Casting their ballots with democratic zeal

Alexandra Dashevskaya assists Tsiliya Braz, 107, with her absentee ballot at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center. Alexandra Dashevskaya assists Tsiliya Braz, 107, with her absentee ballot at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center. (George Rizer/Globe Staff)
By Jennifer Schwartz
Globe Correspondent / November 2, 2008
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Tsiliya Braz spent half an hour picking out a voting day outfit. She applied peach-colored lipstick and watched the news.

Then, the 107-year-old Russian immigrant went downstairs to the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center's mock voting "booths," where she joined a sea of residents in wheelchairs, all waiting to fill out their absentee ballots for the general election.

"This is especially exciting for me," said Braz through a translator. "I fled political persecution, and the democratic process is so important."

Braz was among more than 200 residents at the elderly care center in Roslindale to vote on Wednesday via absentee ballots.

Instead of filling them out at individual units, the Recreation Therapy department staged a participatory event, featuring volunteers and voting tables flanked by American flags.

The main organizer, Judy Seldon, said residents were enthusiastic about voting and had stayed up to watch the presidential and vice presidential debates long after the staff went to sleep.

"We didn't expect this big of a turnout," Seldon said. "There's been lots of political discussion. This is the first time we've done something like this."

With cloudy blue eyes and a round face relatively devoid of wrinkles, Braz spoke about her opposition to the Iraq war.

"I'm against it, but I feel for every mother who loses a child to war, because I've seen a lot of wars, and they're all terrible disasters," she said.

Braz came to the United States in 1995 as a refugee from St. Petersburg.

Alexandra Dashevskaya, the manager of the Bilingual Services Program at the center and Braz's translator, also fled from Russia in the '90s.

"They take voting very seriously," Dashevskaya said. "We didn't get to do this - it wasn't real. You could either vote for Stalin or vote for Stalin."

Braz's career in Russia was rare for a "Jewish, noncommunist woman." In 1924, she was the first woman to graduate from her technical university with a master's degree in engineering.

She worked as a chief project manager designing electrical power stations.

When asked to recall her most cherished memories of Russia, she smiled and told stories about gaining respect for her work from her skeptical male counterparts.

Many of Braz's friends were arrested when Stalin was in power. She said she's amazed by the freedom of expression in the United States and is an advocate of human rights.

"I think it's time we pay attention to how people really live," she said.

Braz also wants to see elderly needs given more attention.

In the activities room where the voting took place, volunteers from both inside and outside the center helped elderly residents fill out their ballots.

"We make sure they understand what's going on," said Seldon. "A big problem in the past was family members trying to vote for them, so we didn't tell the families about this," she said.

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