Janet Arnold Rees, senior concierge and creative aging coordinator for Jewish Family & Children’s Service, died on Tuesday, Nov. 23.
In September, Rees was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, according to her son, Josh Arnold. It is a serious lung disease that offers a poor prognosis. Her natural vigor and general good health made it hard to believe she was ill, he said, but the disease got the best of her and four weeks ago, she checked herself into the hospital and never left. She was 73.
Rees was born in South Bend, Indiana, the youngest of six children of Harry and Esther Shcolnik. She moved with her family to Phoenix in 1957.
"I'm a shirttail cousin to Rabbi (Albert) Plotkin," Rees, whose family became members of then-Temple Beth Israel, told Jewish News in 2007. "He was the first one to meet us when we got off the train when we moved here.
"We lived on the outskirts, at Glendale and Third avenues," she recalled. "I couldn't get rides home from the JCC because it was so far out, at 16th Street and Camelback Road."
Her presence in the Jewish community of Greater Phoenix was ubiquitous through the decades, and she held a variety of positions in different Jewish organizations as well as founded a Jewish theatre company, which would last 25 years.
In 2019, Rees told JN about finding an old edition of the newspaper and seeing an article from the 1990s in which she was featured.
The article had quoted her as saying that her dream then was “to develop cooperative Jewish leadership emphasizing needs in Jewish education and social services, utilizing theater and the arts to promote and preserve pride in our cultural heritage.”
More than 20 years later, she asked JN, “Do you want to know what’s funny? That’s still my dream. It hasn’t changed at all.”
Having touched many lives during her life in Arizona, many would likely agree that she made her dream a reality. And a lot of her most personal and important work was in theatre, though her path getting to the stage was circuitous.
She taught high school English for a few years at Glendale High School and later served as director of early childhood education at the Jewish Community Center when it was located on Maryland Avenue in Phoenix.
Rees, a mother of two sons, parlayed her smarts and people skills into personal and business success.
"I took a year off from the JCC and was an assistant to Hattie Babbitt on the Bruce Babbitt for President campaign (in 1987)," Rees said. "Politics is as close to theater as you can get. It was great."
Other than performing in a couple of youth productions at the JCC as a teen, Rees did not focus her attention on theater until much later.
"I didn't know there was Jewish theater," she said.
At about the same time, Rees played a role in a community production at the now-defunct Glendale Little Theater, directed by Bob Walters.
She also celebrated a joint b'nai mitzvah with her older son, Josh, at Temple Beth Israel in March 1987.
While Rees was preparing for her bat mitzvah, Walters asked her to work on another play. Rees was too busy but told him she would get him rehearsal space at the JCC.
"He called to thank me for getting the room," recalled Rees. "He said, 'I found a book of three Jewish plays (by Israel Horovitz), and I'd like to direct one as a gift back to the Jewish community.' So I read these plays and I said, 'Let's start a Jewish theater.'"
In the meantime, Rees was accepted to Arizona State University's law school. "I thought, 'lawyer? actor?' Well, lawyers don't have any fun, so I started the theater. I always thought I could run a trucking company if I had to."
She then learned through a Hadassah magazine article about the Association of Jewish Theatres (AJT). "I didn't have a clue. I made a call and they were having a conference in New York City, which I went to. Now I had a network of people. Not only was there the Horovitz work, there was this whole world out there." She later served as president of AJT for a time, too.
1987, already a busy year for Rees, was when a non-Jewish friend approached her about staging a Jewish-themed trilogy by American playwright Israel Horovitz.
Inspired, Rees sent letters to family and friends, soliciting donations to produce the plays. With $4,000 raised, Arizona Jewish Theatre Company was born. Its first production was at the Stagebrush Theater in Scottsdale in December 1988.
Despite financial ups and downs, Rees was able to keep the theatre open for the next 25 years. But in the summer of 2012, she finally had to close the curtain on the theatre due to lack of funds.
She explained the reality to her subscribers in an email:
"Government and corporate support has virtually disappeared, individual contributions are down and, with all of our moving around, our audiences have dwindled. So we're closing up shop."
She later told JN, “I didn't see any avenues of money that could come in. I couldn't do this anymore. It just seemed to me that it was time." But making the decision was difficult.
"It's hard. I'd put this up against a divorce or a death any day," she said.
But that was not the end of her career in the Jewish community by a longshot.
In 2015, Rees was hired by JFCS to head its then-new Senior Concierge program. Her job was to network with senior centers, independent living facilities, synagogues and Jewish agencies. Until the COVID-19 pandemic, she was posted at the Martin Pear JCC where she also answered walk-up requests and introduced seniors at the facility to the program.
After starting her position, she told JN about what those introductions sometimes looked like. “I have people with yoga mats under their arms starting to go out the door, turning around and coming back and saying, ‘You know? I was just wondering ...’ ”
She described her work with JFCS as a “tag team.”
“Jewish Family & Children’s Service, for 15 years, has had a wonderful information and referral service that Kathy Rood (manager of Jewish programs at JFCS) handles,” Rees said, but she added that people tend not to call JFCS directly “unless they’re in crisis. You know, they tend to think that [calling] Jewish Family & Children’s Service means that it has to be really, really serious and so I provide that nice kind of middle ground. When things get too much for me, I give them to Kathy and then Kathy can help them more specifically with the more difficult things, but I get to be that conduit.”
The pandemic hit seniors especially hard with the emphasis suddenly placed on using technology with no in-person contact. A senior herself, she admitted to JN in 2020 that she had a lot of panic about inadvertently touching the wrong button and deleting everything.
“I feel it on my shoulders every day — the fear I’m going to click on the wrong thing, and the world is going to blow up,” she said. That idea is “all-pervasive.” Nevertheless, she pressed ahead and learned Zoom in order to continue with Creative Aging classes as well as virtual cafes that took the place of in-person meetings for people who are experiencing dementia along with their partners.
Her clients ranged from 65 to 93, and, for the most part, they were able to use platforms like Zoom and FaceTime. She marveled that one morning a 93-year-old had figured out how to put a new background on her Zoom calls by herself. Witnessing so many people making strides with technology, when others told her it seemed unrealistic to host a program for Holocaust survivors on Zoom, gave her the optimism to move forward with it.
During the pandemic, Rees was able to bring two of her loves together when she coordinated and starred in a play live but broadcast on Zoom. Along with Ed Asner, star of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Lou Grant” as well as the Pixar film “Up,” Rees performed the play “Hunker Down.” Asner also passed away this year.
The play is about and primarily for older adults who are sheltering in place — hunkering down — and find themselves dealing with loneliness and the isolation brought on by COVID-19.
Rees told Jewish News that isolation is a reality that scares her and others working with seniors because it leads to cognitive decline, emotional decline and depression. Her work with JFCS allowed her to see firsthand just how important the subject matter was to her and her clients.
“The woman in particular is just going nuts and wants to have some human contact — even if it’s six feet apart contact, they’re at least breathing the same kind of air,” Rees said.
Although the pandemic couldn’t really slow down the inimitable and vibrant Rees, this summer she was excited and happy to be able to invite seniors back to The Palazzo to enjoy JFCS’ Senior Enrichment Center events in person again.
“I need that energy from people,” Rees told JN in July. “People need to laugh together and experience things together — we’re a community.”
Rees was still working when she died. Over the years, she also was an associate editor of Arizona Jewish Life and sat on the board of directors of the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival and the Arizona Jewish Historical Society. JN
Funeral services for Janet will be Friday, Nov. 26 at 2:30 p.m. at Sinai Mortuary.
Here is a link to Janet’s 2008 interview for the Arizona Memory Project: https://vimeo.com/58914281