‘I’m secular but I have a strong sense of Jewish identity. I’m proud of my heritage,” says artist Clila Ben-Amram Segre, who is participating in a group exhibition on Jewish themes at the Jerusalem House of Quality.

Segre is one of 80 retirees, mostly in their 70s and 80s, whose works are on display.

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Many middle-aged employees talk about all the things they’re going to do when they retire – things they simply don’t have time for in the course of a regular work routine. But as retirement age looms closer, ambitions are overwhelmed by the fear of losing the framework of discipline and not having a reason to get up in the morning.

For active people, such fears dissipate as they join volunteer organizations and daytime social groups, and some often find themselves busier in retirement than when they were employed. And then there are those who either discover a latent talent for art or who had already displayed such talents in the past but never had sufficient time to engage in the art form. It was for them that Shulamit Sirota, a retired teacher who subsequently learned how to make jewelry, organized the first nucleus of creative pensioners.

She managed to bring together some 20 professional, semi-professional and amateur artists who turned a Rehov Hapalmah public bomb shelter made available by the municipality into a studio.

That was 15 years ago. Since then, the numbers have grown and so has the program.

Segre, the chairperson of Creative Pensioners, is a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and worked as a professional art teacher prior to her retirement.

The Italian-born Segre told In Jerusalem that Sirota’s purpose in forming Creative Pensioners was to convince retired people that “they had not reached the end of their lives but were simply embarking on a new path.”

Her reasoning, according to Segre, was that a person has to wake up each day with a certain target in mind; and if that aim is art, it will make him or her much happier.

“Simply thinking about doing something creative makes people much happier and gives them enormous satisfaction,” says Segre.

“It’s not just a matter of deciding that they want to do something; they have to solve artistic problems of color and structure, and the challenge is good for them both mentally and physically,” she says, quoting the old adage “a healthy mind makes for a healthy body.” People who are busy working out solutions to their artistic problems “haven’t got time to waste at kupat holim,” she adds.

The 80 artists, who are showing paintings, silk screen prints, sculpture, ceramics and embroideries, belong to various senior citizens clubs throughout Jerusalem. Not all the participating artists are religiously observant, but none objected to having Jewish themes as the focal point of the exhibition, and many used religious symbolism or scenes of the Old City as the Jewish expression of their art.

Sculptor Malka Gutglick, looking at some of the ceramic hanukkiot, says that while they did not appeal to her personal taste, she could appreciate the work that went into them and the originality of the designs. They were certainly different from those on sale in the city’s arts and crafts gift shops.

While Gutglick is observant, Segre is secular.

Gutglick, who has a passion for sculpture, not only creates but also studies her craft. Tuesdays are reserved for sculpture lessons. “I never miss a lesson with my teacher,” she says. The teachers are all volunteers, who on different days of the week teach painting, sculpture, mosaics, silk screen and glass works.

The Creative Pensioners also attend workshops in Jerusalem and the Ein Hod artists’ village, have exhibited in various places, and have contributed to the sculptures in the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens and to the Lions of Jerusalem project. They’ve also done the mosaics for two synagogues.

Both Segre and Gutglick have only one complaint: The premises made available by the Jerusalem municipality have become increasingly unsuitable.

“We need another place with air in which to work,” says Segre. “It’s very difficult to work there,” Gutglick concurs. “People come because they’re interested, but it’s difficult for them to breathe.”

The group is now looking for an alternative, noting that that there are many public buildings in Jerusalem that are not used in the daytime and could be used by Creative Pensioners.

The exhibition remains on view until June 15. and can be seen between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Some of the concepts of things Jewish are traditional, such as a Jewish wedding, an oil painting by Hedva Klein. Some evoke nostalgia, such as the oil painting of Batei Ungarn in Mea She’arim by Miriam Dreyfus. And some are very modern like Eliezer and Devora Apt’s technical collage entitled And All the People Saw the Voices.

Embroidery enthusiasts will be impressed by the stitching of the parochet (curtain for the Holy Ark), beautifully worked by Hannah Cohen. There are also several other examples of fine embroidery.

Once you get involved, says Gutglick, it really keeps you on your toes. She cites as an example Ovadia Davidson, who for many years was a maths teacher at the Gymnasia before he was appointed headmaster of the school. Then he went and studied sculpture for which he discovered he has an amazing aptitude. Now he also teaches sculpture.

For Segre, having already experienced the vicissitudes of life is an asset. Contrary to the reluctance of some women to admit to being a member of the third age, she declares, “I earned my wrinkles honestly.”
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