Exploring the Meaning of Life
For a remarkable 17 years, Paul Wolff has asked Jewish Home residents, “What is the meaning of life?” Every Friday morning, Paul engages some 30 residents in a thoughtful discussion of this question from a Jewish perspective.
“My first group started out with only two women, both agnostic, but interested in learning something about their Judaism,” says Paul. Before long, the group had grown and his time with the residents became the touchstone of his week. “At some point, there was a switch from giving help to the residents to receiving help from them,” Paul says. “No matter what life problem I may have, there will be a resident who can offer some advice.”
A recurring class theme is the responsibility to bring the kindness of G-d to others and to ourselves. “We all need to give and receive,” Paul says. “Sometimes, if you're a giver by nature, it may be hard for you to receive from others. Accepting help from each other, even in the form of the kindness of strangers – a smile, a hello – is essential to maintaining a positive spirit. Learn that it's okay to ask for help, and, if you don't know how to ask, learn!”
Paul says that this advice applies to everyone, regardless of age. He adds that being kind to ourselves, and even loving ourselves, is important.
“Friday mornings are very special because of Paul Wolff and The Meaning of Life group,” says Yvette Katz, activities director at the Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer Medical Center. “The residents come away from the group feeling good about themselves and knowing they are still very important and productive.” Yvette has been there for every class since the beginning, setting up the room, helping residents in and out, and making sure they're comfortable. “Much of the group's success is owed to Yvette,” says Paul.
Paul is well-prepared for his discussion group. He studied with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Rabbi Jonathan Omer-man, and Rabbi Mordechai Finley. For two years Paul served as spiritual leader at Beit T'Shuvah, a Jewish congregation and addiction treatment center.
In addition, Paul is a certified maggid, or Jewish storyteller. With his natural ability to draw people into discussions and sometimes elicit surprising responses, the room is enveloped with a feeling of compassion, respect, and connection. Home resident May Blank says, “Paul includes everybody in the discussion. He helps me to apply Judaism to my everyday life. I love the class!”
Paul is also a professor of screenwriting at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, and has taught at the American Jewish University, where he once facilitated a class featuring two 100-year-old Jewish Home residents. Called Treasures from the Jewish Home, the residents answered questions from the class, such as “How do you keep your faith?” “What makes you want to get up in the morning?” and “How do you keep a positive attitude?”
He wears other hats as well. Paul is an actor, screenplay writer, and producer of film and television, skills that are all on display in his current film, Father vs. Son, which recently won the Best Picture award from the Houston film critics at the Houston International Film Festival.
“The Home is a wonderful place,” he says, “giving generous care in an extraordinary complex. Yet the real treasure is the residents. Growing old successfully, with dignity, faith, good cheer, and optimism, is a very rare phenomenon.”
After 17 years, how does Paul keep the discussion fresh for himself? His answer is simple: “When you love something, it's always fresh and never gets old.”