A lifeline for Jerusalem seniors made of papier-mâché

How can you create a lifeline from papier-mâché? Or from silk, clay, paper, wood or metal? Through working with these materials, 300 of Jerusalem’s seniors have been 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.

“Papier-mâché,” he says with a grin, as he proudly demonstrates how he mixes it every day. Rojstaczer has been performing this key function for Yad LaKashish, Lifeline for the Old, 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 on Shivtei Israel Street, a stone’s throw from Jerusalem’s Old City, or to be shipped off to synagogues, Judaica shops or customers in Israel, North America and England.

Papier-mâché is a specialty here (the offerings are at www.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.

Artisans at Yad LaKashish in Jerusalem, pictured alongside their workshop materials

In fact, it was the humble art of book repairs that got Yad LaKashish off the ground more than a half-century ago. Concerned about Jerusalem seniors who were both poor and isolated, Jerusalem teacher Myriam Mendilow was equally disturbed by her students’ view of the elderly as dependent, useless and irrelevant. And so, in 1963, when the State of Israel was only 14 years old and employment was scarce, Mendilow opened a tiny bookbinding 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 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 Yad LaKashish employment.

These days, the organization connects to its market online and onsite 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 Yad LaKashish 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.

Hana Kessler, 79, paints at the Yad LaKashish facility in Jerusalem. photos/jns-yad lakashish-bonnie geller

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, Yad LaKashish earns only 20-25 percent of its $1.5 million budget from sales. Donors, most of them Americans, pick up the rest of the tab, minus less than 2 percent funded by the Israeli government. 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 at Yad LaKashish, 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, 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 just turned 79. “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, Yad LaKashish’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.”

Besides a monthly stipend, a bus pass, and a hot lunch, what Yad LaKashish offers them is “community, stimulation, and a sense of empowerment,” Ein-Mor says. “They gain an image of themselves as someone who functions in society, who comes to the center of the city every day and feels like part of the city.”

Kessler agrees. “It’s saved me, this place,” she says, 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.”