When Mara Leff first heard about the shooting in Squirrel Hill on Oct. 27, she immediately thought of Pittsburgh’s many isolated senior citizens, who were surely watching the news and having to absorb the shock of the tragedy all alone.

What if you didn’t have an outlet to express yourself, to grieve, to try to understand what happened?” she asks.

Fortunately, Leff was in a position to help. As the program director of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation’s Virtual Senior Academy, she helps senior citizens throughout the greater Pittsburgh area engage with their peers through live, interactive online classes.

Last week, she arranged a special class with a licensed therapist, allowing users to grieve with one another and seek advice from the therapist — all from the comfort of their own homes or living facilities.

The Academy will offer the same class again on Nov. 7 and perhaps beyond.

“We’ll run it as long as we think the community needs it,” Leff says. “I know, personally, how hard the tragedy has been for me, and I have a huge support system.”

But the users of the Academy, which recently won the $10,000 Audience Favorite UpPrize award and does not charge seniors any fees for classes, log on for many reasons beyond communal therapy.

The Jewish Healthcare Foundation started the program in August 2017 to address the widespread issue of social isolation among the elderly. Many older Pittsburghers have mobility issues that keep them from engaging in community opportunities.

It’s hard to have a social life if you can’t leave your home — or, at least, it can be: Thanks to the magic of video chat software, mobility isn’t a barrier for the Virtual Senior Academy. All users need is a computer with an internet connection, a web camera and a microphone; no walking shoes or car required.

But what about seniors who find the process of registering for classes and setting up the equipment daunting? Soon that won’t be a barrier either; college students can come to the rescue. A plan is in the works for local undergraduate and graduate students to volunteer as Tech Buddies, traveling to seniors’ homes to serve as personal web gurus.

“I think it’ll be a really beautiful intergenerational opportunity,” says Leff, who hopes that many of the Tech Buddies will form bonds with their elderly buddies and take the virtual classes along with them.

Speaking of the free classes, they span a wide variety of topics, including health and wellness, arts and culture, and history and current events. And many aren’t “classes” in the typical format of a lecture. They are gathering places in the form of book clubs, chair yoga lessons, pierogi cooking demos and an astronomy club, to name a few.

Some classes are weekly, others monthly or one-time only. All are led by local partner organizations and individual volunteers. Retired teachers share their knowledge of history and science, while one nonagenarian leads a book club and the University of Pittsburgh has given a virtual tour of its Nationality Rooms. 

The Pittsburgh Glass Center has demonstrated how to blow a glass vase and The Andy Warhol Museum’s virtual classes are especially popular thanks to sneak peeks of upcoming exhibits.

It’s really beautiful to know that our community organizations are willing to provide content over an innovative platform,” says Leff. “It allows them to reach folks they might not get to reach in person.”

That number of “folks,” by the way, is around 800 registered users. But for Leff and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, the program is about far more than teaching a dozen seniors to watercolor. (Yes, there’s a class for that, too.) It’s about civic responsibility.

“I think, especially in this day and age, we need to take care of everyone in society,” says Leff. “It’s so important that no citizen is left out of their community.”