Wheelchairs help teach students to empathize with Jewish elders

Before last Friday's visit to San Francisco's Jewish Home, second-graders at Brandeis Hillel Day School moved around with wheelchairs and walkers. They also wore marbles in their shoes to replicate the unsteadiness that some seniors experience.

"You can't move around so well with the marbles," said Pavla Berghen-Wolf, "but it was sort of fun to try out a wheelchair."

The lesson was not simply an exercise in mobility. It was an attempt to achieve empathy with residents at the Jewish Home, where second-graders shared a Shabbat service, songs, stories and birthday memories on Friday.

For 18 years, second-grade students have partnered with Jewish Home residents in The Intergeneration Project, a brainchild of second-grade teacher Dinah Stroe. The program helps foster understanding and creates deep impressions in the lives of young and old.

It turns out that buddies Irving Wendroff and Isaac Maycock, who shared Shabbat together, have a few things in common: They like living in San Francisco, they were looking forward to celebrating Passover, and they even share the same birthday, Jan. 24. Wendroff was born 90 years before Isaac, who is 8.

Isaac was one of 41 students from the two second-grade classes to participate in the program. Preparation began weeks before the students and residents met. The students read an anthology about seniors and grandparents. "They write book reports, they interview their oldest living relative and write a biography," said teacher Rachel Klein.

Jewish Home staff and volunteers brought wheelchairs and walkers to the San Francisco school so students had the opportunity to experience the mobility challenges faced by many of the residents.

When they arrived at the home Friday, the youngsters took a tour of the campus, where they visited a greenhouse, the synagogue, physical therapy room and other sites. The pet therapy program is a hit with the kids. "They love all the animals at the Home," Klein said, "and the beauty parlor is always a favorite. They love coming here. It's a little city on its own."

Student David Kurlander views the Home more intimately. "It has a cozy feeling and so many activities. It's like a big house."

This year, students listened to "Island on the Hill," a CD compilation of songs written and recorded by Jewish Home residents. "They surprised the residents during one visit by singing 'Gefilte Fish,'" one of the songs on the CD, Klein said. "The residents were so happy and surprised that the students took the time to learn a song of theirs, some of them were crying."

Emotions are triggered for many of the participants. Sylvia Elkins, 88, clutched a folder on her lap, filled with photographs and letters from Maddie Chang, her student buddy.

"I'm elated to be in this program," she said. "I never had kids of my own. I've enjoyed meeting these children and answering their questions. They're interested in our activities. We're a bunch of old people but they can see that we are still doing things. I guess they are learning from us."

Some of the lessons are deep. "It must be hard knowing that you are not going to live much longer," said 8-year-old David, who, along with Isaac, was paired with 90-year-old Wendroff. "Sometimes, the residents have sad memories they talk about."

David has his own sad memories, according to his mother, Sarah Ganz. His father died last year. "David wanted me to be here tonight with him for the service to support Irving [Wendroff]," Ganz said. "And I wanted to support David and his friends. It's a great project for them."

Mark Friedlander, director of resident programs at the Jewish Home, encourages residents to participate.

"It's a very meaningful program. It's not just a one-time visit. The students and the residents learn a lot about and from each other through sustained contact over a period of weeks."

This year, students visited the residents twice and joined them for the Friday evening service. In between visits, they wrote letters and sent photographs, which residents keep in their rooms.

Asher Holman visited with several residents during the evening service. "It's fun coming to the Home. We talk a little bit and interview each other and talk more. I read to my buddies."

Holman's mother, Toby Levy, serves as vice president of the Jewish Home. She was the catalyst for the family service, which enables parents of Brandeis students to forge relationships with Home residents.

For Asher, the service was particularly meaningful. He and student Anna Schrek turned 8 that day. He seemed to enjoy sharing his birthday with the 60 residents and Brandeis family members in attendance.

Birthdays are a big topic of conversation. Pavla enjoyed getting to know 82-year-old Suse Justh. "It's very fun. She likes to celebrate her birthday with cake and friends just like I do," said Justh. "Pavla is so bright. It's been a wonderful experience to get to know her. I hope they continue to visit."

Sometimes, the connections continue beyond the school year. A few students every year make efforts to visit and to communicate by phone and letter. Once, Klein noted, a family invited the residents over to share their Thanksgiving.

However long they last, the relationships let students see that aging has its challenges and rewards. For Home residents, it is an opportunity to share some of their experiences with their young partners.

Gladys Jonah, who will be 90 in June, has participated in the program for five years. "One year, we went to the schools; we wrote and sang a song for them. It was fun to share something we like with them."

As Rabbi Sheldon Marder noted during the service, the important questions to ask as we age are "How did I inspire the next generation? What is my legacy to them?" The Intergeneration Project is part of this legacy.