Let 100 Ollis Bloom-A Rabbi, a Billionaire and a Vision

Article excerpt

"Everything in my life is created by serendipitous moments," says Rabbi Harry Sky, recalling his key role in starting an adult learning program at the University of Southern Maine (USM) that has become the hub of a rapidly expanding national network of college institutes devoted to serving older learners.

Rabbi Sky, age 82, is the retired rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Portland, Maine. The serendipitous moment he is referring to occurred in the spring of 1999 when, after officiating at the funeral of a prominent local orthodontist, he was talking with one of the deceased man's brothers.

"So, Rabbi, what have you been doing?" the brother asked.

"I've been working for the past three years to establish a Senior College at USM," Rabbi Sky replied. "I don't know how to do it, but I'm trying." The man Harry Sky was talking to was billionaire California businessman and art patron Bernard Osher. He did know how.


"Mr. Osher was so impressed with Rabbi Sky and his description of Senior College and the work of [program director] Kali Lightfoot," said Mary Bitterman, president of the San Francisco-based Bernard Osher Foundation, "that he decided to move quickly. He is a Maine native and he is very straightforward. He decided to endow the program. When he got back to California, he said, 'Let's think about what more we could do here.'"

Seven years and tens of millions of Bernard Osher's dollars later, 93 Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes (OLLI) on college campuses now serve tens of thousands of seasoned adults from Maine to Hawaii. There are 30 OLLI campus programs in California alone. The Osher Foundation's goal is to establish and endow 100 Osher institutes nationwide.

The sudden rise of the OLLIs is the latest chapter in the modern history of adult education, a chapter that began in 1962 when the New School for Social Research in New York City responded to requests from retired local schoolteachers for more challenging noncredit courses. Today, more than 500 lifelong learning institutes operate in the United States, 300 of them in the Elderhostel Institute Network. Furthermore, the University of the Third Age is a network of lifelong learning programs at more than 500 sites throughout the world.

Bernard Osher, 79, made his fortune in the savings and loan industry through Golden West Financial Services Corporation and as the former owner of the Butterfield and Butterfield art auction firm in San Francisco. Until recently, Forbes listed Osher on its list of the 400 richest Americans, with an estimated net worth of close to $1 billion.

The Osher Foundation, which also gives grants to university tuition scholarships, three integrative medical centers, and arts or cultural organizations, developed a model to support the long-term stability of OLLIs. This approach involves several years of operating grants of $100,000 annually followed by consideration for an endowment grant of no less than $1 million. To date, eight of the Osher institutes have been endowed. Also, USM received $2 million in 2001 to endow the first Osher Lifelong Learning Center and another $2 million in 2004 to establish a national resource center for the growing OLLI network.


OLLIs are membership organizations. The institute at USM, for example, has 950 members who pay annual membership dues of $25 plus $50 for the first course and $25 for each additional course. The USM program uses peer teaching and all faculty are unpaid volunteers. Rabbi Sky has taught courses in scriptures, mysticism, the teachings of Carl Jung and the New Testament from a Jewish perspective. The very first course he taught on comparative world religions drew 110 students.

"It is people who never went to college and people with PhDs who taught college," said Rabbi Sky of students attracted to Osher classes. "It's people whose minds are still working, who want to learn new things and who don't want to live in isolation. …