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CEO Letter: The Blessings of Grandparenting — Jewish LearningWorks

When I was ten years old, our family saw Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway.  This was a big deal.  My grandparents, who NEVER went to the theater, came.  As immigrants from Eastern Europe, Fiddler felt like their story. 

The first act climaxes with a wedding, punctuated by a pogrom, bringing the wedding joy to a crashing halt. The townspeople invade and trash the wedding, and the roughed-up celebrants flee in fear.

The sold-out crowd is stunned; you can hear a pin drop.

Until my grandmother, resident of the Bronx, by way of Przemyśl, Poland, pierces the silence:  “This they call a pogrom?” she remarks, unimpressed.

My grandparents were in my life growing up. They helped me situate myself in the world – where I came from, and to whose stories I belonged.

As I approach the age when I may become a grandparent myself, I’m beginning to appreciate the role that grandparents play in Jewish education.

Historically, Jewish families have been multi-generational. This structure has in recent times been interrupted – by modernity, by the separation of an ocean among generations of immigrants, by the Holocaust, and by the rise of the nuclear family.

Today, Jewish grandparenting is making a comeback. Jewish parenting is more challenging than ever; many young parents accept all the help they can get. And for many boomers, at or nearing the end of their careers, grandparenting emerges as a next and deeply enriching chapter in their still vibrant lives.

I have a friend whose grandchildren visit each Friday to help her cook Shabbat dinner. A colleague whose son partners in regular Jewish learning with his grandfather, her dad, in preparation for his Bar Mitzvah. These relationships are not hindered by distance – I have friends whose children moved to Israel – they now video-chat with their grandchildren several times a week, across ten time zones.

Such everyday moments have great long-term impact. The research bears this out.

In a study conducted by Emory University researchers, children who have been exposed to family stories were found to be more resilient. Family stories like – “where did we come from, and how did we get here?” The kind of stories one gets from grandparents.

A 2014 study of Jewish college students found that those who participated in Jewish activities with their grandparents felt stronger Jewish attachments. A second study shows that “connection to Jewish grandparents is an important predictor of Jewish attitudes and practices.”

This is not surprising. Identity development involves questions like – “to whose story do I belong?” and “how do I fit into that story?” Intergenerational relationships and stories help children address those questions.

Two caveats:

Such studies might lead some to limit their view of grandparents as simply instruments of Jewish continuity. While a grandparent-grandchild relationship is, in a sense, the embodiment of continuity, this view sells short relationships that can be deeply enriching for all sides of the equation (grandparent, grandchild, and the middle generation).

And, not every child has grandparents and not every older adult has grandchildren. This is not essential for profound intergenerational relationships. I have seen great-aunts and uncles and others with no blood relationship whatsoever play a similar role in intentional communities and families. How might our congregations and communities help create such inter-generational relationships?

Grandparenting today has its rewards, but it is not without challenges. Technology notwithstanding, physical distance can be a barrier. And even among families in close proximity, navigating family and interreligious dynamics can be thorny.  How to be helpful but not intrusive? How to communicate one’s own Jewish values without coming across as overbearing or judgmental?  

Jewish grandparents are getting organized, to help one another tackle those challenges. A Jewish Grandparenting Network has been founded, for this purpose. After a nationwide study, the Jewish Grandparenting Network has identified five paradigms of Jewish grandparents:

Joyful Transmitters:  They love being grandparents and feel it’s important to transmit Jewish values and beliefs;

Faithful Transmitters:  They want their grandchildren to have a strong connection to Judaism and to marry Jews;

Engaged Secularists:  Engaged grandparents, but they don’t model Jewish practice for their grandchildren;

Wistful Outsiders:  They want to be more involved, but family dynamics get in the way;

Non-Transmitters:  Neither Jewishly engaged nor interested in passing on Jewish practice to their grandchildren.

Are you a Jewish grandparent?  Do these descriptions fit your experience?

Years ago, understanding that important Jewish learning happens in the home, we expanded our work to support Jewish parenting. Now, we have a new question – do grandparents seek support as well? If so, what kind of support? If you are a Jewish grandparent (or for that matter, if you are related to Jewish grandparents) – how might we be most helpful in advancing Jewish grandparenting that enriches lives?  What tools, resources, knowledge, skills, and connections might help grandparents strengthen their capacity and enrich their experience?

We’re exploring ideas, but we want to hear from grandparents. In January, at our one-day educational summit on January 13 – ELEVATE:  Inspiring New Ideas in Jewish Education – we will offer a session: Opening of the Heart: Becoming a Jewish Grandparent. It will be an opportunity for Jewish grandparents to gather, to learn together, and to let us know how we can help them.

If you are or are close to a Jewish grandparent with ideas on how to advance grandparenting, or if you have questions or seek help -I’d like to hear from you!

David Waksberg
Chief Executive Officer