“Good morning, everyone. We have lots to discuss. But tell me first how all of you are,” Berlin says, offering her usual opening remarks to a sea of Zoom boxes staring back at her from a flat-screen TV on the wall above her.
So begins a conversation about politics and other news of the day, as well as deep deliberations on various personal quandaries. They lament lost spouses and hash out the recent election and related controversies. All topics are covered. Sometimes things get heated, but Berlin will bring down the temperature.
“Life is so deadly serious that you can’t treat it that way,” says Berlin, who is wearing a bold scarlet top with sequins, and often ties on a brightly colored scarf. “You have to lighten it up.”
Every Tuesday morning, dozens of women between the ages of 70 and 98 sign on for “The Ladies Room with Trudy Berlin” — a weekly discussion group Berlin has moderated for more than 20 years with a loyal following. When the pandemic hit, the long-standing in-person sessions went virtual.
“I’m 81 years old, and I want to be just like her when I grow up,” says Carol Makofsky, a regular attendee of Berlin’s class.
Grief is the central theme for today’s discussion, as Berlin is mourning the sudden loss of her nephew, with whom she spoke every day.
“You have all gone through grief, and unfortunately, we’re all going to go through grief again,” she begins.
Women nod pensively from their Zoom boxes. Some jot notes. Impassioned discussion ensues.
One by one, women in the group share their own stories of loss, and how they learned to cope with it.
“It will be six years in April,” one woman says about her husband’s tragic death. “I knew right from the beginning, though, that somehow, I was going to survive. I’ve learned that grief is the price you pay for great love.”
Berlin, who has endured more than her share of grief, offers her perspective.
“If someone you love dies, your first thought may be ‘I want to join them, I want to be with them,’” she says. “But always remember, your first thought should be, ‘I will survive to keep their memory alive.’ ”
The talk eventually shifts course, moving into an energetic debate about Doug Emhoff — Vice President Harris’s husband — the first-ever second gentlemen.
“Should we give Emhoff special credit for what political wives have been doing forever?” Berlin asks the group. “I’d like to hear from all of you.”
The women weigh in.
Several say that as a supportive husband, Emhoff is worthy of praise: “It’s a good example for all of us, and it’s a good thing for the men as well,” Thelma Drew, an avid participant in the Ladies Room for several years, says.
Others disagree, saying the focus on Emhoff takes the attention from Harris’s accomplishments.
“Kamala Harris’s husband is getting all this credit for being a supportive partner, but what about all the women like Kamala who are doing such phenomenal work?” a new participant to the class rebuts.
Several nod in agreement, unmuting themselves to chime in: “Nella, you are so right,” one woman says. “So well said,” another adds.
Berlin makes sure the back-and-forth stays friendly. “Our lifeblood is talking to each other,” she reminds them.
She tries to make the women feel supported, especially since many live alone and are suffering from extreme isolation, a condition that can lead to dire health problems.
“Women tell me they’ve been cheated out of a year, and it’s true, if you look at it that way,” she says. “But I’m learning and I’m growing, and I’m going to be better when this is all over.”
To those who know Berlin well, “she is Oprah,” says Beth Zoller, 46, Berlin’s great-niece.
Zoller’s sister, Lori Harrison, 42, agrees.
“Seeing the effect she’s had on the women in this class is just remarkable,” says Harrison, who always listens in on the sessions.
Alice Stockhamer, 78, who has attended Berlin’s classes for more than four years, can attest. “It’s been a lifeline,” she says.
“I am not a morning person, but I make sure Tuesday morning I am up and ready for class,” says Marilyn Snider, 79, a longtime participant of the Ladies Room.
The women flock to Berlin for advice and wisdom.
“I trust her with everything. She is very open about her life, which makes us open up,” Snider says.
Berlin’s own life experiences, the women say, have also positioned her for this role.
“You realize you’ve been through many tough situations — losses and all. You tighten your belt, and you keep going,” Berlin says.
Born in New York City in 1923, Berlin grew up in an Upper West Side apartment overlooking the Hudson River. The youngest of her two siblings, she remembers her early years fondly.
But when she was 10, her father died suddenly of a heart attack.
From then on, Berlin’s life was punctuated by loss: her older brother died unexpectedly when he was 45; her husband, whom she married when she was 21, took his own life at 56. In the years that followed, she suffered a string of losses. Most recently, her nephew.
“Life was handing me battles. I realized I had to keep myself going,” Berlin says. “The only way to lift tragedy is to bring light in.”
For her, the light was — and still is — education.
“Education is the only way. It’s a tool,” she says.
Although Berlin dropped out of Russell Sage College in Troy, N.Y., after getting married, her thirsty intellect ultimately drove her back to school.
At the age of 39, long after having her only child, she enrolled in Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, graduating in 1967. She earned both a bachelor’s degree in literature and community studies, and a master’s degree in college teaching.
“Sarah Lawrence opened up a world to me,” Berlin recalls. “I was starved for learning. I didn’t realize how much I treasured it.”
She later transitioned from student to quasi-teacher — first as the social director at a resort in Hudson Valley, N.Y., where her “Talks Under the Willow Tree” brought women back year after year to hear her speak and ponder life out loud.
Now, the Ladies Room has a similar appeal. Berlin moved to Boca Raton in 1989 and lives alone in an apartment next to the JCC, where she has been teaching courses since 2000. She was paid a small wage to teach before the pandemic, but since March, Berlin has been instructing the course as a volunteer. The group needed her more than ever, she figured.
“We very quickly realized that all of these people were going to feel extremely isolated,” says Stephanie Owitz, director of arts, culture and learning at the JCC, who helps facilitate the meetings. “The fact that these women are Zooming in every week is really quite miraculous.”
When the pandemic is over, the community center plans to still offer some classes online, especially for people who don’t have as much mobility.
Berlin, for her part, intends to continue running the Ladies Room for as long as she can, in whatever form she can.
“Time is limited, I am 98, after all,” she says. “But living your life is something you decide to do. And I decided a long time ago that I was going to do it.”
She reads the group a poem she recently wrote: “When my life has ended, and makes of me a seed, I would rather be a tree, than just another weed.”
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