At Penn South, Lively Debate on a Weekly Basis

Photo by Raanan Geberer  Members of the Penn South Program for Seniors’ Current Events and Ethics Group, which meets on Thursdays.
Photo by Raanan Geberer
Members of the Penn South Program for Seniors’ Current Events and Ethics Group, which meets on Thursdays.

BY RAANAN GEBERER  |  In one of Penn South’s ground-floor community rooms, a group of about 10 seniors meets, with a few home health aides accompanying them. The youngest are in their sixties. The oldest, Ruth Levy, is 101. They are all women, although men have joined this weekly group from time to time.

Anywhere else, women of this age would be exchanging photos of their grandchildren — but this is Penn South, one of the most politically engaged communities in Manhattan, and this is a meeting of the Penn South Program for Seniors’ Current Events and Ethics Group.

Penn South, also known as Mutual Redevelopment Houses, has the distinction of having established the first official NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community) program in the country. Penn South Program for Seniors, administered by Jewish Association Serving the Aging (JASA), is part of this effort, and sponsors an extensive variety of classes, social services and events.

The weekly discussion group is headed by Myra Ackerman, 86, an articulate, no-nonsense former medical technologist. When an earlier group leader left, Myra, who had been coming to meetings for quite some time, was asked to lead it, and does so on a volunteer basis. She’s well-versed in both national and international affairs — and doesn’t even own a computer.

Ackerman comes to each session with articles from the New York Times as well as printouts of web articles sent to her by her son, a professor of molecular biology in Boston with a keen interest in history and politics. She also watches CNN and MSNBC. “My son wants me to watch Fox News [for balance], but I don’t want to give myself a heart attack,” she says.

Most of the members share the same political orientation, which might be called mainstream liberal Democratic. In several weeks’ worth of discussions, they revealed themselves to be pro-Obama and, in the recent Gaza conflict, basically pro-Israel. There’s little evidence of any Republicans, or of the legendary old-time leftists of Penn South. Ackerman names one of the older members as being part of the latter group, but says they’re “dying out. I can count them on one hand.”

One reason why there are so few men might be that women usually outlive men. Another might be that Penn South Program for Seniors runs its own Men’s Discussion Group. One who used to come to the group on a regular basis, but who now has another event at the same time is Herb Dienstag, a retired computer programmer and technical writer. “The group is well-run, and she [Ackerman] researches all questions very well. I particularly enjoyed the discussion on the Obama administration” says Dienstag, who describes the group’s orientation as “a little more liberal than me.”

Most of the time, Ackerman chooses the topics and starts the discussion by reading from the articles she’s brought. Many of the writers she quotes are nationally known: David Brooks of the Times and E.J. Dionne and Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post. In the three weeks that this writer attended the class, several topics understandably came up over and over again: President Obama’s struggles with the Congressional Republicans, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the fighting in Gaza.

Talking about Speaker John Boehner’s recent moves to sue President Obama, Ackerman said she had talked to several “top lawyers,” and they “all laughed” and said the suit had “no legal basis.” Speaking about Tea Party-type Republicans in general, another senior interjected: “They know from bupkis [Yiddish for “nothing”]!”

On several occasions, Ackerman gave this interpretation of Obama: That he’s low-key, non-confrontational and prefers to work behind the scenes. “He’s not a wheeler-dealer in Congress: He doesn’t schmooze, he doesn’t take them [his enemies] out for drinks or for golf.” She compares Obama’s style with George H.W. Bush — but not with George W. Bush, who is not very popular in Penn South.

One subject that gets the mostly-Jewish group’s attention is that of Israel. Several times, Ackerman talked about the tunnels that Hamas had built, making the point that the concrete used to make them could have been used to build schools, hospitals, roads and more. She read an article by Brooks, whom she describes as a “moderate Republican,” that suggests that the Gaza conflict was really a proxy war between Turkey and Qatar, which were supporting Hamas, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which were secretly rooting for Israel because they wanted to weaken Hamas. The group members made approving comments: “Israel is being used as the monkey in the middle!”

On the subject of Ukraine, Ackerman brought up a point that isn’t usually heard on TV sound bites — that the U.S. has accused Russia of violating a 1987 agreement between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that said that neither country can possess, produce or test-fly a ground-launched cruise missile with a range of 300 to 3,400 miles. “Putin is in a pickle,” she said the next week. “His problem is that the economy in Russia is not good.”

But it was the topic of feminism that perhaps got the most audible reaction from the group. Ackerman described the event in Washington where Laura Bush and Michelle Obama addressed the wives of African leaders.  The most important thing to come out of the meeting, Ackerman said, was the two first ladies’ encouragement of women taking leadership roles in public life. She approvingly quoted Michelle Obama’s comment that “women are smarter than men.”

“We know it,” said Phyllis, one of the younger members of the group, approvingly. “But the world doesn’t know it!” Many of the other women also agreed.

Commenting on the importance of the group to its members, Nancy Spanbauer, executive director of Penn South Program for Seniors, said, “I think that people who are interested in current events are alert and are interested in the world. And we added the word ‘ethics’ to the group, so they often discuss ethics as well.”

Although the members seem to basically agree with each other, Ackerman remembers one occasion where this wasn’t the case. During the 2008 Democratic primary contest season, the group took a poll on which presidential candidate they preferred, Obama or Hillary Clinton. They chose Obama. “One woman who supported Hillary got very angry, stormed out the door and never came back again!”