Jerusalem artisan mobilizes Anglo retirees
8,000-10,000 English-speaking tourists visit the 2,000-square-meter Yad LaKashish, or Lifeline for the Old, campus throughout the year to see the paper, metal, silk painting, embroidery and ceramics workshops.
Nestled among 128-year-old alcoves of Jerusalem stone, a cluster of workshops for senior artisans is drawing a modest blend of Anglo workers, volunteers and international friends.
"Back in the U.S., at 70 [years old] I wouldn't be allowed to work," says Hana Amillia Kessler, 76, a retired art teacher from California who has spent the last six years as an illustrator in the bookbindery of the Jerusalem-based Yad LaKashish, or Lifeline for the Old. "Here they discovered that I am a fine artist."
Kessler is the lone native English-speaker among a community mainly comprised of some 300 Russian and Ethiopian artisans who work three-and-a-half-hour days in seven workshops aimed at producing assorted crafts and Judaica. A native of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, who immigrated to Israel in 1996 "to be with the grandchildren," Kessler says she is in "a unique place" - one that not only gives her a creative outlet, but also a daily work stipend, lunch and bus pass.
The 50-year-old organization's workshops also include paper, metal, silk painting, embroidery and ceramics - the latter including some artisans who are legally blind. A "rehabilitation" workshop provides "creative work opportunities," according to Yad LaKashish's executive director, Nava Ein-Mor. The center's financial aid package for artisans includes subsidized eye and dental care.
"There's nothing remotely close to this in America," marvels Adam Goldstein, a family doctor from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and second-generation supporter who stopped by this week to purchase a hand-painted embroidery for his son's prayer shawl. His daughter's bat mitzvah invitations were also designed and produced by the artisans. "Here, these individuals are able to earn an income and have a life that's meaningful," says Goldstein.
Harry Lerner, a book publisher from Minneapolis, Minnesota, said it was important for him and his delegation of 15 to visit the organization he discovered in the late 1960s, when he and his first wife attended Jerusalem's biannual book fair and met Yad LaKashish founder Myriam Mendilow.
"We go back a long way," says Lerner, 80, whose Lerner Publishing Group published "Mother of Jerusalem," a biography of the pioneering Mendilow in 1993.
Lerner's 34-year-old daughter Leah, who is developing a collection of handbags and scarves under the brand "Wake Up Spring," purchased Ethiopian-style paper mache birds from the Yad LaKashish gift shop. "As a designer, I am very impressed with the modern aesthetic and craftsmanship of the wide range of products made by the artisans at Yad LaKashish," says Leah Lerner, who immigrated from Minneapolis in 2009.
The center includes two English-speaking staffers. Rina Polyakov, a 20-year-old resident of Raritan, New Jersey, who is studying this year at Hebrew University and the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, is a volunteer in the textiles workshop. Dvorah Steinberg, a 26-year-old native of Brooklyn, New York, is one of the leaders of the metal-work workshop.
Sales, both online and at the organization's gift shop, bring in up to 20 percent of its operating costs (80 percent coming from personal contributions and foundations ), according to its web site.
Ein-Mor estimates that 8,000-10,000 English-speaking tourists visit the 2,000-square-meter Yad LaKashish campus throughout the year. Word of mouth spreads via members of visiting youth movements. "They are our goodwill messengers," Ein-Mor says.