Homeland Hanukkah: A Celebration of Lights and Latkes


Hanukkah at Homeland

Hanukkah has meaning for everyone because it recalls a time when a small, devout family of defenders repelled a force of invaders, Homeland Center Chaplain Dann Caldwell told residents attending a ceremony commemorating the Festival of Lights.

“This is all part of the shared history we have as human beings,” Caldwell said. “It should remind all of us how God values freedom, freedom to worship, and freedom to be a community of faith. That is something that all goodhearted people can celebrate, and clearly, something that Jewish and Christian friends can celebrate.”

Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees after their victory over the Syrian-Greeks in the second century B.C. Upon recapturing the Temple, only one day’s supply of undefiled lamp oil remained, but the oil lasted a miraculous eight days.

During Hanukkah, each of the eight days is marked by lighting a candle on the menorah.

The ceremony brought together Homeland residents and staff in the Homeland chapel to hear the history of Hanukkah, light a menorah, say blessings, sing traditional songs, and for a special surprise, enjoy latkes in the Homeland Diner.

“Homeland respects the array of religious traditions under its roof,” said resident Lee Spitalny.

“Chaplain Caldwell is so involved and thoughtful about including Jewish tradition here,” she said before the ceremony. “He and his wife came to our synagogue’s Hanukkah dinner. He will come to everything we do.”

Lee brought a greeting card, given to her by a Catholic friend, that spelled out “Happy Hanukkah” in pop-up letters. She recalled Hanukkah celebrations with her family over the years.

“A lot of people think Hanukkah is a Jewish Christmas,” she said. “It’s not. It’s a gift-giving holiday to little kids, but it really is not connected to Christmas. I hope others who aren’t Jewish realize that it’s not a big important holiday, but it’s a fun one.”

Caldwell and Homeland Manager of Information Technology and Strategy Jennifer Ross led the service, with help from Homeland’s Activities Department. Ross explained that Hanukkah is a smaller “festival holiday,” when Jews are permitted to work, unlike other Jewish holidays.

“You’ll see me at work throughout the holiday of Hanukkah because I have no restrictions,” she told the residents.

Ross led participants in the traditional blessing, or shehecheyanu, before lighting the menorah candles. She also added the one spoken on the first night only that says, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has given us life and sustained us and enabled us to reach this season.”

“I think it’s extra special to do the first blessing because this is such a nice, joyous blessing, and it’s all about health and wonders,” she said. “There’s never harm in adding an extra shehecheyanu, so we’ll say that one particularly joyously.”

After lighting the candles, Ross led the residents in singing the familiar “The Dreidel Song” and “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah.” She closed with readings from “The Jewish Book of Days” about the festival’s meaning.

“We celebrate midwinter because of the knowledge that the sun will return to bring light and warmth,” she read.

Finally, residents got to enjoy a treat – potato pancakes known as latkes, prepared by the Front Street Diner in Susquehanna Township and served in the 1950s-style Homeland Diner.

While enjoying her latkes, resident Lois Galowitz said the ceremony was “very nice.” She still gathers for Hanukkah, sometimes over Zoom, with her extended family, which includes six nieces and nephews and 14 great-nieces and -nephews.

“We enjoy being together and celebrating,” she said. “It’s something we do every year. It’s a very special time to be together.”

While enjoying latkes, resident Chuck Glazier remembered the Jewish deli he owned in Allentown. There, he sold hot pastrami and hot corned beef.

“We’d celebrate Hanukkah, and I’d have menorahs in the deli,” he said, adding that he enjoyed Homeland’s Hanukkah commemoration. “Any service is nice, as long as you remember the holiday.’’

Homeland Holiday Party Returns: A Joyous Celebration


Homeland Center's holiday party returns

On a Friday afternoon in December, the Homeland Center annual holiday party returned for the first time since 2019.

The scents of homemade food wafted through the halls. Music filled the air. Santa posed for pictures. And best of all, Homeland residents hosted family and friends as they shared their holiday joy.

Homeland’s holiday party is a longstanding tradition when guests of all ages fill the rooms, and the halls are decked in cheerful greenery. When Covid restrictions canceled the annual event and limited visitors, staff worked hard to make the holidays happy and joyous for the residents.

Now that pandemic restrictions have eased, there was no doubt that the holiday party would return, with a few basic precautions such as temperature checks and small gatherings celebrating throughout Homeland — but still featuring all the fun and food of pre-pandemic years.

“A return to normalcy and joy,” rejoiced Homeland Chaplain Dann Caldwell. “Let’s pair those together. Normalcy and joy. That’s what the world needs.”

“I’m so glad they could get back to something like this,” agreed Sandra Daily, visiting her brother and resident Rusty Keiser. Sandra serves on the Homeland Board of Managers, which decorated the halls, windows, and doorways of Homeland with pretty greenery.

Live music filled the gathering spaces. In the skilled-care dining room, a bluegrass duo sang “Christmastime is Coming.” In the main dining room, a pianist played Christmas carols and standards such as “We Need a Little Christmas” and “White Christmas.”

The food – as always – was the star. Once again, Homeland’s dietary staff went into elf mode, gearing up to make treats for everyone to enjoy. Tables were full of homemade sweet and sour meatballs, spicy chicken wings, and the perennial favorite, fresh macaroni and cheese with a crumb topping.

“I think the party’s great,” said resident Carl Barna, as he enjoyed the holiday meal with his sister, Sue Espenshade. “I like having all the people and the nice gathering, and all the good food, especially the dessert. I might have to have seconds.”

While they ate, Sue’s 4-year-old granddaughter, Mia, happily danced to the music.

“She likes to visit her Uncle Carl and be at his party,” Sue said.

Mary Ellen Smith is a newer resident and a first timer to the party who said she was having a nice time.

“I like all the things they do here, too,” she said. “I love the music programs. They get you singing along.”

In Homeland’s classic 1950’s-style diner, the party was in full swing, as residents and their guests enjoyed their food. Resident Mary Robinson, proudly shared that she recently turned 92, looked elegant in a sparkling, black-and-white sweater and skirt

“I am blessed, blessed, blessed,” Mary said. “This party is lovely. Everything is lovely. I just like how Homeland carries everything out. It’s so nice.”

Homeland’s holiday party allows residents to welcome family and friends to holiday gatherings, just as they’ve always done. Mary’s daughters, Delphine Walker, Colleen Nash, and her dear friend Elizabeth Jones came for the gathering.

“I think it’s very nice,” said Delphine. “The food is really good. It’s a very nice way to get a chance to meet other residents and host a party.”

At the next table, the Simonic family posed for pictures with Santa Claus, who came from the North Pole to greet the partygoers throughout the building. Resident Ed Simonic, who came to Homeland for rehab, was hosting his kids, Dave and Rick Simonic, Maryanne Brawley, and her husband, Terry.

The Simonic family has always celebrated the holidays with big family gatherings, cabbage rolls, and pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day.

“It’s fun to see everybody here, out and about, and see the residents enjoying the party,” said Dave. “The staff at Homeland are all wonderful people. They’re very caring, sensitive and personal.”

Romance fills the air as Homeland crowns Valentine’s Day King and Queen


Homeland Center’s 2020 Queen and King of Valentines – Colleen and Lester Grotzinger

The Valentine’s Day luncheon guests grew silent as Homeland Center Activities Director Aleisha Connors made her big announcement.

“And the 2020 Valentine’s Day King and Queen are . . .” she paused for dramatic effect, while the crowd performed drum rolls on the tables, “. . . Mr. and Mrs. Grotzinger!”

The luncheon guests cheered while staff placed crowns on Homeland residents Colleen and Lester Grotzinger. Colleen received a beautiful bouquet.

The Sweetheart Lunch is an annual tradition, allowing married couples who are residents and those residents whose spouses live outside of Homeland to share a romantic meal. Floral centerpieces and tablecloths adorned with hearts graced the tables in Homeland Center’s unique 50s-style diner. Over lunch choices catered from Olive Garden, guests exchanged memories and kisses.

The Grotzingers were chosen King and Queen by a vote of Homeland residents and staff. Among the couples attending the Sweetheart Lunch, they had the longest marriage.

“In July, it’s 69 years,” said Lester.

The two were high school sweethearts who met in their hometown of Renovo, in northcentral Pennsylvania. They married in 1951, just after he finished basic training for the Army. She was a teacher and he was a mechanical engineer.

What’s the secret to a long marriage?

“We just always got along,” said Colleen.

Connors organized the luncheon as a way to help residents from all Homeland units to recall treasured memories.

“They get to have a special meal together, just like they’ve always had,” she said.

Mickey (l) and Bob (r) Jostenski

Mickey Jostenski, visiting her husband Bob Jostenski, recalled their longstanding annual tradition of going to Ocean City, New Jersey, for Valentine’s Day and their anniversary in June.

“It was just relaxing,” Mickey said. “It was a way to get out of ‘Dodge.’”

The Jostenskis also shared their love for Homeland. Bob enjoys a full range of activities and recently attended the Pennsylvania Farm Show.

“We went bowling one time,” Bob said, pantomiming a bowling-ball throw. He also unleashes his inner artist through Homeland art classes, and he presented a gift to Mickey – a painting of two wine glasses clinking, with a heart rising between them inscribed, “I love you.”

Hearts and symbols of love were everywhere throughout Homeland. A poster in the elevators reminded everyone to “Let this day be filled with memories and reminders of how much you are loved.”

On the Gathering Room mantel, photographs of Homeland couples – from their wedding days to date — decorated large letters spelling out “LOVE.’’

At the diner, Michael Keane was enjoying the Sweetheart Lunch with his wife, Marian.

“This is very nice,” Michael said.

Like the Grotzingers, the Keanes were high school sweethearts, now married 64 years. Celebrating Valentine’s Day usually meant going out to dinner. Early in their relationship, they went to Hershey regularly to hear the big bands that came to town – and there were some very big names on the lineups.

“Tommy Dorsey,” Michael said. “Harry James. We didn’t appreciate what we had then.”

In the Valentine’s Day spirit, Michael came with a card for Marian. “Love of my life, friend of my heart, my wife,” it read. “A love like ours happens only once in a lifetime.”

He signed it, “All of my love always.”

Homeland for the holidays: Events offer love, joy, and light


Christmas treeAs homes throughout the land glow with holiday traditions, Homeland does the same, ringing with the joys of the season and hopes for peace.

Traditional favorites provide opportunities for gatherings among family and friends. A new celebration of Hanukkah and a commemoration of Kristallnacht bring Jewish traditions into the halls of Homeland, with lessons for people of all faiths.

The season kicks off with a holiday bazaar and bake sale in the newly redecorated Main Dining Room and cheery Florida room. The bazaar, a longtime tradition, features a white elephant and bake sales organized by the Homeland Center Board of Managers.

The bazaar features distinctive, high-quality items donated by Board of Managers members and friends of Homeland, giving residents a chance to shop in-house for gifts for loved ones and holiday décor for their rooms and doors. Cookies and other holiday treats also make ideal gifts for residents to share, while they bring back memories of baking traditions at home.

“We like to interact with the residents, and they know us,” said Susan Batista, the former chair of the Board of Managers. “The holiday bazaar is exclusively for them and for staff, giving them a chance to do some shopping, relive memories, and maybe take home a treasure.”

The Board of Managers is a unique Homeland institution, carrying on the legacy and vision of Homeland’s founders – the women who worked to create a safe, comfortable home for the widows and orphans of the Civil War. Today’s Board of Managers takes on responsibility for instilling Homeland with its famous home-like feel by overseeing décor and organizing parties.

In recent years, the Board of Managers started decorating and hanging holiday wreaths throughout the corridors, augmenting the work of staff, who hang wreaths in each unit. The wreaths add a touch of green to all the spaces and extend a welcome to all visitors.

In the alcove across from the chapel, another tradition continues with installation of Homeland’s Hummel Nativity set. Several years ago, Batista started setting it up at the request of Lou Hepschmidt, longtime resident and benefactor who donated her extensive Hummel figurines collection to Homeland. The figurines and plates are on permanent display in the Homeland Gathering Room, and now, the Nativity scene shines in Lou’s memory, since her death in 2017.

Capping the season is Homeland’s highly anticipated holiday party in mid-December. Residents host friends and family for music, meal, and merriment. In every unit, guests and residents enjoy a buffet cooked with love by Homeland staff.

Music sounds in every unit, from the jazz of Harrisburg’s renowned Stephenson Twins to the Celtic harp of Mary-Kate Spring. In the Main Dining Room, pianist Marc Lubbers will tinkle the keys of Homeland’s Steinway grand; the rockabilly of Quentin Jones will entertain residents in the Ellenberger memory care unit.

This year, the Homeland community holds an 80th-anniversary memorial for Kristallnacht, the night in November 1938 when Nazis throughout Germany murdered Jews and destroyed synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses. The week after Homeland’s Kristallnacht commemoration, the community reconvenes for a celebration of Hanukkah, the holiday when Jews celebrate the light that good deeds can bring into the world.

For residents of the Jewish faith and all others committed to freedom of worship and other cherished freedoms, the events commemorate “the times of ‘shadow and night’ during Kristallnacht, followed by the ‘love and light’ of Hanukkah,” said Homeland Hospice chaplain Rev. Dann Caldwell.

Working with Jewish and Christian residents, Caldwell initiated the twin events as recognition of the need to address intolerance as it occurs, bring the Jewish traditions of the home to Homeland, and educate the entire community on the lessons of Hanukkah.

The array of holiday events helps Homeland residents give expression to the love they feel for family and friends, and their hopes for peace and joy.

“The holidays are a special time at Homeland,” said President and CEO Barry Ramper II. “For staff, especially, it’s a time to express the gratitude we feel in the presence of residents. Our residents share their wisdom and their trust, and that is the greatest gift we can ask for.”

Homeland’s Easter egg hunt fun for all ages


Homeland's Easter egg huntAs she watched her grandchildren happily opening the colored plastic Easter eggs, Homeland Center resident Jean White mused the adults get as big a kick out of the annual hunt as the kids.

“I like it that Homeland encourages everyone to participate and includes families,’’ Jean said, taking in the happy squeals as the grandkids discovered favorite candies. “This is great for the kids and the grownups and I actually think the grownups enjoy it more, getting to watch the kids.’’

Homeland’s staff stuffed 1,000 brightly colored plastic eggs with treats and hid them throughout Homeland Center’s units, including Skilled Nursing, Personal Care and the Ellenberger memory care unit, said Gillian Sumpter, Director of Activities.

In addition to the egg hunt, kids were lining up in Homeland’s 1950s-style diner for face painting by local artist Taqiyya Muhammad. A visit by the Easter Bunny, also known as local performer Jimmy Edwards, was on the day’s agenda as well.

“I like the peanut butter eggs,” said Jean’s 9-year-old grandson, Luke, examining his sugary haul with siblings Leo, 7, Jacob, 6, Matthew, 4 and Sarah.

Luke’s mom and Jean’s granddaughter, Heather LaCour, looked on with her husband, Andy, and smiled.

“This is great – I can tell the residents enjoy it and I know their grandmother enjoys it,’’ Heather said, adding that her family loves Homeland’s summer picnics and festival. “I think it’s good to have events that give families the opportunity to get together. It’s important that Homeland is family-friendly.’’

Homeland's Easter egg huntElsewhere in Homeland, Gilbert Leo happily looked on as three generations of his family enjoyed the fun.

Homeland's Easter egg hunt“You get excellent care,’’ Gilbert said of Homeland.

His daughter, Michele Pease, said she could see how much her father and the other residents were enjoying seeing family. Michele said she appreciates the effort Homeland makes to plan these kinds of events.

Michele was joined by her brother, Tim Leo, and both of their children and grandchildren. Michele’s adult children, Morgan and Vincent, had fun watching Vincent’s 7-year-old son, Kamden, hunt for treats. Tim’s daughter, Tara Leo Auchey, was there with her husband, Caleb and their 10-month-old twins, Cassius and Bowie.

“It really uplifts my Dad,’’ Michele said. “These events really make Homeland feel like home and make the residents feel more connected.’’

Brother Tim agreed.

“I’m thrilled with the care they receive,’’ Tim said. “The staff pays attention to the residents and events like this bring everyone together.’’

It’s a date: Homeland couples reminisce over Valentine’s Day lunch


Happy Valentine's Day!Love was all around Homeland Center on Valentine’s Day. Visitors were greeted with a cheery “Happy Valentine’s Day” and the sight of red streamers, balloons, and flowers at every turn.

In the Main Dining Room, a volunteer dressed in red handed out felt hearts to residents having lunch. Throughout the week, staff wore red and hosted Valentine’s Day socials for the residents.

And in Homeland Center’s unique 50s-style diner, residents who are couples were treated to a special lunch of Italian favorites – spaghetti and meatballs, baked ziti, Italian sausage with peppers and onions, and a bright salad of mixed greens.

It was Homeland’s way of sharing the love that permeates the building year-round, but especially on Valentine’s Day.

“We try to do things so they can enjoy the holiday,” says Activities Coordinator Latoya Venable.

About 14 couples call Homeland home. Among those enjoying the special lunch were two couples with a combined 136 years of married bliss.

Valentine’s Day lunchMildred and Tom Anthony met at a weekly dance in Frackville, Tom’s hometown in the heart of the Pennsylvania coal region. She came from nearby Mahanoy City. Both admit that Tom wasn’t a very good dancer, but she liked his personality. One year later, they got married in Frackville. Today, they have been married 68 years.

He was a meat cutter by trade, first in his family store, and then for Acme markets. She managed a bank branch.

“It was interesting and busy, and I met a lot of people,” Mildred says.

They had an active life, raising two children and getting outdoors for adventure whenever they had the chance. They had a boat. They had jet skis. They had a lake home near Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.

“In the wintertime, we had snowmobiles,” says Mildred. “We would go across the lake and up into the mountains on our snowmobiles.”

Typically, they didn’t do anything special on Valentine’s Day, other than go out to dinner. From Tom’s perspective, gifts for Mildred didn’t have to wait for a special occasion. Some of her most beautiful jewelry came from their visits to the country of Lebanon, where his family is from.

“Whatever she wants, she gets,” he says. “She sees a diamond, she can get it.”

Valentine’s Day lunchSitting at the next table, Colleen and Lester Grotzinger were sharing the latest in a long line of Valentine’s Days together. They were high school sweethearts who began dating “as soon as we could handle our parents,” says Colleen. They knew each other from school, but at a New Year’s Eve Party, they started talking, which led to their first date.

Today, they have been married 66 years.

Married in 1951, Colleen graduated from college, and Lester was called up for military service. After serving for two years in anti-aircraft artillery installations along the East Coast, Lester launched a career as a mechanical engineer and Colleen became a middle school teacher.

They have four children, two boys and two girls. When the Grotzingers weren’t working, they saw the world, visiting the Bavarian village of Lester’s ancestors and meeting some of Colleen’s relatives in Ireland.

For Valentine’s Days in the past, they did “nothing in particular,” says Colleen. “Maybe go to a movie.” The Homeland Valentine’s Day couples lunch was “a nice idea,” she added. For Lester, it was a chance to think back on their time together.

“A lot of years,” he says. “A lot of years.”

“Good years,” says Colleen.

“Absolutely,” says Lester.