Retirement Plan? These Pioneers Went Back to High School

Children’s children are the crown of the aged, and the glory of the children is their fathers” (Proverbs 17:6).

Born in Argentina and raised in Israel, Elisa Zilbershtein has been involved in education for over 20 years. She served in the IDF (Israel Defence Force) as a guide for other soldiers, and intimately got to know the land of Israel. After that experience, she was hooked – her passion for the Holy Land was ignited, as was her love of spreading her knowledge. After her service in the military, she worked as a guide for many years for various organizations before becoming a teacher of history and Holy Land studies.

Elisa Zilberstein

For the last 17 years, Elisa has been teaching in the Ulpana Girls’ High School in Ofra, a settlement in the Binyamin Region. She grew up in a nearby settlement called Beit El, a town mentioned throughout the Bible, including in the story of Jacob’s Ladder and is mentioned in the Book of Joshua. Many members of the international community condemn communities like Ofra and Beit El, though they have found evidence of Jewish life there dating back thousands of years. The Ulpana in Ofra is an incredible school, with over 1,000 students from grades 7-12. The student population includes mainstream education, special needs education, and vocational training for developmentally delayed girls who may not be equipped for higher education, but are able to enter the workforce.

One day, Aviya Sheshar, the head of the Ulpana approached Elisa and told her about a dream of his. He heard of other schools that had this project, and he wanted to incorporate it into his school. Throughout Israel, high schools were instituting classes for senior citizens. Aviya wanted to bring this into his school, as he felt that bringing older people into the ecosystem of the school would be beneficial to everyone. He had no way to know at the time just how right he was.

First Graduating Seniors Class

On September 1, 2016, along with 1,000 girls grades 7-12, 32 seniors age 64-90, came to the Ulpana for their first day of school. The seniors study a few days a week from 8:30-1:00. They open their day with coffee and discussions about their lives. Next, they have regular classes such as Psych 101, Bible, Talmud, Philosophy, and Israel Studies. They also have workshops such as creative writing and art. Most of the students really connect to the art workshop, where Mor Royzman teaches techniques such as mosaics, textiles, etc, while Ayal Shashkin teaches drawing. Mor and Ayal are volunteers, and they switch off teaching every other week.

The star of the Ulpana’s senior classes is what they call the Kesher HaRav Dori Program, which means the multi-generational program. Elisa describes this program as the “heart of the class.” The goal is to connect the older generation with the young high school students. The younger generation is dynamic and quick, the older generation is worldly and wise. They each have so much to give to one another, and the Kesher HaRav Dori is an incredible outlet for that. For this special program, the seniors and girls meet in a digital setting. Elisa is the leader of this workshop, and they meet every week for an hour and a half. They are given different topics to discuss, and the younger student writes down the story that the senior shares, and the story is recorded in a digital library. This is shared with the Museum of the Jewish Nation, who says that the story of the Jewish people is incomplete, as each and every person has a story to share. Elisa feels that this program would be beneficial to communities all over the world, not just to Jewish ones.

Inside the Museum of the Jewish Nation

Some of the seniors in the class were early settlers of the Land of Israel. They saw the country rise up from swamps and desert to the magical country it is today. With flourishing agricultural lands, the Startup Nation producing some of the world’s most innovative technology, scientific and medical advancements, this tiny country has come a long way, and the members of this program were witness to it. They fought in Israel’s wars, and watched the borders of the country expand, as they helped found the communities of Judea and Samaria. Elisa is personally trying to help implement this program in more schools across Judea and Samaria. It has already been implemented in several schools throughout Israel for grades 5-11. “It is so meaningful to see the connections made here,” said Elisa, “The girls are really open and loving and grateful to the seniors, they are truly giving the seniors kavod, respect. We have so much to learn from them, and they have so much to offer.” This program truly embodies “Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:32).

The seniors also spend part of their week volunteering. They give their knowledge and experience back to the community in various ways such as teaching first and second grade reading, some translate Hebrew to English for the sixth grade. They also work with babies with special needs, as well as helping the students in the vocational training program within the Ulpana.

The senior students participate in all school functions and productions. They participate in the Memorial Day and Independence Day ceremonies. Some are Holocaust survivors and participate in the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony. At every school play, the first two rows in the audience are reserved for the senior students. Universities across Israel offer senior enrichment programs. The seniors could really go anywhere to learn – what draws them to the Ulpana is the unique bond that they are able to form with the girls.

One of the Seniors with her granddaughters in Ofra

Every year, they have a closing ceremony. The theme of the ceremony is the same every year: family. They invite the seniors’ families; spouses, children, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren. The school hands out diplomas, and last year they included the verse, “And see thy children’s children. Peace be upon Israel!” (Psalms 128: 6). By completing this program, they are bridging the gap between the generations, and creating a generation that is connected to its past.

Elisa added that the Kesher Harav Dori program is made possible with the help of some incredible people. She would like to thank Cheli Goldberg, the National Head of the Senior Classes and the Office of Social Equality, as well as Dorit HaMeiri, who is responsible for the program in the Binyamin Region. She would also like to thank Aviya Sheshar, the head of the school who came to her with this idea in the first place, as well as Moshe Batish, the principal of the Ulpana and Aviva Kaniel, both of whom she calls her “partner in this journey.” She would also like to thank all of the staff of the Ulpana who were able to take her and Aviya’s dreams and make them a reality. Today in Binyamin, there are three schools with this program. Elisa feels that the Kesher HaRav Dori program has helped everyone in the school become better people.

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