Ashland resident Judy Visser was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 11 years ago. A wife/mother/grandmother, Judy was a teacher and education director for Temple Emek Shalom who lived the active Southern Oregon lifestyle. This could have been a devastating diagnosis. This should have been a devastating diagnosis. Our telephone interview, though, began with music: Judy played a recording of her daughter Sarah Klein singing the 90th Psalm, which had been put to music by Rabbi Yitzhak Husbands-Hankin of Temple Beth Israel in Eugene. The song is called “Treasure Each Day.” Judy was both setting the tone and making a point.
“‘Teach us to treasure each day that we may open our hearts to your wisdom.’ It is the melody and the kavanah (intention) that we turn to during the highs and the lows,” Judy told me. “It is woven into the fabric of my life.”
In addition to consciously treasuring each day, every day, another key element of Judy’s belief system is her commitment to spending time outdoors. While Judy’s and Johan’s days bend to the inevitable and unpredictable highs and lows of Parkinson’s, and both acknowledge that Judy’s illness has slowed them down, their love of the outdoors is strong as ever.
“In partnership with treasuring each day is the practice of going outdoors,” Judy says, “as taught by Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlov: ‘May it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grasses, among all growing things and there may I be alone and enter into prayer to talk with the One that I belong to.’ ” Judy, Johan and their dog walk together every morning. They pick berries with their grandson. They hike in the woods. They both affirm that their life is wonderful, PD notwithstanding.
Judy readily acknowledges that community support plays a huge role in their quality of life. Their friends are understanding and helpful. They also benefit a lot from Parkinson’s Resources of Oregon, a non-profit that provides programs and services for patients and caregivers, with support groups, wellness and educational programs, a helpline and a newsletter. Judy has attended the organization’s statewide conferences for years. 800-426-6806, parkinsonsresources.org
But, as is their way, Judy and her family probably give back as much as they get. Judy and Johan walked last month in the organization’s Sole Support Walk. Also, their daughter Sarah is planning a concert to benefit Parkinson’s research and education, to take place April 5, 2014, in the Ashland area, and they are helping.
“My daughter reminded me that doing mitzvoth was not optional in our house,” Judy says. “It was an intentional way of life, so I wasn’t surprised when she shared with me her dream of putting on a benefit concert. I have experienced unwavering support from my family throughout this difficult Parkinson’s journey.”
Judaism plays a fundamental role in Judy’s life now, as it has her whole life. She had the opportunity to chant Torah on the bima this Yom Kippur. Her congregation, Temple Emek Shalom, values community, and it holds a potluck Shabbat dinner several times a month at a member’s home. This, she says, “enables those who might be too tired or overwhelmed to enjoy Shabbat dinner without feeling guilty about not cooking a huge meal.”
There is a chair with arms that now resides in the temple’s sanctuary so that Judy can comfortably sit and rise through the prayer service. It is known as “Judy’s chair” and may very well be the best symbol of the community embrace that enfolds Judy with its love.
Judy Visser extends this invitation to other congregations whose members read this article. “What will be your congregation’s ‘Judy’s chair?’”
JUDY VISSER’S FIVE JEWISH PRACTICES FOR PEOPLE LIVING WITH PARKINSON’S
Judy’s faith, resolve, love of nature and sense of humor all contributed to these tips, here in her words.
Chanting Torah gives one the opportunity to connect with Torah’s teachings on a deeper level. This involves being able to read Hebrew, understand the trope system and constantly learn new vocabulary. It also provides the opportunity to be with community and to contribute in a very meaningful way without expending a huge amount of time or energy. Chanting Torah is good for any person who wants to keep their mind sharp.
Judaism encourages us to thank God for our working bodies. Those of us with movement disorders join other daveners around us who are shuckling. We become part of a large group of shaking people; we are no longer “the different one.” We participate in the grand choreography of the Amidah with all of its bending, bowing and stretching.
Judaism provides a myriad of opportunities for being thankful. Throughout the day I give thanks for life, for breath, for rainbows, for love. Count the good minutes, share appreciations with someone you trust. For example, I am grateful for being able to walk, for food, for music, for all that you do for me.
Bubble Faces (Savti)
Make faces with your grandchildren: happy face, sad face, angry face, surprised face, silly face. These exaggerated facial expressions are often taught in PD exercise classes. It’s an ideal way to share your journey and empower even the youngest members of the family.
Rest is essential. Celebrate Shabbat. Bring rest into the week in a conscious way. Plan daily rest periods. Take the day off from worrying. Lighten up. Spend time with friends and loved ones.