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‘Keeper of the Faith’ helps homebound B'nai Amoona congregants connect with the world

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Sheryl Kalman Photo: Bill Motchan

Sheryl Kalman is a fixer.

For her, every challenge is an opportunity to improve people’s lives, especially people who find themselves confined at home. It could be a person with mobility challenges who needs to have a wheelchair ramp installed. Or a simple solution to a daunting problem, such as teaching a tech-challenged shut-in how to open a Zoom meeting on a computer.

For the latter, Kalman will patiently explain how to unmute, gently saying, “Do you see the picture of a loudspeaker in one of your corners? OK, click on it, that’s how we hear you.”

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Volunteers came together at a gift packing event for Shomrei Amoonim with a group of B’nai Amoona members.

Kalman puts her problem solving skills to good use in her role as chair of Shomrei Amoonim (Keepers of the Faith) for Congregation B’nai Amoona. Shomrei Amoonim is a program that checks in on about 60 households. They are congregation members who are homebound or just need some TLC. It was developed eight years ago by Rabbi Micah Buch-Yael, now director of education and training at Keshet. At the time, Buch-Yael was an intern at B’nai Amoona.

Kalman said: “The key is to try to reach out to people on the margins. Just because you can’t come to shul anymore doesn’t mean you don’t matter. Typically, it’s shut-ins, and sometimes, believe it or not, there are people who said, ‘Well, I don’t come to shul anymore because I have to help my spouse go to the bathroom, and I don’t know where to go.’ ”

That’s when Kalman explains that B’nai Amoona has a gender-neutral restroom, which she helped create. It was Kalman’s father who motivated her to modify the former bride’s room.

“It did have a single stall, so we put in a raised toilet and grab bars,” Kalman said. “My father was in a wheelchair, and it was July and my niece’s bat mitzvah was Labor Day, so that was the deadline and I said, ‘I’ll pay for it.’ ”

That spirit of identifying a need, especially for people with disabilities, comes naturally to Kalman. So does volunteering.

“I feel like I’m making a difference one person at a time,” she said. “In addition to Shomrei Amoonim, I also volunteer for Jewish Family Services, and we’re doing Shabbat services once a week at Mason Pointe, an assisted living facility in Town and Country. I set aside time on Fridays to check on people. Lately, I’ve been baking small challahs and dropping them off at people’s houses.”

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Some of the treats the volunteers drop off with the congregation members they visit. Photo: Bill Motchan

Kalman makes sure that when she calls on a congregation member, she learns what they need. Whenever possible, she finds a way to help out.

Joan Hoffman was trying to get a flu shot recently but wanted to do it without getting out of her car, so Kalman found a curbside option.

“Sheryl has come up with answers many times over the years that have helped, not just for me,” Hoffman said. “She’s been a wonderful friend and thinks outside of the box. She figures out ways to make things work. She reached out to a lot of people in the community in a lot of different ways – a professional do-gooder. Most of what she does is behind the scenes, because it’s not anything that’s well known. She looks after older folks in the community. ‘Unsung Hero’ is exactly the right term for her.”

In addition to being a member of B’nai Amoona, Hoffman was a family friend of Kalman’s parents, so the two have a longtime connection.

Kalman checks in on other people regularly who she thinks may have unmet needs.

“There are so many people who have fallen through the cracks in the social service system, so I help people apply for benefits and make sure they have food stamps,” she said.

As a longtime actuary and the parent of a son with disabilities, Kalman has personal knowledge of cutting through bureaucracies to get services. She is a self-described problem solver, which came in handy early this year. COVID-19 has made the personal Shomrei Amoonim visits challenging, so Kalman modified the program to be contactless. It works smoothly for Mihaela Grad, a B’nai Amoona volunteer.

“We never cease to be amazed by Sheryl because she just lives for others,” Grad said. “My husband and I were reflecting on some of the COVID sentiments we all go through, and being more isolated and reflecting on what really matters and what’s important. Sheryl just exemplifies the individual who is always there for others.

“She is there for people just on a personal level. If you have an ill family member, she will always ask how they are doing. She is the one who contacts you by email and checks in on you. She’s there for the shivas. She’s there for the joyous occasions. You can always count on Sheryl to be there for others, which really sets her apart as an extremely empathetic person. And the program itself is wonderful. She has it very well planned, very well thought through, it’s really turnkey for the volunteers.”

Creighton Cohn said that the Shomrei Amoonim program is a breeze for volunteers like him and that it’s been a good experience for his children.

“Sheryl does a fabulous job, and it’s really been fantastic for my kids, they love doing it,” Cohn said. “It’s easy and simple and takes just a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon. My kids have made relationships with these people. One of them is a lady named Arlene Kalishman, who just died. My kids would fight over who got to see Arlene. My daughters made her a little box of activities that they gave to her because they thought she was the greatest. They just adored her.”

Shomrei Amoonim works well because of caring volunteers, but the heart and soul of the program is Sheryl Kalman, Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose said.

“Sheryl is an unbelievable person,” Rose said. “She was raised in a family of people who volunteer. Both her mother and father trained her to volunteer, and they were both very, very involved in all kinds of causes. Sheryl has an ability to listen and to connect and to be empathetic.”

Sheryl Kalman

Age: 57

Family: Son, Kenny

Home: Chesterfield

Fun Fact: Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose calls Kalman “our Zoom angel – she’s teaching older people how to use Zoom.”