Lehrhaus goes to the Home — with classes for elders

As the co-author of a cookbook for seniors, Miriam Blaustein knows something about the appetites of older people. And as an active 88-year-old, she understands that the elderly can experience intellectual — as well as gastronomical — cravings.

That's why Blaustein, a resident at San Francisco's Jewish Home, jumped at the chance recently to take a four-part "Introduction to Jewish Art" class.

"That was invaluable to me," she says of the program taught by Naomi Leite-Goldberg, associate director of Lehrhaus Judaica, based in Berkeley. "Her speeches were informative and very interesting."

And easy to get to. The class was the first in a new series of educational programs offered directly in nursing homes and other assisted-living facilities where seniors live.

Funded by a $50,000 grant from Lehrhaus board member Barbara Rosenberg and her husband, Richard, Lehrhaus' new Learning for Life at Home program is aimed at meeting the intellectual needs of elderly residents who might otherwise have trouble getting to outside classes.

The fund also is helping to expand offerings of Lehrhaus' existing Learning for Life program, which features courses at locations and times convenient to the elderly.

"We learn at every stage of life," explains Barbara Rosenberg, a former high school English teacher and past president of the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education. "This seemed like a natural." Among the elderly, she said, "there's a real hunger for this stimulation."

Leite-Goldberg said she was particularly struck by the enthusiasm of her participants.

"I was incredibly impressed at how engaged they were as students," she said of the class, which drew 15 to 20 participants each session. "They are deeply engaged as a thinking community."

The course material, which focused on different uses of art by Jewish communities through history, was not specifically tailored to older students. "In many ways, they're not different as students from anyone else," she said. But in other ways, they stand out dramatically.

"This particular group of students had so much knowledge and life experience to bring to the material that I needed to leave more time for discussion," she added.

One particularly lively exchange centered on the concept of a menorah as an art object as well as a religious and cultural symbol, Leite-Goldberg recalled. Students talked about their memories of menorot from earlier years and how the candelabras served as both an art object "and something we interact with," she said.

Participant Frances Marder gave high marks to Leite-Goldberg for her command of the material and method of delivery. "People had a lot of questions," said the 76-year-old Jewish Home resident and mother of the facility's rabbi, Sheldon Marder. "Everybody showed an interest in it."

Jenifer Cutler, activities coordinator at the Jewish Home, said the course was more academic than many of the programs traditionally offered at a nursing home. "I think it was material that really challenged them," she said. "The academic aspect of this was somewhat new, somewhat out of the ordinary, something we're trying to incorporate more in our programming."

For Blaustein, a former portrait photographer, typesetter and medical center record-keeper, the course fit in with her longtime appreciation of art and her ongoing desire to stay intellectually active.

"I enjoy meeting people and I love discussions," said Blaustein, who helped write a book for the Gray Panthers about 15 years ago, called the "Cheap and Nutritious Cookbook."

Blaustein was so captivated by the art sessions that she was disappointed when they ended. "I wish they could have gone on longer."

In March, she'll have a chance to sign up for another Lehrhaus class entitled "The Bible and History." Taught by Jehon Grist, Lehrhaus executive director, the three-session course will explore history, archeology and the Bible.

The Rosenbergs' grant is also funding two courses at San Francisco's Montefiore Senior Center. A February program investigated "The Art and Culture of Ancient Egypt" while a course in April will address "Music of the Jews." Also in April, Leite-Goldberg will offer a one-day Jewish art class at the Marin Jewish Community Center.

The founding director of Lehrhaus, Fred Rosenbaum, said the 28-year-old educational institution for adult Jewish studies aims to serve a broad range of constituencies "and this is one of the most important."

The elderly can be "very alert," he said. "They're looking for intellectual activities. Some of them can't get out of their homes that easily."

Bringing courses directly to seniors where they live is "something we've wanted to do for years," he said.