Society of Active Retirees (SOAR), a lifelong learning initiative for adults affiliated with Wayne State University and Road Scholar Institute (formerly Elderhostel), attracts many Jewish members year after year — as many as “one-third of our students, although we don’t ask for that information,” said retired attorney Susan Greenfield of the SOAR board.
Jews are also well-represented among the program’s instructors and leaders, including SOAR Executive Director Ralph Stromberg. He and two assistants are the only paid staff.
“SOAR’s mission is to provide a quality experience of active learning and social relationships,” Stromberg said.
The way SOAR works is that during fall term (October and November) and spring term (April and May), participants register for eight of SOAR’s approximately 75 non-credit classes in many topic categories. Classes have included Jewish literature and history.
Two-hour sessions are scheduled in the morning and afternoon, and they meet once or multiple times. The cost is $80. After the early registration deadline, students may register for more classes at no additional charge if seats remain.
Most sessions meet in the WSU-Oakland Center in Farmington Hills, with larger classes held at Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills and occasionally at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield.
Winter term is popular with SOAR’s non-snowbirds. Different themes, such as World War II, are chosen for February and March, with aspects of each topic explored over four successive Wednesdays.
Additional SOAR benefits include its two film clubs, book club, field trips and special events. Many students look forward to WSU Professor Jack Lessenberry’s twice-yearly free lectures on Michigan history, politics or current affairs.
“SOAR attracts people who want to think deeply about issues in society, get information and learn things that have happened in the past,” said Lessenberry, a member of Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park and a WUOM-FM radio host.
“These are people who read books and think about important stuff,” he said. “They keep me on my toes and ask good questions.”
Barbara Spreitzer-Berent, who works closely with Judy Orbach, the program’s curriculum chair, said, “SOAR is one of the area’s best-kept secrets. It is a constructive way to spend my time, use my brain and have fun.”
The founders had all those things in mind when they organized SOAR 14 years ago.
Lifelong learning programs for retirees, sponsored by colleges and universities, were nothing new when WSU mounted its own, according to SOAR board member Martin Herman, Ph.D. The retired WSU humanities professor explores opera for SOAR. In 2003, he said, WSU approved a faculty-led proposal to devise a “coherent and meaningful outreach program that addressed the needs of community retirees.”
One of SOAR’s prominent founders was the late Norma Goldman, who taught Latin at WSU from 1945-91. She recruited members to the original SOAR steering committee. Members were current or recently retired WSU faculty and staff members, as well as representatives from local community organizations, including the Area Agency on Aging.
Others important to SOAR’s success were Sharon O’Brien, who is still prominent; Bill Slater and Fred Marblestone. In recent years, 875 was the peak of enrollment for a single SOAR term.
SOAR’s instructors contribute their services because they enjoy sharing their knowledge and want to benefit the community.
One popular instructor is Mel Chudnof, Ph.D., who retired from Oakland Community College after a 43-year career as professor of psychology and social work. A former student working for SOAR introduced him to the program.
Chudnof has taught five different class topics in his specialty, including “Mentally Healthy Aging.” He also presented on his genealogy research trip to Ukraine.
SOAR students are “an enthusiastic and verbal group of 60- to 90-year-olds, who have had a fascinating variety of professional and life experiences,” Chudnof said. “I get a lot of participation and discussion.”
Michael Beltzman, a SOAR board member retired from sales and marketing, has many returnees for his film discussion classes.
Beltzman became an instructor because, like his students, he loves watching good films.
Other Jewish instructors and their subjects include Paula Finkelstein, literature; Fred Pearson, political science; Robert Sedler, constitutional law; and Arnold Collens, combining photography with history.
After retirement, Dr. Larry Abramson sought things that would “keep me entertained, increase my knowledge or appreciation of additional subjects and offer opportunities to meet like-minded individuals.” Conversations with friends and family led him to SOAR.
He regularly signs up for “Great Decisions,” a focused group discussion on foreign policy.
“It provides a historical basis and then explores significant issues impacting the U.S.,” Abramson said.
His passion for cinema has grown, thanks to classes with Beltzman and Elliott Wilhelm, curator for the DIA’s Detroit Film Theatre. Abramson credits SOAR field trips for giving him “an increased appreciation of my community.”
Spreitzer-Berent, a retired gerontologist, studies art, architecture, health, law, music, politics, religion and science — “whatever happens to pique my interest at the time.”
SOAR often fills a need for retirees who miss their circle of friends at work.
“Along with the teaching, which I enjoy, I have had the pleasure of meeting some terrific people, both in the classroom and throughout the faculty,” Beltzman said. “Many of these people have become good friends.”