Rabbi Moshe and Alisa Samber moved to Silver Spring from central New Jersey seven years ago to be closer to their married daughter’s family in the District. They are two of an estimated 3,000 Jewish residents at Leisure World, a sprawling independent living community of approximately 8,000 people over the age of 55.
Rabbi Samber, who gives his and his wife’s ages as “in the upper eschelons of superannuated citizens,” is a retired pulpit rabbi. He leads services on Shabbat mornings when the monthly official minyan isn’t in session — or at least he did, until gatherings were prohibited as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19.
Two weeks ago, management suspended “virtually all the activities here,” including club gatherings and religious services, said Samber. “We’re fortunate to have an apartment with good exposure to the outside. If we were in another part of Leisure World not facing the sun, we’d certainly feel very cramped in.”
The risk to the elderly and immunocompromised has been a fixture of the narrative surrounding this virus for weeks, but the wellbeing of younger people was weighing on the minds of Leisure World residents as well.
“That is a major concern for the seniors here, how the youngsters are doing,” said Fred Shapiro, 88, who lives in Leisure World with his wife Madeleine, 87.
Unlike a senior facility or assisted living campus, Leisure World can’t impose a physical lockdown on its residents. The Sambers, Shapiro and others interviewed for this story said they are sticking indoors, save for walks around the neighborhood.
“Usually you go down to the lobby to get your mail and you see five or six people there. Now you go down — no one,” said Shapiro.
“I’m very sad,” said Alisa Samber. “When you hear about doctors having to choose about to whom to give ventilators to, making decisions of that sort… Whatever you read, nothing is fun and funny anymore, is it?” She said she takes comfort in phone calls with family in Israel and video chats and visits — from a safe distance — with her two teenage grandsons.
In response to the virus, the MedStar Health Center is offering its e-Visit service for free to residents who are not feeling well and want to speak to a health care professional via video from their smartphone, tablet or PC.
Rabbi Samber said he recently needed to get something non-COVID related checked out by his doctor and underwent “a reality kind of thing on the telephone.”
“I was satisfied with the result, but there’s no way for the doctor to put his hand on the patient’s body,” he observed.
Shapiro expressed dissatisfaction with Leisure World management’s approach in its pandemic response.
“As a management consultant, I look at things a little differently than the average person. Management should be taking steps to see if people need the testing and arrange for it to get done,” he said. “Nothing special has been done to address it other than to close things up. To me, that is a major concern.”
According to Leisure World Communications Director Maureen Freeman, however, management is communicating with residents across email, print and the community’s two closed circuit television channels about COVID-19 symptoms and precautions against catching the virus.
“It’s been more than just changes of hours and things closing,” she said.
On closed circuit TV, for instance, Maryland Department of Aging public service announcements are airing every half hour. They cover hygiene, social distancing, home sanitation, what symptoms to look out for and tips for staying in good physical and mental health, said Freeman.
The March 20 issue of the community’s internal news publication, Leisure World News, shared the Montgomery County Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security (OEMHS) recommendation that people build a preparedness kit in case they become sick and need to stay at home. The kit should include a thermometer, pain relievers, fever reducers, decongestants and cough drops; alcohol-based hand sanitizer; facial tissues and paper products; an extended supply of prescription medications; adult sanitary items or pet supplies, if needed; and non-perishable food items.
None of the residents or staff interviewed were aware of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Leisure World community. In a phone conversation Tuesday, the manager at Leisure World’s MedStar Health Center said no MedStar employees could share such information with the press: because of HIPAA restrictions, only public health officials can release information on cases of COVID-19 in the community, she said.
“I feel like we’re sort of in the calm before the storm. We’re all sort of at the beginning stages of this,” said Susan Montgomery, a licensed social worker and the director of Leisure World’s social services. Montgomery’s job is to problem-solve, assisting residents in identifying their needs and connecting them with resources. “I think we’re going to see more and more referrals over the next several weeks. People are isolated and frightened and not going out.”
“We’ll get through this,” she added. “But it is a little bit scary right now.”
Meanwhile, Jewish residents are preparing to observe Passover, even if the means are unconventional.
Leisure World’s management is encouraging residents to limit outside visitors to essential caretakers or grocery deliverers. The Samber children living in the area drop their parents’ groceries outside their door in keeping with social distancing recommendations. Shapiro said his family is planning to do their seder via Zoom.
“One of the major problems is that we can’t get out to do our things ourselves,” said Shapiro. “You gotta go with it, but it don’t feel right because you’ve got to put other people exposed.”
Shapiro said he takes strength from the knowledge that “we have endured many things as Jews.”
“When all this is over,” said Rabbi Samber, “we’re going to have to write a new kind of Haggadah, I think.”
I live in the Blairs, an apartment complex in Silver Spring MD. True, the Yoga and meditation classes are cancelled. But thanks to the will of the teachers And Management, we residents can access the classes online.