Seniors | Jerusalem workshop offers lifeline through the arts

Ever heard of a lifeline made of paper mâché? Or from silk, clay, paper, wood or metal?

The handcrafted items from Jerusalem-based Yad LaKashishut — Lifeline for the Old —provide just that. Yet many of the people worldwide who purchase items made at Lifeline by elderly Jerusalem residents have no idea of the mitzvah they are performing with every purchase.

“It’s saved me, this place,” says Hana Kessler, 79. photos/lifeline for the old-bonnie geller

Ask 78-year-old Avraham Rojstaczer what he does, and the native of Argentina quickly responds

“Paper mâché,” he said with a grin, as he proudly demonstrates how he mixes it every day. Rojstaczer has been performing this key function for Lifeline for over six year; 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 the items are painted and ready, along with hundreds of other items, for sale either at the gift shop 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, but many media are used. There are silk paintings, handcrafted toys, embroidered tallit bags, brass candlesticks and menorahs, beaded jewelry, ceramic mezuzah cases and much more.

It was the humble art of book repairs that got Lifeline off the ground more than a half-century ago. Concerned about 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 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. Another building has recently been purchased, and the expansion is expected to bring more seniors into Lifeline employment. 

These days, Lifeline connects to its market online (see and by giving tours. Each year, more than 9,000 locals and visitors to Israel stop by 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 said.

Elderly artisans create handcrafted items for sale.

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.

Lifeline earns 20 to 25 percent of its $1.5 million budget from sales; less than 2 percent funded by the Israeli government. The rest of the tab 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 at Lifeline, she has painted thousands of greeting cards and book covers, her favorite motif being Israel’s pointy head-dressed national bird, the hoopoe. An artist since she was a youngster growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvia, 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,” said 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, said Lifeline executive director Nava Ein-Mor. “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.”

Lifeline offers more than a monthly stipend, a bus pass and a hot lunch, according to Ein-Mor. It also provides “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 every day and feels like part of the city,” she said.

“It’s saved me, this place,” said 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.”