A spiritual leader leaves a legacy of care and empathy

Rabbi Michael Wolff at his retirement party at Donald Berman Maimonides on Aug. 13
Rabbi Michael Wolff at his retirement party at Donald Berman Maimonides on Aug. 13

After more than two decades of providing spiritual guidance with a kind and gentle touch, Rabbi Michael Wolff is retiring.

Rabbi Wolff, who spent 22 years at Donald Berman Maimonides and ten years at Donald Berman Jewish Eldercare, was known to welcome each new resident. He was also admired for his ability to listen and help.

“I didn’t have a specific agenda. I just wanted to show there’s somebody who cares,” Rabbi Wolff said upon his retirement.

Rabbi Wolff’s spiritual care extended to residents, staff and families. In addition to leading synagogue services as chaplain, he developed the concept of the Healing Circle to help staff mourn the loss of a resident or the death of a colleague. The gatherings featured poetry, readings and music, and included some of the rabbi’s favourite fare from his high-school days in Manhattan, including the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and soul classics.

The gatherings became an outlet to help participants process their feelings, he said. “I wanted to provide a safe and non-threatening way for people to get in touch with their spirituality.”

Rabbi Wolff also led a program known as Chanukat Habayit (Housewarming), which welcomed new residents with a visit one month after they moved in, along with a blessing with flowers, baked treats and wine. The program was recognized with an award for Jewish Programming by the Association of Jewish Aging Services, representing long-term care centres across North America.

Rabbi Wolff has tended to the spiritual needs of families, adapting during the COVID-19 pandemic by leading virtual healing services on Zoom.

At his retirement party, Rabbi Wolff was praised for being approachable and treating people with respect.

“We were lucky to have you. Residents and staff benefited from your kindness and understanding,” said Barbra Gold, who not only directs the Support Program for the Autonomy of Seniors, but hired the rabbi. “Residents felt they could tell you anything. You will be very hard to replace.”

Tony John, an orderly (or préposé au bénéficiaires), said the rabbi “is a wonderful person, so easy to talk to. He’s really down to earth. I was surprised to hear of some of the music he enjoys!”

Mr. John added that the Healing Circles gave staff a chance to express themselves. “He was our bonding link and held us steadfast.”

Rabbi Wolff explained that his approach was to offer care for the whole person.

“A person’s health is connected to their feelings and their emotions. They need to feel validated for who they are,” he said. “It’s about more than physical care. It’s about relationships and friendships formed between staff and residents.”

Rabbi Wolff plans to move to Israel with his wife, so that the couple can be close to their three children.

In his goodbye speech at Maimonides, he praised the staff. “You are a beautiful team and you put residents first. For me that’s the beauty of working at Maimonides. Thank you for letting me be part of your team.”