An Interview with avrom baker

"It was Manchester Lubavitch Yeshiva which inspired Nicky Allince Day Centre care manager Avrom Baker to dedicate his life to communal service."

Avrom, who specialises in dementia care, explained his approach to a dif- ficult profession, saying, “I was taught at the yeshiva that the world stands on three things, Torah, avodah (service) and gemilut chassadim, kind deeds. Gemilut chassadim, that’s the Nicky.

“The Lubavitch Yeshiva taught me the importance of every Jew. The Torah was given to everybody, not just to the elite, the men with the black hats and frock coats. Every person was at Mount Sinai. The ordinary Jewish person is entitled to live and study and get benefit of Torah and mitzvot.”

But Avrom was quick to point out that the Nicky Alliance Day Centre focused on helping those with dementia and religious observance or affiliation was irrelevant. “The Lubavitcher Rebbe always spoke about Jewish unity. The strength of Judaism is being togethe`r as a team. Nicky Alliance Day Centre has members and volunteers from the Reform or even assimilated backgrounds to the chare- di. Some members may not have lived Jewish lives at all.

“We have hundreds of volunteers from across the spectrum. We can have a vol- unteer wearing a sheitel working with a volunteer who is on a Reform synagogue council. Politics are irrelevant to the work done at the Nicky. We don’t allow differ- ences to become apparent. Each respects the other.”

In this religiously respectful environ- ment, Avrom says, many Nicky members are brought closer to their Jewish roots by the Jewish content which runs through all activities.

Even before his encounter with Lubavitch, Avrom saw an example of chesed in his own home in the non-Jew- ish neighbourhood of Heywood, where his parents ran an Army and Navy store.

“My father was always a doer. A relative, who wasn’t very well, used to come for meals. She used to throw food round the room. My sisters and I were very sternly told off when we passed any comments. We were brought up with the concepts of chesed and guests.”

Avrom’s initial Jewish education came from King David Schools, where he later became head boy, and from Manchester Reform Synagogue, where his parents were members.
His introduction to Lubavitch came in his teens when he saw a Jewish Telegraph advert for a Purim Megillah reading. At Lubavitch, Avrom became very friendly with the late Yechiel Vogel. “He was won- derful with me. Through him I discovered my Jewish roots. I still feel very excited and privileged at being Jewish and wear- ing tefillin, keeping Shabbat and kashrut, as well as having the concept of prayer, that personal connection with God. I found that to be very enlightening.”

Avrom’s parents, Carole Baker and the late David Baker, were “more than accom- modating”, he said, taking all their pots to the mikva and buying strictly kosher to fit in with his new lifestyle. “They had always bought kosher meat and kept milk and meat separate and we always had Friday nights and seder nights together.”

In some ways, his attachment to Lubavitch brought his Heywood family closer together. For instance, he attend- ed Manchester’s Lubavitch Yeshiva for five years. Every Thursday night his late grandfather Harry Carp would pick him up from yeshiva and escort him back to Heywood, where he and his wife Bessie had “a gorgeous flat on top of the shop.”

To this day he appreciates how sup- portive his family has been, both of his studies and the career Lubavitch inspired him to pursue. “The Lubavitch Yeshiva showed me how to live a Jewish life within Manchester and still have a con- nection with my family. The idea of going out to the community and helping was exactly what Lubavitch does.”
Before studying at the Manchester Yeshiva, Avrom spent a year in the Jerusalem Academy, run by Rabbi Baruch Horovitz, formerly of Manchester.

Through Manchester Lubavitch Yeshiva Avrom was introduced to his wife Yael, nee Attal, from Nice, who, although she came from a traditional Sephardi background, had also been influenced by Lubavitch and taught in their schools in Nice. Once married, Avrom taught in Oholei Yosef Yitzchok Lubavitch boys’ school, Bury and Whitefield Jewish Primary School and Brunner’s cheder.

“I have always worked with Jewish organisations,” Avrom explained. “The idea of community service comes from Lubavitch. I get a wonderful kick from helping other people. I still do. That feel- good factor is addictive. Judaism has a lot to offer the world.”

After teaching for nearly four years, Avrom’s grandmother Bessie Carp died and he was needed to run the family shop. So he had to leave full-time com- munity service to commute daily from his Prestwich home to Heywood.

Then 15 years ago the small shop closed down because of competition from local supermarkets. Looking for other employment, Avrom went to Dr. Mike Wilks of the Jewish Employment Agency, who suggested that he work in care. A surprised Avrom replied. “Care? What on earth is that?” He soon learned what it was, and began his career in Parklands Care Home on Broom Lane, Salford. He progressed from there, making a profes- sion out of chesed, care in the community.

Avrom worked at Parklands for six years, upgrading his qualifications and gaining a manager’s award. Nine years ago he transferred to the Nicky Alliance Centre. At Nicky he earned a safety and leadership award, and for the past five years has been the care manager.

His job is to ensure the needs of the more than 200 members of the day centre are met. It takes a lot of work to keep such a facility running smoothly.

The Nicky Alliance grew out of the Jewish Blind Society. As improve- ments in modern medicine made blind- ness less common, it opened its doors 25 years ago as a day centre to the frail and elderly who come daily for meals, enter- tainment, bathing and support.

In line with national statistics, the day centre has recently found that a growing proportion of its members are suffering from dementia. As a result, Avrom took a University of Sterling course in demen- tia care, which qualified him to not only help centre members with the condition, but also to train Nicky Alliance staff, car- ers and volunteers in best practice. And Avrom’s training helped the Nicky Alliance gain Bury Council funding to deliver the course to other interested professionals in the community.

The key to dealing with the current massive challenge of dementia, says Avrom, is to “enter the world” of the individual sufferer. “The past is to a large extent their world.” He told me about a lady with dementia who he was recently assessing, whose world he found it extremely difficult to enter. “She didn’t know who she was, nor her grandson’s name. It was before the jubilee weekend, but she didn’t know who the Queen nor the Prime Minister were. I was not able to engage with her. Then I started to sing the 1920s song, Sixty Seconds Got Together She started singing. Then we sang together. We’d made contact. Her daughter was in tears.”

Avrom added that he had gained per- mission from the dayanim to sing with women in therapeutic situations.

He runs music workshops for dementia and the Library Theatre visits the cen- tre with its Storybox Theatre, aimed at dementia sufferers. Day centre members act, sing and dance and plan to stage The Pirates of Penzance. “When the theatre workshop came a few weeks ago,” Avrom said, “one of our members, who used to be a butcher, re-enacted an old-fashioned butcher shop, buying meat in shillings.”

He added that according to local psy- chiatrists, “the Nicky is the best medicine for dementia because we envelope mem- bers in a family-like atmosphere.”
Avrom works hard to maintain and reinforce the family atmosphere at the Nicky. “I had a referral from man who had just lost his wife and had reconnected to his Jewish roots through Lubavitch. I am going to meet him and encourage him to come into a new family network of friends and support at the Nicky.”

Still, he stresses that he does not talk to members about Lubavitch. But they can tell from his appearance that he is an Orthodox Jew. “People who last saw a rabbi at a bar mitzvah or a funeral often come to the Nicky and reconnect to their Jewish roots. Coming back to that comfort zone in their senior years rekindles that little bit of Judaism.v “Before Succot when I was going round with a lulav and etrog, there was a woman in a wheelchair, who had no Jewish connection. Tears were streaming from her eyes. She connected to Judaism in a way she never had in her life. It was amazing as her Jewish soul came out.”
As a professional, Avrom can not become emotionally involved in the lives of Nicky members; nevertheless, he constantly prays to God that he never becomes insensitive to their needs.

Michelle Wiseman, chief executive at the Nicky Alliance Day Centre said: “Avrom is of immeasurable benefit to the organisation and to the Jewish com- munity of Manchester. His dedication to the organisation, knowledge and chesed holds no bounds and he is often the first point of contact for people who need help and advice. He has also helped the organisation move forward greatly with the care we are able to offer to those with dementia.”