Flock of ages: When seniors and JCC preschoolers come together, its a mitzvah

The passing of tradition from generation to generation — l’dor v’dor — is one of Judaism’s core values. It’s generally thought of as a linear, one-way process — elders transmit Jewish beliefs, rituals and customs to children.

But at least two programs in the Bay Area are bringing seniors and preschoolers together to show that “from generation to generation” is actually a two-way street.

Through games, activities, songs and celebrations, participants form friendships and deepen their connections to one another and the Jewish community.

Bridging the generations

At the Peninsula JCC in Foster City, seniors in their 80s and 90s are getting the chance to celebrate Jewish holidays with 4- and 5-year-olds from the PJCC preschool.

Last week, for example, the seniors and children made apple cobblers (out of graham crackers, applesauce and Cool Whip) and New Year’s cards together for Rosh Hashanah.

Earlier this year at Passover, the children sang holiday songs for their older friends. And for Purim, the seniors and children teamed up to make gift baskets for Jewish and non-Jewish residents of low-income senior living facilities.

The seniors are part of the Get Up & Go program, a transportation, socializing and activities program for non-driving older adults in San Mateo County run by the Peninsula JCC.

The point of Get Up & Go is to help end the isolation of seniors who no longer drive, said Betty Burr, a gerontologist and the program’s manager.

“People who have social supports age better and are healthy longer, both mentally and physically,” Burr said.

She noted that the children also benefit from the interaction. “For some of them, it’s the only contact they have with the older generation, especially if their own grandparents live far away. There’s a connection made that wouldn’t happen otherwise.”

Get Up & Go participant Rita Weisman, whose grandchildren are grown, said meeting the preschoolers and doing activities with them has been a “terrific” experience.

Emily Choi (left) and Lorraine Isble create Mishloah Manot baskets at a Peninsula JCC Purim event to distribute to residents at a Belmont seniors facility. photo/courtesy of the peninsula jcc

“Communicating and relating with them was one of the most morale-lifting experiences I’ve had in a long time,” she said. “The children are adorable and so well-behaved.”

Burr said that in addition to planned activities, there’s time in the program for spontaneous, one-on-one conversations between the generations. Seniors share stories and memories with their young friends, while the youngsters talk about their families and interests.

“It is such a heartwarming thing, seeing the little ones talking to and interacting with these seniors,” Burr said. “The energy of the youngsters is wonderful for the seniors as they’re aging. I firmly believe in the importance of intergenerational relationships.”

Getting to know you

On alternate Fridays at the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos, seniors from the community and 4-year-olds from the preschool get together for the Grandpals Shabbat — Dor L’Dor program.

The generations share Jewish traditions through song, dance, crafts and “get-to-know-you” activities.

The program kicks off its third year Friday, Oct. 2, with a gathering in the JCC’s sukkah. The children are studying Pirkei Avot this year, so the first mishna will be incorporated into the Grandpals program, said Carrie McCarthy, who co-founded the program when her son was attending the preschool and continues to volunteer as a coordinator.

“We’ll talk about Sukkot and the mishna the kids are learning, which is the one about ‘Who is wise? He who learns from everyone,’” she said.

Integrating the children’s lessons with the Grandpals program enriches the experience for everyone, she added. “It’s important to us that both the preschoolers and the seniors are getting something out of it.”

The sharing of Jewish knowledge between the generations is one of the things that makes the Grandpals program special, said Rabbi Joshua Fenton of the JCC’s Center for Jewish Life and Learning.

“The very first mishna in the curriculum is the one that describes the chain of transmission,” he said. “What I think is so wonderful, for both the older adults and the kids is that the Grandpals program really is an opportunity to learn together.”

It’s also a chance to have fun together. Jack Kogel, a “grandpal” whose own grandchildren live in Colorado, says he enjoys working with the kids.

“I give them jobs, like getting the challah and the juice and bringing it for everybody at the table” for Shabbat celebrations, he says. “They kids are so cute at that age. They want to hug you and sit next to you.”

Some of the intergenerational friendships even extend beyond the classroom. McCarthy has heard about one little girl who invited her grandpal over for a playdate.

The participants in Grandpals, who range in age from their 50s to 80s, have told McCarthy that the program brings back memories of their own childhoods and keeps them connected to the Jewish community.

“There’s a really special energy when the seniors are with the kids,” McCarthy said. “There’s delight on everyone’s faces.”

For more information: Get Up & Go, Betty Burr

(650) 378-2750; Grandpals Shabbat — Dor L’Dor, Carrie McCarthy, (408) 267-1760.