by Maxine Fischbein
(AJNews) – During his long and remarkable life, the late Sam “Ousher” Switzer generously supported those in need; initiatives geared toward the most vulnerable, including seniors, were a priority for the larger-than-life and fondly-remembered Calgary entrepreneur and philanthropist who passed away in June, 2018 at the age of 92.
In keeping with his track record as a community builder – and an avid Beth Tzedec “regular” – the Sam Ousher Switzer Charitable Foundation has been helping seniors at Calgary’s Beth Tzedec Synagogue tune in to Shabbat and Holiday live streaming prayer services with the push of a button on customized, user-friendly Microsoft Surface tablets.
The project is the brainchild of Calgary lawyer Joshua Switzer, one of Ousher’s grandchildren. As the COVID-19 pandemic spread last spring, making in-person attendance at Shul services a risky choice for older adults and those with underlying health conditions, Joshua Switzer wanted to find a way to keep seniors connected with their congregational family.
The tablets purchased by Beth Tzedec, with the generous support of the Sam Ousher Switzer Charitable Foundation, are lent to congregants on a temporary basis. For now, the devices are pre-loaded with an app that takes them to live streaming Shabbat and Holiday prayer services only, though the foundation and Beth Tzedec are contemplating future value-adds, including access to synagogue classes and cultural programs.
Even when the COVID-19 pandemic becomes a thing of the past, congregants with mobility or other health issues can benefit from the tablets says Ousher Switzer’s daughter, Darlene Switzer Foster, who chairs her father’s eponymous foundation with the assistance of her daughter, Edmonton-based pediatrician Dr. Sarah Foster, and her nephew, Joshua Switzer.
“It is important as our elderly age that they can continue to participate meaningfully in our Synagogue and community while staying safe,” Joshua Switzer told Alberta Jewish News.
Beth Tzedec Executive Director Max Lipsman had previously envisioned the funding of big-screen smart TVs in dedicated spaces at local seniors facilities with Jewish residents. That way, Jewish seniors could maintain their sense of community by coming together to celebrate Shabbat and Holidays face-to-face while participating in the live streaming services.
That vision had to morph as COVID-19 outbreaks in seniors homes led to lockdowns, leaving residents isolated in their own living spaces.
Beth Tzedec pivoted quickly to the use of technology shortly after the declaration of the pandemic in March 2020. It got the Switzer family wondering how they could help make the technology accessible for seniors so they could remain safe while attending Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services virtually if they were unable, or unwilling, to risk in-person shul attendance.
Lipsman began to work with a tech firm to come up with a tablet that would be simple to use, eliminating potential frustration for first-time users. An initial three tablets were purchased and ready for lending prior to Rosh Hashanah 5781.
“I’m so proud of the congregation for embracing the technology that allows us to do this,” says Darlene Switzer Foster.
“Seniors and others who are shut in due to illness or convalescence can also benefit from the lending program,” Switzer Foster said.
It is her hope that, whenever possible, family members will join seniors living at home or in independent living and care facilities, so that they can enjoy the live streaming services together and break down the isolation so many have felt due to intermittent COVID-19 outbreaks and lockdowns.
Right now, the tablets can only be used to access live streaming Synagogue services on Shabbat and Holidays; users cannot access the internet or apps other than the one that is pre-loaded by Beth Tzedec.
“We wanted to keep it simple and avoid viruses,” Switzer-Foster said.
Amen to that, in more ways than one!
The lending of tablets is administered by Beth Tzedec, which recently ordered four more devices. There is potential for future expansion as demand grows.
“Anyone who is housebound and wants to borrow one of these tablets should contact us at Beth Tzedec,” says Max Lipsman, who provides the necessary siddurim and chumashim with each tablet. The entire service is provided to congregants free of charge.
What would Ousher Switzer think of the program?
“My Dad was Mr. Plug and Play,” said Darlene Switzer Foster. “He loved what a computer could do and he would have loved this.”
“He would be proud of it,” says Josh Switzer. “Seniors were always top of his mind and he really focussed his efforts on protection of the community.”
The Sam Ousher Switzer Foundation actively supports a diverse range of charitable good works with specific focus on advancement of religion and spirituality, poverty relief, and education.
Some initiatives recently funded by the foundation have included the purchase of COVID-19 related equipment and supplies for Jewish day schools in Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal. According to Dr. Sarah Foster, the foundation provided grants of $100 per student to the Edmonton Talmud Torah School, the Edmonton Talmud Torah Early Learning Centre, Calgary’s Halpern Akiva Academy, The Calgary Jewish Academy and Montreal’s JPPS-Bialik School toward the purchase of COVID-19-related supplies and equipment.
“At the Talmud Torah Day School, we funded touchless water stations and air purifiers,” Foster told Alberta Jewish News.
Other schools chose to invest in such safety items as Plexiglas barriers, touchless taps and doors, and hand sanitizer.
The Sam Ousher Switzer Charitable Foundation recently gifted Camp BB Riback with significant funds earmarked toward the building of a new dock on the shores of Pine Lake.
In Edmonton, the foundation presented the Jewish Seniors Drop-in Centre with a donation prior to the High Holidays.
Active in both Jewish and civic charitable initiatives, the Sam Ousher Switzer Charitable Foundation has also supported the Edmonton Food Bank and Kids Cottage, Foster said, adding that while the previous focus of her grandfather’s philanthropy was in Calgary, the foundation wants to also play an active role in supporting the Edmonton community.
Charitable organizations wishing to submit grant applications are encouraged to go to the foundation website at www.samousherswitzercharitablefoundation.com.
Individuals interested in finding out more about virtual synagogue services and the tablet lending program can contact the Beth Tzedec office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 403-255-8688.
Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Alberta Jewish News.