Long gone are the apron-clad bubbe who slaved over matzah ball soup and the pipe-smoking zayde who watched the evening news in his Barcalounger. Today’s Jewish grandparents are tech-savvy, active seniors who FaceTime on school nights and fly into town for a weekend with their grandchildren.
According to a report last year by the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of grandparents in the United States is growing. Its population reached 69.5 million in 2014, up from 65.1 million in 2009. Baby Boomers, the youngest of whom turned 50 in 2014, have a total population of 75.4 million.
That’s a lot of grandparents, and yet, the Jewish community is lacking programming and education for Baby Boomers. The problem is nationwide, but Atlanta offers little more than annual Grandparents’ Day at day schools.
Co-founders of Jewish Grandparents Network, David Raphael of Atlanta and Lee Hendler of Baltimore, Md., seek to rectify this oversight.
“The Jewish community has done a wonderful job of supporting young families, but there is a lack of attention given to grandparents,” Raphael said. “By sharing Jewish values and narratives, the most influential members of families are grandparents.”
JGN launched its first program, “Grandma, Grandpa Tell Me a Story,” at The Temple Oct. 28. Ron Wolfson of American Jewish University and Marshall Duke of Emory University shared their stories with about 40 grandparents, talking about the way oral tales play a role in sustaining Jewish traditions and strengthening families.
And on Nov. 5, JGN launched the first national study of Jewish grandparents. Ten Jewish communities, including Atlanta, and five national organizations are partners in the study. It is underwritten by the JGN with support from Hendler, the Jim Joseph Foundation, The Covenant Foundation and Mike Leven.
Grandparents are the most reliable connection to Jewish life and experiences, especially for Millennials who don’t belong to Jewish organizations or necessarily observe many rituals, Hendler said.
She attended a conference on engaging Millennials a few years ago. Frustrated at the lack of attention to Boomers, Hendler recalled talking to organizers about Jewish grandparents. “They were going to write me off. I knew the look I was getting. Nothing was going to happen. The people at table dealing with Millennials could not connect the dots. And yet, I knew from conversations that grandparents are on front lines of the change in family life.”
“Where did they have a mixed-faith wedding? My backyard. Who did they talk to about which rabbi might officiate? Me. What does the Jewish world think is going on? When it comes to the baby’s bris, does it occur to them it will be in my home and they have asked me to help them pick a mohel?”
Study after study reinforces the findings of Raphael and Hendler: Grandchildren cite the relationship with their grandparents as a major reason they identify Jewishly.
For instance, the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University reported in a 2015 study (“Millennial Children of Intermarriage”): “Having close ties to Jewish grandparents had a direct effect on a variety of outcomes, including identifying as Jewish by religion, celebrating Jewish holidays, feeling a connection to Israel and the Jewish people, and wanting to marry someone Jewish.”
The Cohen Center survey also states: “For all childhood experiences, Jewish grandparents should be viewed as a critical resource, and programs should be designed to leverage their influence.”
Another study of 1,150 Jewish college students, conducted in 2014 by researchers Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, discovered that when grandparents accompanied the students to synagogue and other Jewish settings, they were most likely to feel strong attachments to Israel and the Jewish people.
Additionally, surveys of Birthright Israel alumni reveal that connection to Jewish grandparents is an important predictor of a wide variety of positive Jewish attitudes and practices in adulthood.
That’s because Judaism is so valued by older Jews and they pass that connection on to their grandchildren. According to the Pew Research Center Global Religious Landscape Study of 2015, more than 70 percent of Jews ages 55 and older respond that religion is either very important or important to them.
Goals of Jewish Grandparents Network
Aimed at adults from age 55 to 80, JGN plans to engage those with grandchildren of Jewish and mixed-faith families.
The JGN case study – the basis for which the organization was founded and will be funded – states grandparents are “a living bridge to the past and essential keepers and sharers of family and Jewish narratives, traditions and values.”
JGN maintains that financial support and personal time, including paying for Jewish preschool and taking grandchildren to Tot Shabbat, is the role of today’s Jewish grandparent.
By navigating the “new Jewish family” which includes multifaith, divorced, single parent and LGBTQ families, Jewish grandparents deserve meaningful dialogue and learning opportunities.
JGN is working with a research firm to gather quantitative data on family demographics, beliefs, behaviors and needs of Jewish grandparents. A sample of the survey will be distributed nationally to 1,500 members of synagogues, Jewish community centers and other Jewish organizations.
Raphael, who lives in Sandy Springs, spent his 30-year career with Hillel International creating Jewish opportunities. He values listening, collaboration and building community. “That’s how we create a Jewish community of meaning,” he said.
To take the JGN survey, visit www.grandparents.2.vu/1. JGN also maintains an active Facebook page, ww.facebook.com/groups/JewishGrandparentsNetwork.