bellevue University. “In my former career as a speech pathologist, I worked primarily with the geriatric population who had suffered stroke, progressive neurological disease and cognitive decline,” Andi explained. “My current job title, Blumkin Home Admissions Coordinator, perfectly explains my position, except for that intangible piece which includes being a knowledgeable and welcoming first contact to the Blumkin Home for potential Residents, their families and for community referral sources. The particular skill I want to bring to this job is the ability to listen to a person’s worries and fears. As Admissions Coordinator, I need to actively hear what people say so I can then make appropriate placements, help potential Residents feel comfortable with their choices, and give them a sense of security. When people are elderly and experience illness and physical or mental decline, it’s essential to treat them with dignity, honor and compassion.”
Willensky is quick to say that although she now sits in Shane Kotok’s former office, she is not taking over for Kotok. “When I moved to Omaha twenty years ago, I immediately learned that the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home was known throughout the city for providing the finest skilled nursing care available. It was bersherit that Shane, then the Blumkin Home’s Admissions Director, was available to give me a tour of the facility. Shane was the first Jewish person I met in Omaha and she was a wealth of information and very inspiring. She still inspires me. Fast forward 20 years, and as Shane begins her well-deserved retirement, I’m privileged to take on the position of Admissions Coordinator, but in no way can I duplicate Shane’s contribution to the Home. Her special brand of appreciation and respect for each Resident and their families and her sensitivity to Jewish values are irreplaceable. Shane embodies binah. She continues to generously share her expertise and wisdom with me to make this transition successful. I’m indebted to her personally and professionally. The entire Omaha Jewish community benefited from Shane’s gentle ways and acts of loving kindness.” Bert Benson and Shelly Fox share Andi Willensky’s sentiments: “I have been so privileged to work with Shane for my entire career at the Blumkin Home,” Benson said. “Her dedication to the community, to Jewish custom and her ethical standards have been inspiring. I will miss her.” To which Fox added, “Shane has been an amazing role model to learn from and work side-by-side with. The care and attention she showed our community set the bar high for all who follow. I’m so lucky to have worked with her and to call her my friend.”
A statement from the American Geriatrics Society and the American Association of Geriatric Psychiatry describes the role nursing home social workers play in addressing the needs of Residents by providing comfort and security, enjoyable relationships, meaningful activity, individuality, privacy, autonomy, dignity and spiritual wellbeing. In The Role Of The Social Worker In The Long-Term Care Facility (printed by the Missouri Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program 2008), editors Novella Perrin and Joanne Polowy write, “The role of the social worker in a long-term care facility is to enable each individual to function at the highest possible level of social and emotional wellness.” A tall order, but the RBJH social workers are determined to fill it.
“The social work team is a dynamic force,” Holly Hamilton said, “and the most compassionate group of individuals I’ve ever met. The women on the team don’t look for shortcuts or ways to make our work easier. Our work is never about us. Our work is always about the Residents. The decision to place a loved one in a nursing home can be wrenching, so we do our best to put everyone at ease, to assure them that the Blumkin Home is a safe, secure environment that provides an unmatched level of medical and emotional care. A place where they’re comfortable sharing their feelings, their stories and memories. At the end of any given day, I want to know that I touched someone — whether with a smile, a shoulder to cry on or a hug when there are no words to say. I want to know I tried my best to make their life easier for a moment.”
Benson, Fox, Hamilton and Willensky give kudos to the Blumkin Home’s administrative staff and the Jewish Social Services Board, crediting them with providing “above and beyond” support. “Our mission,” Fox said, “is to fulfill the mitzvah of Mipnei Seivah Takem (you shall rise and show respect to the aged). This facility is blessed with management willing to find the resources and come up with creative solutions that help us continue providing the exceptional services and programs our Residents deserve.”
“My co-workers in every department of the Blumkin Home are so supportive,” Hamilton said. “And the four amazing women on the social work team provide constant encouragement to one another. I’m ever so thankful for all of them. As for the Residents, they’re one-in-a-million. They have so many stories of survival and such pride. There’s no other facility in Omaha where you can share that kind of history. I’m proud to work here.”