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Jewish Journal

Seniors Flock to OASIS of Learning

by Nancy Sokoler Steiner

August 5, 2004 | 8:00 pm

"Make the shape of a U with your hips," coaches belly-dancing teacher Elexa Williams. Her students willingly comply, rolling their shoulders, gyrating their torsos and undulating their hips as they follow the teacher's example. Around their waists, the participants wear scarves adorned with rows of coins, and as they move, the room fills with a rhythmic jingling sound.

Down the hall, students peer intently at computer screens, struggling to learn the nuances of sending e-mails and creating documents in Microsoft Word.

OASIS, a program offering educational, enrichment and volunteer opportunities. Part of a national network, OASIS in Los Angeles is a program of Jewish Family Service, and is co-sponsored by Robinsons-May, the Los Angeles Department of Aging and the Westside Pavilion.

OASIS provides an eclectic array of classes, many of which are free. Fitness fans can choose among such options as chair exercise, yoga and karate. Art buffs can study French and American impressionism or drawing. Others can explore Jewish spirituality, analyze Shakespeare or play guitar. Some of the classes are even taught by retired professors from UCLA and USC. And seniors who wish to travel can choose among a variety of day excursions and extended trips.

"I think OASIS is wonderful because they have so much to offer," said Aura, a 72-year-old participant in the belly-dancing class. She also takes "The Rabbi Speaks," with Rabbi Michael Resnick, and a bridge class, which she said "works the aging matter in your brain."

"OASIS provides learning and growth opportunities for active people who live at home," program director Victoria Neal said. "It's a progressive alternative for those who might feel like they're with old people' when they attend senior centers or meal programs."

Neal estimates that between 1,200 and 1,500 individuals ranging in age from 60 to 95 attend classes at OASIS' Westside locations each week. Most Westside classes meet within OASIS' warren of classrooms inside the Robinsons-May at the Westside Pavilion. Others meet in community rooms within the shopping center. Satellite locations include the Farmers Market, Park La Brea, Workmen's Circle and Jewish Family Service's Pico-Robertson Storefront and Freda Mohr Multiservice Center on Fairfax. In Woodland Hills, classes are offered in conjunction with Pierce College through the Encore-OASIS program.

The national OASIS program was founded in 1982 in St. Louis by educator Marylen Mann and Margie Wolcott May of the May department store family.

"They wanted to create a program fostering wellness, companionship and vitality for mature adults," Los Angeles OASIS assistant director Rachelle Sommers Smith said. "They didn't feel that existing programs offered sufficient stimulation for retired people."

OASIS is now available in 26 cities nationwide.

For the past five years, Fanny Behmoiras, 66, has been making a weekly trek to Pico-Robertson from Encino to attend the life history writing class.

"I come rain or shine," said Behmoiras, who has written 153 vignettes, including those describing her family's flight from Cuba in 1961. During this session, she shares her account of the joy of her grandson's bar mitzvah, followed days later by the anguish of losing a cherished family member.

Her instructor, Bea Mitz, explains that participants write their memoirs to leave a history for their children and grandchildren. "They do this so that whoever follows will not have to say, 'I didn't ask ... I wish I knew.'"

Bella Haroutunian, 73, follows life history with an intermediate computer class.

"I started a year ago," Haroutunian said. "I had very little knowledge about computers, and I wanted to write my memoirs."

Now she uses the computer not only to compose her life story, but also to e-mail friends and family and research her upcoming trip to Europe and Russia.

It makes me feel that I'm a little bit up-to-date," she said. "Before, I felt that I was so behind on this technology."

Neal says many OASIS participants explore new hobbies or careers through the program.

"They're doing what they love to do and never had a chance to do," she said.

OASIS also provides volunteer opportunities for seniors, who help keep the program running. Ruth Morraine, 94, has been volunteering twice a week since 1991, assisting with clerical and bookkeeping tasks. She doesn't seem at all daunted by the need to take a taxi and two buses to reach her destination. As Morraine says, "Age is just a number, honey."

For more information, visit or call (310) 475-4911, ext. 2200 (Westside); (818) 710-4163 (Woodland Hills); (323) 298-7541 ext. 2517 (Baldwin Hills); (310) 547-0090 (San Pedro) or (562) 601-5010 (Long Beach/Lakewood).

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