Hand-in-hand, an older couple shuffles into Yad LaKashish’s Jerusalem stone compound across the street from city hall. They navigate their way, each to a separate workroom, and prepare to start the day.
“Buenos dias!” says an elderly gent, an immigrant from Argentina, as he heads to another part of the building, which dates back to 1880.
Two hundred artisans, average age 80, mostly immigrants and many who fled their countries of origin, travel by light rail and bus each day to work making beautiful gift items and Judaica that are sold to the public online, in a gift shop and at events.
The 60-year-old institution makes sure the seniors, who are below the poverty line, receive a stipend, healthcare, dental care, a winter bonus to offset heating costs, a nutritious lunch, and food packages for holidays.
A recent report from Israel’s National Insurance Institute (the equivalent of Social Security) noted that half of all recipients of subsistence allowances suffer from food insecurity.
Programs like the Yad LaKashish Lifeline for the Old help to nourish indigent seniors. But the work, which is taught to the participants by artists and designers, also provides them with dignity, community and empowerment.
“Yad LaKashish is a very unique model for the elderly,” explains Ariela Schwartz-Zur, the organization’s executive director. “It pays them, gives them services, but more importantly, it gives them a reason to get up in the morning and feel meaningful.
“When Covid forced us to shut down, we learned how successful and important our model is,” she adds. “Although we still supported our seniors financially, 40 of our group never returned. After three months of isolation they were no longer able to function.”
Israel’s President Isaac Herzog and his wife, Michal, recently visited the organization and met the artisans. He even tried his hand at metalworking. His father, former President Chaim Herzog, also visited Yad LaKashish and presented them with a plaque which the executive director proudly displays.
Myriam Mendelow founded the organization in 1962 after seeing elderly beggars panhandling to buy food. Mendelow saw a need to create intergenerational support for Israel’s elderly.
She opened a bookbinding operation and trained eight older men to bind books. She then forged an alliance with local schools to bring their books that needed rebinding. Children delivered the books and forged relationships with the bookbinders. To this day, the bookbindery is one of the workshops offered by Yad LaKashish, along with nine others including ceramics, silk painting, paper-mache, sewing and embroidery, and metalworking.
“Most of the people have little or no experience in creating art,” explains Tanya Kazakov, one of the professional artisans who works with the new artists. An immigrant from Ukraine who arrived at age 10, she also speaks Russian, which helps her communicate with many of the clients. The workers come from 24 different countries and speak 12 different languages.
Art, Kazakov points out, is a universal language, and workshop leaders have developed ways to communicate using color charts and non-verbal methods of teaching.
“From day one people start to create,” she continues. “How long it takes each to excel is up to their ability. We try to challenge them. If they have good skills we give them new projects to make it interesting. We change things to accommodate their abilities, and sometimes to address their limitations.”
The projects are often influenced by the cultures of the workers. Ethiopian clients, who account for 10% of Yad LaKashish’s seniors, requested that storks be incorporated into some of the designs, since in Ethiopia, according to Jewish folklore, storks would migrate to Africa bringing blessings from Jerusalem. Needlepoints were created with the stork theme.
Estie Browner, workshop manager in charge of Paper Art, speaks about an 88-year-old former aerospace engineer from Russia, one of the workers who recently died.
“He came to Israel, a brilliant scientist with a top-secret career, but he couldn’t provide for himself,” she recalls with tears in her eyes. “He brought himself and all his talent to us and he used his aeronautic skills to put together our paper mache airplanes. Now that he is gone, no one can put together the planes.”
Orit Arye is one of the few workers who is a born and bred Jerusalemite. She began coming to Yad LaKashish as a volunteer and later transitioned to being a worker. As she skillfully embroiders various stitches, she relates how she came to the organization knowing nothing about needlework. Everything she knows now she learned on the job.
Another worker, Maya, formerly from Saint Petersburg, says, “It was difficult to learn something new but now that I can do it. I’m so glad to be here.”
To continue the tradition of encouraging intergenerational communication, Yad LaKashish offers free tours that allow students, many from the US, and other groups to observe the workshops and meet with the workers.
Mick Shrubstok, a high school student from Atlanta, was instrumental in getting his class to visit the organization, after he had previously visited Yad LaKashish. As he stops by the various workshops, he engages an Ukrainian immigrant, speaking to her in Russian. The delighted worker stops sanding the ceramic cup she was working on to engage in conversation with the young man.
“I asked her how she likes what she is doing,” Shrubstok recounts, holding a Russian book that she had given to him. “She said she loves what she is doing, and it makes her so happy seeing people like us coming through.”
After the tour, another student marvels: “It’s really cool to see these people making these beautiful things with just their hands. Knowing where it comes from adds to the experience.”
The gift shop, three floors of goodies ranging from coffee mugs to menorahs to tallitot, from stuffed toys to beautiful painted silk scarves and more, has shipped to 80 countries including the United Arab Emirates, Zambia and India, and, of course, the US.
Tours, arranged in advance, are free. There are paid add-ons that can be arranged, such as a hands-on workshop making a project to keep or donate, or a chesed project of creating special birthday gift baskets for the workers of Yad LaKashish.