Jenny Rabinoff had left her hearing aid at home, so she squinted her eyes, leaned forward in her seat and tilted her head in deep concentration, trying to understand. "You want to know what I think of the staff," the 88-year-old New Yorker said at last. "Well, I think they're all mensches."
The few staff members within earshot blushed at the complaint.
"I mean it," Rabinoff continued. "They are wonderful and supportive and kind and . . ."
Rabinoff's litany of praise was drowned by choruses of more praise -- with an occasional Yiddish or Hebrew exclamation thrown in. In fact, all 56 senior citizens attending the week-long seminar on Jewish history -- held last week at the University of Maryland -- wanted to put in a good word about the event.
Even dormitory living -- a first for almost all of the participants -- didn't faze them after the first day.
"Who cares about the communal bathrooms. I came for the courses," said Issac Anolick on his way to a lecture on "Women in Jewish Literature." Earlier in the day, Anolick and his classmates had attended the seminar's other academic offerings: "Languages of the Jews," and "Main Concepts in Jewish Law."
The American Jewish Congress, an umbrella association for Jewish organizations nationwide, introduced the $175 program this year with two one-week seminars at the Maryland campus and two at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
"We knew that most of our membership is elder adults, and we saw the postive side of that," said Marc Pearl, executive director of the AJC's Washington branch. "So often seniors shut themselves off from new experiences. The seminar fulfilled a need in terms of education and Judaic studies."
The program included evening lectures, square dancing, creative religious services and a tour of Washington's new B'nai B'rith museum.
But of all the activities, a lecture on the how-to's of effective political action seemed to energize the group the most.
The last day of the seminar was filled in its spare moments with the scribbling of postcards to newspapers and politicians who the seniors felt deserved extra praise -- or criticism -- for their views about Jewish issues.
"We put into action what we learned," said Frances Weissenberg, a retired teacher. Her husband, Al, stressed, however, that what they had learned about lobbying and petitioning applied to them as American citizens, not just as Jewish people. "We learned what was effective for Israel and America," he said.
As Weissenberg spoke, Deborah Ehrlick, a court reporter from New York City, was urging her fellow participants to write a radio station whose disc jockey, she said, had compared Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to a Nazi. Ehrlick also started a petition protesting the same radio incident.
But, she said, the seminar was "exciting and wonderful and marvelous" for more than just politics. It also revitalized her faith and pride in Judaism, she said.
Dorothy Jacobs, who traveled from San Francisco for the seminar, echoed Ehrlick's sentiments. "We are all looking for roots, and we could feel them here," she said. With its stress on the historical and enduring aspects of Jewish culture, "the seminar aroused the depths of our feelings about being Jewish."
"I learned a great deal about being a Jew," said Golda Chanoff, referring to the daily classes. "And for that reason my life is richer."
Like Chanoff, many seniors said that the seminar appealed to them mainly for its educational features.
"I've been trying to find a decent course on the religion of the Jews for eight years," said Leah Cantor. "This is like a dream come true." Cantor explained that many of her classmates didn't need any reaffirmation of faith -- they had plenty to begin with. As an example, she pointed to Esther Parzenczewski, a survivor of six concentration camps during World War II. "She doesn't need any more faith," Cantor said. "She has enough for all of us."
Parzenczewski herself said that locating the seminar on campus made her feel young. "Nobody treated us like tottering old fogies," she said, adding, "Being here makes you feel like there's no such thing as aging.