It’s a bird; It’s a plane; It’s Bubbe and Zayde!!
By David Raphael, CEO & Co-Founder Jewish Grandparents Network
In the days before the recent visit of our granddaughter Bina (and her parents) to our home in Sandy Springs, I completed the finishing touches on the “Bina Trail” in the grove of trees behind our house, planted a vegetable box garden, and learned how to juggle. I am, what The Jewish Grandparents Network’s recent national study of Jewish grandparents has termed, a “Joyful Transmitter.”
By analyzing multiple questions on attitudes, practices and aspiration our study identified five segments of American Jewish grandparents, in pretty equally divided categories:
Joyful Transmitters: 20%| Faithful Transmitters: 16% | Engaged Secularists: 23% | Wistful Outsiders: 20% | Non-Transmitters: 21%
But while I pride myself on my Joyful Transmitter standing, compared to the stories of commitment, caring and joyful love that I hear from other grandparents, my efforts seem inconsequential. Grandparents who travel across the country to spend weeks with grandchildren while their mother recovers from surgery, or to care for grandkids so the parents can go on a much-deserved vacation. For Lee M. Hendler, my indefatigable partner in founding the Jewish Grandparents Network, Monday — every Monday — is reserved for caring for her grandchildren. The same is true for Jane Shapiro, the Founder of the Orot: The Center for New Jewish Learning, whose Tuesdays are “Bubbe Days.” (Don’t miss Jane’s lovely Eli Talk on the “Torah of Bubbiehood.”) The commitment of these grandparents and the essential roles that they play in sustaining their families is affirmed and quantified in our recent national study.
Grandparents’ roles as nurturers, cultivators and transmitters of our Jewish values, customs, and traditions are affirmed in this study as well. The study finds that grandparents are “influencing lifestyle events, (i.e. Jewish education, Bar/Bat Mitzvah and travel to Israel) that can make a lifelong difference in the belief system and future expectations of a grandchild.” And that for grandchildren who participate in these experiences, “quite often the grandparent has played an important role, either by helping to make it happen and/or by contributed financially.”
However, the findings of the national study and the focus groups we have conducted do not paint a uniformly sunny picture of today’s Jewish grandparents. In analyzing the findings, our researchers identified five segments of Jewish grandparents in the United States. One of those segments “Wistful Outsiders” struggle with intergenerational difficulties that impair both their relationships with their grandchildren and their ability to share their Jewish values, traditions and stories. One grandparent told us: “I wish I had a relationship with my grandchildren, but their mother is not interested in having a relationship. We feel alone in this world as far as my family is concerned.”
Thus, there are two sides to the coin of the relationship between grandparents and the Jewish community:
One side: To quote Jack Wertheimer, grandparents are “American Jewry’s greatest untapped resource” (Mosaic Magazine, January 28, 2016). Grandparents should be on the front lines as we explore innovative approaches to engaging families in Jewish life. In so many ways, grandparents are often essential supporters and sustainers of today’s Jewish families.
Another side: Many grandparents would benefit from support and guidance as they seek to navigate the increasingly complex dynamics of the “new Jewish family” including growing physical distances, over-stretched lives and multi-faith, interracial, LGBTQ, and single parent families. For instance, I believe there is an important role for our Jewish agencies to play in supporting the approximately 20% of grandparents who are “Wistful Outsiders”.
Over the past months, we have learned that grandparents build paths for our grandchildren and encourage them to explore them. We plant gardens of identity, spirituality, and morality that will nurture our families as they grow. But we also learned that grandparents and their families are juggling; time, multiple demands and complex challenges. Grandparents can be the heroes of our Jewish communities and, vice versa.