Building Community: Meet Eileen Kollins, Judson Volunteer

Established in 1974, National Volunteer Week (April 23 to 29) is an opportunity to recognize and thank volunteers who lend their time, talent, voice and support to causes they care about in their community. Their stories can serve to inspire others to find ways to take action that creates change. Judson salutes the individuals who volunteer at our communities, as well as residents who continue to volunteer out in the community for various organizations and causes.

It may have been fate that brought Eileen Kollins to Judson. But it’s the joy of building a community that makes her stay.

An indefatigable volunteer, the retired school librarian and rabbinic fellow has spent countless hours in service to Judson Park’s Jewish residents. Among her many contributions are coordinating and leading High Holy Day services, presiding over a monthly Sabbath celebration, and leading a discussion group that meets twice a month. While Eileen is quick to note she is not a rabbi, her special training as a rabbinic fellow allows her to function like one in many settings.

Eileen’s connection to Judson began when she attended a Seder luncheon as a guest of her cousin, Esther Gimp. At the time, Esther was a Judson Park resident. “It was Passover, but somehow the clergy who was supposed to be there called in ill,” Eileen says. “Someone knew about my rabbinic training and pointed at me. ‘She can do it!’ they said. So I just got up and I did it. And after that, Judson asked me to do it again!”

That was the start of a meaningful relationship. “I enjoy the fact that we have developed a Jewish community – an extra community – within the greater Judson community,” she says. “It is a nice thing to feel I have fulfilled a need and am providing something that is appreciated.”

Eileen’s next initiative was to offer a monthly Friday-afternoon Sabbath service. “We started out with about five people, but it grew and grew,” she says. “Today most of the Jewish residents come. I even bring challah – from different bakeries each month, since everyone has their own favorite – and it’s become sort of a big deal!”

After services, the group says Kiddush, a set of traditional Jewish blessings, and then often gathers together in the dining room to share Friday night dinner. “It’s lovely,” says Eileen. “Even if not for the religious piece, the social piece is important. If that’s why people come, it’s perfectly fine with me!”

Perhaps this volunteer’s proudest accomplishment has been leading a group of five Judson residents – four women and one man, ages 81 to 90 – through the process of achieving their adult B’nai Mitzvah.

Traditionally, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a Jewish coming-of-age ritual for boys at age 13 and girls at age 12. It signifies becoming a full-fledged member of the Jewish community with the responsibilities that come with it. A B’nai Mitzvah is when more than one Bar or Bat Mitzvah takes place concurrently.

For various reasons, Eileen explains, the five members of the group had missed the ceremony in their youths. One had belonged to a congregation that didn’t observe the ceremony; another had grown up in Russia, where Judaism could not be practiced at all. Nonetheless, the five were determined to complete their preparations and expand their Jewish practice.

For nearly a year, they met once a week with Eileen to study. Carol, Hannah and Cece Ross, three of Eileen’s friends, drove in from Strongsville to assist. “I don’t do any of this alone,” she says modestly. “I am just lucky to have such very good friends!”

At the end of the year, nearly 120 guests attended the B’nai Mitzvah celebration, held in June 2016. “Many people had 18 or 25 guests,” Eileen says. “There were children and grandchildren, family and friends, so it was very meaningful. We really had quite the year!”  Eileen’s own local children and their families attended.   Through the years, her daughters and granddaughters have also attended and assisted at some of the Jewish events.

After the B’nai Mitzvah, the study group members were reluctant to break their bond. By request, Eileen launched a small discussion group, meeting twice a month, to maintain the connection. There is no set curriculum, because that’s the way members wanted it. “But we never run out of things to talk about, that’s for sure!” she laughs.

What does she get out of all of this? For one, Eileen says it’s the knowledge that her spiritual caregiving impacts peoples’ lives. “When I walk out of Judson, I know I have made a difference in their day.”

For another, it is the opportunity to live her faith, pass on a religious legacy, and serve as a role model to her children and grandchildren. “My son in Seattle posted on Facebook what his mother was doing. He’s in his 40s, but he wrote, ‘Look what my mom did! I’m so proud of her!’ Isn’t that something?” she says.

Eileen is also grateful for her relationship with Judson. “The staff could not be more accommodating, respectful and interested in making sure this connection continues,” she says. “It really shows the inclusiveness of the community. I can’t say enough wonderful things about them and my relationship with them.”

But the true highlight of her work is the connection to her Judson congregants, she says. “My involvement started so randomly, but it has grown into a deep bond. These are not isolated people – they have family and friends – but our relationship is of a different sort. These people care about me and they know I care about them. That is valuable for all of us.”

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