Older Israelis Home Alone for Passover: ‘I’ve Lived Through Worse’

In the senior housing project (“don’t call us an old-folks’ home!”) Nofei Yerushalayim, people have gotten used to the new reality of the coronavirus threat. The residents, mostly affluent people from pre-World War II Germany or from English-speaking countries, have been instructed to stay indoors and, obviously, not to receive guests, while maintaining a distance of six feet from each other. However, they still meet in the lobby.

“In the past, we sat wherever we felt like, and anyone who wanted to would come down here,” says Asher Cailingold, 90. “Now it’s more restricted and done only in accordance with the rules.” The cafeteria has also made some adjustments. “We’ve started offering coffee to go,” he explains. “You come and place an order. They put it in a closed cup and you leave.”

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Meeting with visiting family members has also changed. These meetings are held at the entrance to the complex. Cailingold keeps a safe distance, exchanging air kisses with his grandchildren, instead of the real thing. The rest of the time, they meet on Zoom.

The digital world is providing a temporary substitute in other ways as well. Lecturers, who no longer come every evening to the auditorium to entertain the project’s residents, now do their lectures over WhatsApp. Even communal singing is done through the phone, says Cailingold, instead of live with an audience in the lobby.

Sixty miles away, 80-year-old Kochava Gabbay sits in a small apartment in Hadera, living on a National Insurance Institute allowance. She is alone, far from her husband, who is hospitalized in an assisted-living home with Alzheimer’s disease. Her children are not close, either. One daughter became religious and is raising six children, while another is in a hostel for people with disabilities. “I’m totally alone” Gabbay says. “I’ve been closed indoors for a month without going out, without anything.”

More than anything else, she suffers from the separation from her husband who, despite his condition, can still express his love for her, needing her love in return. “Before the coronavirus I would visit him every day, without missing even one, except Yom Kippur. But now his institution is closed,” she says. “We’ve been married for 61 years, our connection is like the one you find in books, a wonderful love. His home says they’ve never seen anything like it.” In the absence of other options, they now meet on Zoom. “He looks at me from his wheelchair, telling people around him: That’s my pretty wife, she’s just mine, don’t be jealous. He might forget after five minutes, but he’s still happy to see me, and that tears me up.”

When Gabbay realized that she couldn’t afford her diabetes medication any longer, seeing that she couldn’t even pay for daily necessities either, she turned to her city’s welfare services. At the same time, she got some help from an unexpected source. She was contacted by Ina Lulkina, a 31-year-old resident of Herzliya, who had decided to use her free time during this epidemic for doing good deeds. Lulkina opened a Facebook page called “Assistance for the elderly across Israel,” which led to volunteers bringing a package of necessities to Gabbay’s apartment.