Leisure Leaguers live it up with trips, parties, friendship

Rabbi Martin Weiner tells the story of a congregant whose elderly mother used to stay at home, watching television. She "seemed never to have anything to do."

He hears a far different story these days. The woman, now in her 90s, is so busy that she's difficult to "get a hold of," says Weiner, senior spiritual leader of San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel.

The cause of such a transformation? The woman joined the synagogue's Leisure League, a club that offers regular outings, meetings and close friendships for Jewish seniors who might otherwise be shut in their homes alone.

"It's one of the treasures of our congregational family," says Weiner.

That treasure recently celebrated its 18th or chai anniversary with a Shabbat service, luncheon and reception at the Reform synagogue.

The event was a satisfying milestone for the league's 120 members, most of whom are widows and in their mid-70s.

The gathering also paid tribute to the league's creator, now-deceased Sherith Israel member Stella Goldman, who guided the club for its first four years. "She was a woman ahead of her time," says Marian Arnold, the league's 81-year-old president. "She saw the need for it."

Leah Garrick, the league's director for the last 14 years, says the club offers a lifeline to members, particularly after the death of a spouse. "This gives them renewed life and new friendships."

The league's success has spawned the creation of similar programs at several Sacramento-area synagogues that learned of the club at a Union of American Hebrew Congregations conference, Garrick said.

The league's formula for success is simple: Once a month, the group takes outings, such as a trip to the theater or a visit slated for next month to the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley with lunch at Jack London Square. It's Garrick's job to plan those trips and she says she does her best to keep them varied and appealing.

She tries to alternate lavish excursions, such as dinner and a show, with more affordable trips, such as the one to the Magnes. "There are some people for whom money is no object and other people on a very tight budget," she explains.

The club holds monthly meetings that include study groups with the rabbi covering everything from Israel and contemporary Jewish issues to movie reviews. "I happen to be a big movie fan so we do a critique of movies," says Weiner. "They tell me what they like and I tell them what I like."

Often 60 members will show up for regular gatherings at the synagogue to listen to music, a lecture or readings from great books. In September, they'll put on a fashion show.

The group also takes occasional overnight trips, such as a four-day sojourn in May to Yosemite. "One of my favorite images," says Weiner, is of "four Leisure Leaguers coming down the river in a raft on one of their trips." Because of the advancing age of many members, the trips don't involve as much whitewater as they used to.

But the enthusiasm and camaraderie remain untamed.

"Many ladies have said they don't know what they would have done without Leisure League," says Arnold.

The group's bonds extend beyond the meetings and trips. Leisure League has a telephone network that starts lighting up whenever word gets out about a fellow member's illness. Leisure Leaguers check up on the ailing member and make sure she has what she needs. They also celebrate birthdays and other events.

Leisure League has a phone line at the synagogue, (415) 346-1727, where Garrick holds a part-time position.

"We're often there for each other," says Garrick. "It's very seldom that someone's ill and we don't know about it."

Longtime member Elizabeth Gold said three-quarters of the 60 people who attended her surprise 80th birthday party were friends from Leisure League.

Now 87, Gold came to San Francisco in 1987 from Sun City, Ariz., after her husband's death. She wanted to live closer to her daughter, who also was new to the area.

"I came to San Francisco 13 years ago not knowing a soul," says Gold. She learned about Leisure League when she stopped by Sherith Israel to offer her services as a volunteer. Now secretary to the club, she says, "I have so many friends, it's amazing. I became friends with everyone immediately."

Because of health problems, Gold doesn't go on overnight trips with the group anymore, but she still enjoys day trips to the theater and museums.

"Our women are happy," she says. "The children are very happy because their mothers are occupied and happy."