(June 8, 2015 / JNS) Have you ever heard of a lifeline made from paper mâché? Or from silk, clay, paper, wood, or metal? It’s through working with those materials that 300 of Jerusalem’s senior citizens have been, literally, pulled back to life. But many of the thousands who buy the resulting creations each year have absolutely no idea of the mitzvah they are performing with every purchase.
Ask 78-year-old Avraham Rojstaczer what he does, and the Argentina native’s answer comes back fast.
“Paper mâché,” he says with a grin, as he proudly demonstrates how he mixes it every day. Rojstaczer has been performing this key function for the Lifeline for the Old (Yad LaKashish in Hebrew) organization for more than six years—his batches of seemingly innocuous goo are destined to become earrings, tzedakah boxes, picture frames, and much more in a workshop staffed with “elderly artisans” from around the world. Soon they are painted and ready, along with hundreds of other items, for sale either at the gift shop there at 14 Shivtei Israel Street, a stone’s throw from Jerusalem’s Old City, or to be shipped off to synagogues and Judaica shops in Israel, North America, and England, or directly to customers around the world.
Paper mâché is a specialty here (you can see the whole Lifeline lineup at shop.lifeline.org.il), but so is silk painting along with hand-crafted toys, embroidered tallit bags, brass candlesticks and menorahs, sports-themed yarmulkes, beaded jewelry, baby sweaters and mobiles, ceramic mezuzah cases, and book-binding.
In fact, it was the humble art of book repairs that got Lifeline off the ground more than a half-century ago. Concerned about Jerusalem senior citizens she met who were both poor and isolated, Jerusalem teacher Myriam Mendilow was equally disturbed by her students’ view of the elderly as dependent, useless, and basically irrelevant. And so, in 1963, when the State of Israel was only 14 years old and employment was scarce, Mendilow opened a tiny book-binding workshop and staffed it with eight elderly men in need of both cash and something they could take pride in. Her initial idea: collecting tattered library books from local schools for the men to rebind for a modest fee.
The shack where they once rebound books has grown to a small complex here on Shivtei Israel Street, with tiny flowers growing in front of the workshops. Another building has recently been purchased, and the expansion is expected to invite even more seniors into Lifeline employment.
These days, Lifeline connects to its market online and by giving tours. Each year, more than 9,000 locals and visitors to Israel alike get a chance to watch the artisans at work and to purchase their creations in the gift shop.
Last summer, Judy Osman of Los Angeles became part of that statistic. A first-timer in Israel, she discovered Lifeline listed in her tour’s itinerary. “It was a real highlight of my trip to watch the camaraderie between the artisans and know that they are living the rest of their lives here with dignity, purpose, and respect,” she says.
Indeed, what impressed Osman most was how well the artisans meshed, “people from around the world, working side by side.” Seven months after her trip, she can still recall the sight of “a woman from Africa with her tribal tattoos working alongside, and friendly, with an immigrant from Eastern Europe.”
Among the purchases Osman made that day was a simple tzedakah box. “It sits on my kitchen windowsill now and every time I use it, I am reminded, not only of its beauty, but of the mitzvah to give whatever and whenever I can,” she says.
Still, despite enthusiastic customers like Osman, Lifeline earns only 20-25 percent of its $1.5 million budget from sales. The rest of the tab, except for the less than 2 percent funded by the Israeli government, is picked up by donors, most of them Americans. The money goes for overhead, as well as stipends and benefits for the 300 artisans on staff.
In the nine years since Hana Kessler has been here, she has painted thousands of greeting cards and book covers, her favorite motif being Israel’s pointy head-dressed national bird, the hoopoe (doukeefat in Hebrew). An artist since she was a youngster growing up in Pittsburgh, Pa., Kessler points with pride at her displayed works.
“I’m here every day and the mix of languages in the workrooms is amazing to hear,” says Kessler, who had turned 79 the day before. “They’re all my friends. Yesterday I got five birthday hugs. Five!”
It’s the hugs that matter as much as the financial support, says Nava Ein-Mor, Lifeline of the Old’s executive director for the last 26 years. “The worst disease of the 21st century is social isolation, especially among the elderly, and even more so for those who, like our workers, live thousands of miles from the culture that they understand, often unable to communicate with those around them, and physically or emotionally distant from family.”
What Lifeline offers them besides a monthly stipend, a bus pass, and a hot lunch, Ein-Mor says, is “community, stimulation, and a sense of empowerment.”
“Being part of Lifeline, they gain an image of themselves as someone who functions in society, who comes to the center of the city everyday and feels like part of the city,” she says.
“It’s saved me, this place,” says Kessler, while packing up at the end of a busy workday. “The best part of working here? Being at peace with myself. I’m not a TV watcher, so I know I’d cry every morning if I didn’t have this place to come to.”