Having become the grandfather of two wonderful boys, cousins Nathan and Ilan, I was recently drawn to an article in Tablet entitled: “Valuing Jewish Grandparents.” The article reports on the work being done by the Jewish Grandparents Network (JGN), the brainchild of co-founders Lee Hendler and David Raphael. JGN posits that Jewish grandparents may be “an undervalued resource” within the dynamic of American Jewish life. To explore this view, JGN initiated a survey of nearly 8000 Jewish American grandparents.
Thank you Lee and David for pointing out in the various reportage on JGN that Jewish grandparents are “on the front lines of Jewish continuity, but institutions are ignoring us rather than enlisting us as partners.” A tip of the hat to nationally to PJ Library for their grandparents initiatives, but for the most part I also have observed that most Jewish organizations miss the important role grandparents can play in Jewish family and communal life. Our grandchildren are on their Jewish journeys with their cries of hinenu, we are here. We also are here, and, in the tradition of dor l’dor, can contribute much to making sense of our shared Jewish road, overcoming obstacles, supporting our grandchildren through difficult times, and paving a better road for them and even those who will come after.
We grandparents are not monolithic in our Jewish identities, community presence, family interactions, or hopes for our grandchildren. So I was not surprised to read that initial JGN findings segmented respondents into the following five categories: Joyful Transmitters, grandparents who love their role and wish to pass on Jewish beliefs and values (20%); Faithful Transmitters, who want their grandchildren to have a strong connection to Judaism and to marry within the religion (16%); Engaged Secularists, who are active in the Jewish community but don’t model Jewish involvement for their grandchildren (23%); Wistful Outsiders, who want to be more involved with their grandchildren, but family dynamics get in the way (20%); Non-Transmitters, who are not engaged in Jewish life nor interested in passing on Jewish practices to their grandchildren (20%).
I am awaiting the publication of fuller survey results, so for now, I am willing to set aside my questions on the divisions inherent in each of the categories. For instance, can’t a “Joyful Transmitter” also be a “Wistful Outsider” as in some instances, “family dynamics get in the way?” Or, might “Engaged Secularists” love being a grandparent and just by being “active in the Jewish community,” also “model Jewish involvement for their grandchildren?”
Regardless, with perhaps the exception of the “Non-Transmitters,” might 80% of Jewish grandparents, with their various “attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and needs,” coalesce around a few core expectations of how we together with Jewish organizations and communities can care for our grandchildren? But let’s also consider that being a Jewish grandparent may be as much a state of mind and expression of a Jewish neshama that looks to nurture subsequent generations as it is a narrower, familial phenomenon. Thus, may we expand our definition of “grandparent” to include Jewish seniors who do not have grandchildren yet also care deeply about our Jewish youth? Additionally, since the early results of the JGN survey showed 54% of respondents lived a considerable distance from their grandchildren, should we broaden our thinking about “grandparents” to include the nurturing of all Jewish children and not just our own?
Certainly the establishment of Jewish centers and schools for our children safe from the exterior threats beleaguering our country is a core expectation of Jewish grandparents. We are worriers. We ceaselessly worried (ok, still do) about our children, and now we worry about our grandchildren. But I worry less when I am actively involved in a course of action. The ADL has a list of “18 best practices for institutional security.” Within the policing and technological initiatives laid out by the ADL, might grandparents serve as backup (if not lead) evacuation coordinators, emergency/incident managers, or community public safety liaison officers? Many of us have the time and resolve.
I think most of us want Jewish institutions to build Jewish pride and joy within our grandchildren. We can assist. I believe Jewish pride and joy are organically incubated and then hatched through Jewish stories, songs, and activities. We grandparents have the talents to bring music, singing, and theater to our grandchildren. We can tell our Jewish stories, from a hokey version of walking five miles to cheder in the snow, to having volunteered one summer on an Israeli kibbutz, to being a Jew in our country’s military, and sadly, but imperatively for some of us, the experience of being the child of Holocaust survivors, stories of not only grandparents but also great-grandparents that must never stop being told.
Most of us look to Jewish institutions to provide our grandchildren with the emotional and informational sustenance to build courage and resilience to travel well their Jewish journeys. I hope our grandchildren will experience schools and religious institutions that incorporate the particularism of Jewish identity and community and celebrate Jewish economic, intellectual, artistic, and societal achievements which have advanced all communities. We grandparents can be the role models that inform and energize the narratives carrying these perspectives.
Imagine hearing from one of us who marched with Heschel or who was with Schwerner and Goodman in Mississippi fighting and suffering for the Civil Rights movement. Picture a grandmother recounting the prominent role Jewish women played during the Mad Men era in the movement for gender equality. Think of the Jewish messages conveyed by grandparents who served in the IDF or who rushed to aid Israel in 1967 because they realized back then as they do now that without Israel, a Jewish future is in grave danger.
And consider the impression a grandparent, whether born wealthy or poor, would make by transmitting the satisfaction derived from having worked with determination and honor to build a business that created jobs and, as a result, able today through charitable programs to help repair fissures in needy communities. If Jewish institutions invite us, we grandparents can say unflinchingly, “take pride in what your Jewish brothers and sisters have accomplished and continue to accomplish. Never apologize for your achievements.”
Jewish book publishing and music houses, many of them small yet dedicated, are so valuable in contributing Jewish materials to libraries now sprawling in every area of our grandchildren’s homes. Might books and music publishers bring us together as a focus group to hear ideas? For instance, if not already written, wouldn’t a book called Saba and Savta bring Ahava that shows baby boomer grandparents looking “groovy,” “cool,” and “outta sight” interacting with their grandchildren rocket to best seller status?
Yes, hinenu, we Jewish grandparents are here and willing to respond. Jewish institutions need just call.