Nine-year-old Dina Harrison is excited. Once a year, she and her classmates at Beth Rivkah Academy in Montreal, Canada, board yellow school buses and ride to a nursing facility or seniors’ residence, where they play mitzvah-themed games, sing Jewish songs and socialize over light refreshments with people old enough to be their great-grandparents.
The excursion is timed to coincide with the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the anniversary of the passing in 1950 of the previous Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, of righteous memory—and the day, one year later, when his son-in-law, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—accepted the mantle of Chabad leadership. Known as Yud Shevat (the 10th day of the month of Shevat), it has become a time to reflect—and then act upon—the Rebbe’s call to make the world a kinder, more G‑dly place.
“It is something we do every year for the entire elementary school,” says Pessy Minkowitz.
She and her husband, Rabbi Yosef Minkowitz, came to Montreal more than 40 years ago as emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Beth Rivkah, where he is principal and she is extracurricular-activities coordinator. “It is quite a logistical effort for us, but this is what Yud Shevat is all about—doing real things for real people and making a real difference in people’s lives.”
All told, 220 children from grades one through six in the all-girls school participate in the annual program, fanning out to a dozen facilities around the Island of Montreal. Since Yud Shevat occurs on Shabbat this year, the excursion will take place on Tuesday, Jan. 14.
More than just a social visit, Minkowitz explains that the girls use the opportunity to encourage the seniors with whom they are paired to do mitzvahs together—ranging from placing pennies into a tzedakah box to reciting the Shema prayer.
A Reciprocal Program
The preparations began weeks in advance with the girls decorating cards to give to their new acquaintances, practicing the classic Jewish songs they will perform, and getting prepped about what to expect in the facilities they will visit.
Dina says she remembers being apprehensive back in first grade—not knowing what to expect—but once she met the seniors, she immediately started to have a good time.
And there is always something to look forward to. For example, Marge Cracower, who leads the Shalom Club at the Cummings Jewish Center for Seniors, says once, when the girls’ visit coincided with one of the seniors’ 100th birthday, the program doubled as a birthday party.
Rabbi Yosef Minkowitz, left, came to Montreal along with his wife Pessy more than 40 years ago as emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Beth Rivkah, where he is principal and she is extracurricular-activities coordinator.
“Many of the children had never even met someone that old, and they were just fascinated,” Cracower recalls. “The program is really reciprocal. The seniors love to see the young girls and work on the craft with them. It’s also very special for the children meet seniors and see the older generation. Everybody gains.”
Minkowitz concurs, pointing to the flurry of “thank you” cards that come pouring into her office from seniors who had been touched by the girls, as well as teachers who enthuse about shy girls who just opened up and rose to the occasion in ways their teachers did not think possible. She says the day gives every girl a chance to shine.
Ahead of their visit, the girls decorate cards to give to their new acquaintances and practice Jewish songs they will perform for the seniors.
Since Yud Shevat is just days before Tu B’Shevat, the 15th day of Shevat, which is celebrated as the Jewish new year for trees, Minkowitz says the teachers make an effort to bring a message of growth and optimism, telling the people they visit that at every stage in life, a person can grow and blossom.
“This is what we do on Yud Shevat,” declares Dina. “The Rebbe wanted us to do mitzvahs with people—so we all do it together.”