BY DEBORAH MOON
Middle school students from all three Portland-area Jewish day schools had meaningful intergenerational experiences with local Jewish seniors this school year.
Better Together is a four-year program generously supported by a prominent national foundation, which wishes to remain anonymous. Better Together is designed to foster connection between the generations. Through monthly meetings and correspondence, students gain sensitivity and dedication to the needs of seniors, while learning from the seniors’ wealth of wisdom and experience.
In their first year in the program, Maayan Torah Day School in Lake Oswego partnered with Mirabella Portland. Maimonides Jewish Day School, also in its first year in the intergenerational program, partnered with Chabad Seniors. Portland Jewish Academy launched the program in 2015 and has continued to meet with residents at Rose Schnitzer Manor even though the national funding has expired.
MAAYAN TORAH DAY SCHOOL
Maayan’s middle school students have benefitted tremendously by participating in a Better Together intergenerational program with residents of Mirabella in downtown Portland, according to Judaic enrichment teacher Malky Weisman. Students forged inspiring friendships while engaging in thoughtful activities together, with their guiding theme, “Building a World of Kindness... Together.”
Although Covid-19 was a major hurdle that prevented visits, the students and seniors – disappointed though they were – have risen to the challenge. They now communicate through letter writing and are working on a video montage as a keepsake to forever cherish their in-person memories.
Some highlights of their experiences can be gleaned from reading the articles students wrote while participating in a Better2Write contest. Entries for the writing contest focused on how the students were impacted by the program, as reflected in their feelings about seniors, aging, and the mitzvah of caring for the elderly, and underscoring their personal growth while getting to know the residents.
Participating students and their essays are:
Chaya Fischer, 7th grade, Gaining from the Crown of Glory (winner of the student prize)
Aliyah Derfler, 8th grade, The Experience of Wisdom (second)
Annabella Nemer, 7th grade, Better Together Stories Forever
Gabriella Rogoway, 8th grade, The Experience of Connecting with the Elderly
Meira Brodkin, 7th grade, My Modern-Day Story of Ruth: How One Woman Changed Me for the Better
Ruth Derfler, 6th grade, Sharing is Caring
Sarah Spivak, 8th grade, Judging People Favorably
Sarah Esther Weisman, 6th grade, My Surrogate Grandparent
Tamar Spivak, 6th grade, Life Lessons I Learned.
“At Mirabella, I was privileged to learn new things,” wrote Tamar Spivak. “The seniors have lived for longer and have had more life experiences than me. They have firsthand accounts of how they were brought closer to G-d, and hearing these tales strengthens my own personal faith. G-d has helped them in many more ways that I can even imagine and being in their company has truly impacted who I am as a person. I was extremely disappointed when Megan, the director of programs at Mirabella, told our teacher, Mrs. Weisman, that we couldn’t continue to come because of the Coronavirus. I really enjoy my time there and can’t wait to go back when the world order returns.”
Meira Brodkin wrote: “When my class visits Mirabella, you can see the changes on the seniors’ faces. You can sense how they seem to feel happier and more important. But surprisingly, … I see the huge impact that it has on us (as) children. When we visit with the seniors, there is no competition in the room. Being in middle school, sometimes there is a question of who is the top of the class for most everything. However, as soon as we walk into the elder home, we aren’t looking to see who is the best … Better Together gives us the opportunity to get attention and self-confidence in ourselves. We learn through experience to trust ourselves and our abilities to reach out to others. We take our responsibility to care for the seniors seriously. Going to Mirabella helps kids like myself to mature and access our inner wisdom from spending time with seniors.”
Chaya Fischer summed up the program so well: “I am so grateful that I had a privileged view into the world of seniors. In these times of unprecedented loneliness, I pray for the True Healer to bring renewed health, strength and wisdom to our crown of glory, the elderly, in this trying time.”
MAIMONIDES JEWISH DAY SCHOOL
MJDS middle-schoolers started meeting with Chabad Seniors in October and continued monthly face-to-face meetings until March, when their final gathering was a Friday evening program.
“They learned together, snacked together, and braided and baked challah together,” says Judaic studies teacher Devora Wilhelm, who has been an integral part of the school since its founding in 1985. The 18 participants would learn psalms on a new theme each month and then break into pairs for discussion.
Before the pandemic halted in person gatherings, students and seniors made soup and challah to share with community members in need. The food program was inspired by the Jewish saying, “When two Jews get together it should benefit a third.”
One recipient wrote, “I want to thank you and all the elders and young people for the soup and challah. Because I work full time, it is hard to be the one to stay on top of cooking for, and delivering to, everyone. Both my daughter and sister were so happy to have the soup and challah. This is a wonderful mitzvah you all come together to do.”
Since the Stay Home orders made in-person gatherings impossible, the students have kept up with the seniors through phone calls and a Zoom session. On the Zoom program, the students shared remarks they had prepared and everyone sang together. The school has continued to send challah made in homes to the now homebound seniors for Shabbat and Mother’s Day.
Students are also creating a keepsake book for both the seniors and students to remember their time together. The yearbook will include recipes of soups the students and seniors made together. Students also are interviewing seniors on the phone to share their life stories and wisdom in the yearbook.
PORTLAND JEWISH ACADEMY
PJA’s 7th and 8th graders and seniors at Rose Schnitzer Manor have been gathering since 2015. Since the national funding has expired after the two-year pilot program, PJA now calls their intergenerational program B’Yachad (Together). It is now funded by the Merritt and Cookie Yoelin Fund at OJCF and the OJYCF.
Before the senior campus was closed to visitors, PJA’s service learning coordinator Elana Cohn-Rozansky coordinated visits with RSM’s educator Eddy Shuldman. Elana, Kim Schneiderman and Amy Katz accompanied the students on their visits.
The groups have not been able to arrange virtual visist, says PJA Principal Merrill Hendin. "We do hope to have one final meeting between our 8th graders and their B’yachad friends and plan to continue the program for many years to come.”
Since not all RSM residents have Zoom, a virtual gathering is difficult, but options are still being explored.
“I am pleased to say that many of the students have written old-fashioned letters to their partners over the past two months,” says Elana. “They have such sweet relationships and are obviously concerned about how isolated their elder friends might be feeling.”
Elana says the program definitely accomplishes its goal of expanding students’ understanding of seniors. “Students certainly gain understanding and appreciation for the wisdom and experience that comes with old age; any negative stereotypes about the elderly are quickly broken down, often within the first few minutes of meeting their learning partners.”
In addition, students feel supported and heard by their partners.
“A few years back, a student noted that their grandparents have to love them, but their B’Yachad partners don’t have to, but do,” says Elana. “Students also know that this is a relationship based on reciprocity; they feel that they offer something of value to the elders and, thus, feel valuable. Our 7th and 8th graders always bring their very best selves to their time together.”