Grandfriends go to school

Grandfriends go to school

Intergenerational program flourishes at Agudath Israel in Caldwell

Grandfried Barbara Sebiri and her young friends prepare for the seder.
Grandfried Barbara Sebiri and her young friends prepare for the seder.

When educators who have conducted a pilot program are required to assess its results, they may be asked to formulate a “success equation,” to provide “performance measures” and cite examples of “key strategies” used to “drive results” and “achieve the desired impact.”

I attended a few gatherings of the Grandfriends program implemented last year at the Lerner Early Childhood Center of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, and if I were asked to evaluate its impact, I would offer, as the measure of its outsized success, the tears of joy shed by every parent, teacher, and organizer who spoke about the program; the frequency with which participants used the words “loving,” “beautiful,” “magical,” “heartwarming,” and “blessing” in describing the program; and, most of all, by the jubilant faces and joyous shouts of the delighted 4-year-olds who raced to embrace and laugh and share with their equally delighted “Grandfriends” — all some seven decades older than their companions — as they gathered to embark on another adventure of play, creativity, and connection.

The children create Tu B’Shevat decorations with their Grandfriends, Richard French and Roberta Diamond.

The program began in the fall of 2022 and involved 12 elders, all congregants — 10 women and two men — who were individually matched with one or two of the youngsters in the ECC’s two classrooms of 4-year-olds. For each twice-monthly hourlong visit, the elders and the youngsters gathered in the synagogue’s social hall, where they tackled craft projects, honed new skills, created holiday artwork, engaged in a lot of conversation, sang, danced, had fun — and became grand friends.

And they created a palpable example of the social, emotional, cultural, and educational benefits of guided intergenerational interaction.

Grandfriend Mayda Kale and two 4-year-olds create a garden for Tu B’Shevat.

The person responsible for bringing Grandfriends to the CAI is Geula Zamist, its ECC director since 2012. At an erev Shabbat Grandfriends gathering, she shed at least as many happy tears as anyone — perhaps more.

It began when she was selected to be part of a three-year fellowship designed to educate educators about a new initiative and its mission.

That mission had been set in 2018, when a representative of an anonymous family foundation asked Diana Ganger — a veteran Chicago-based educator who became program director of the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative in 2004 — if she had “a Jewish education dream she wanted to fulfill.” The foundation was looking to seed initiatives that would nurture intergenerational relationships as a key to robust Jewish continuity and community.

Grandfriend Bernice Engel admires her young friend’s creative play with natural materials.

Did she have a dream? Without a doubt, Ms. Ganger said in a phone conversation. Her years of working in myriad Jewish educational settings had made her keenly aware of the need to “elevate awareness of intergenerational communities, to bring real-life experiences embodying the Jewish emphasis on the transmission of values and ideals m’dor l’dor” — from generation to generation. She especially was looking to bridge the decades-wide gap between the community’s youngest and eldest, both to ensure Jewish continuity and also to combat anti-aging biases and fight the loneliness that seems to plague so many people as they age.

And so in 2018 IDEAL (Intentional Deep Experiences Across Lifecycles) 18 was born, with Ms. Ganger as founder and codirector with her daughter, Sharon Goldman, and with educator Linda White, creator of Imagination Play Project, as a partner.

IDEAL 18 began by seeding eight pilot programs around the country, where the Grandfriends concept took shape. Schools and centers came on board, teachers received training, and they were charting success — when the pandemic put an almost complete halt to the venture.

Grandfriends Marcia Mohl, in front, and Mayda Vale and their 4-year-old friend play with clay.

Using the hiatus to refine the program, Ms. Ganger secured a Signature grant from the Covenant Foundation — whose mission is to “strengthen educational endeavors that perpetuate the identity, continuity, and heritage of the Jewish people” — to launch the IDEAL 18 Intergenerational Fellowship. The plan was to recruit 13 fellows, who would learn the why, what, and how of intergenerational work.

The process started in early 2021. Fellows would be educators or administrators working in synagogue and day schools, early childhood centers, or JCCs — and would be committed to the betterment of their communities.

Ms. Zamist said when she heard about the fellowship, she immediately submitted her application. “Diana was my mentor, and I was eager to gain a deeper understanding of her intergenerational mission and to bring it to Agudath Israel,” she said.

There was no lack of support from her CAI colleagues. Rabbi Ari Lucas, assistant Rabbi Sara Blumenthal, Cantor Joel Caplan, and especially Susan Werk, director of CAI’s Education Department, were eager to see the IDEAL 18 Grandfriends program brought to fruition.

Through Jewish lenses

When the cohorts were finalized — they were based in New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Florida, Boston, California, and Maryland — the work began with a rigorous schedule of peer-to-peer gatherings, most virtual at the beginning.

(One other NJ educator also was a fellow. In the program that Carol Paster, preschool director at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, implemented last year, six senior synagogue members joined its kindergarten class each Sunday for “Sages of All Ages: Creating Deep, Long-Lasting Relationships.” The program, Grandfriend Barbara Schwartz said, “was a joy, with stories, games, and arts and crafts projects that make it fun to learn about Jewish history and Torah.”)

Grandfriend Susan Stupak and 4-year-olds make kiddush cups.

At the fellows’ first gathering, Ms. Ganger said, they focused on “intergenerational and anti-bias work in the area of ageism” and the importance of “working with multiple generations to change our social construct.”

In their discussions, the fellows considered their own aging and learned to recognize and confront the ageism that might lurk within themselves or their teachers.

“All of the learning was through Jewish lenses — Jewish ideals, values, ideas, traditions, and sources, to add strength to the fabric of every community,” Ms. Ganger said.

The next phase was to develop methods of recruitment and to create a curriculum.

At the February 2022 IDEAL 18 conference in Chicago, Ms. Zamist described a meticulous process of formulating frameworks for elders to come into early childhood settings and cultivate warm and mutually rewarding relationships with the youngsters.

At CAI, Ms. Zamist assembled a “dedicated and talented” leadership team of congregants: Mary Lou Allen, an experienced early childhood educator; Esther Kartus, a veteran leader who was the liaison to the synagogue’s board; and Ilyse Negrin, an ECC mother, educator, school administrator, and organizer.

The team joined Ms. Zamist in conducting planning meetings with the teachers of the 4s — Robin Beckerman, Alison Popky, Gerry Resnick, and Lori Wolfson — to craft the program structure in a way that would “strengthen the relationships between the school community and larger synagogue community,” Ms. Kartus said.

The Early School community gathers under the tallit created by children and Grandfriends and assembled by Helaine French.

With Ms. Werk guiding them, the team devised an application process “to ensure we recruited elders in our community who were fully committed to the process and program,” Ms. Zamist said.

Then she gathered the teachers, leadership team, and the 12 selected seniors to review legal issues and introduce the new Grandfriends to the workings of the ECC and to its Reggio Emilia-inspired pedagogy, which, combined with Jewish learning, underpins its curriculum. (The Reggio Emilia approach is an educational philosophy based on seeing each child as a person with strong potentialities for development. It stresses the importance of family participation and of the environment around the learners.)

For additional support, Ms. Zamist turned to the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ, whose $5,000 grant was used to publish “Our Very Own Haggadah.” Embellished by the 4s’ drawings and photos of them with their Grandfriends, it was used at their ECC seder in the spring.

The grant money was also used to bring Ms. White to the ECC, so she could put her Imagination Play Project’s mission into action. That mission is to “create opportunities for people of all ages and abilities to engage, design, and connect with open-ended materials.” She began in the fall with a sukkah-building activity using Magformers blocks and an array of twigs and garden clippings.

Building relationships

Before each session, the Grandfriends met with the teachers and Ms. Zamist to discuss that day’s plans. They engaged with their friends for the activity — but without preset goals. Her directive was “let the children lead the way.” And, she added, “don’t ask what the child is making or doing”; this might constrain their open-ended creativity. Another guiding principle: Don’t overpraise when a child has created something; this might put undue pressure on him or her to meet the same standard each time. Instead, the Grandfriends were urged to use descriptive language when commenting on the children’s creations.

They concluded each session with singing, and after the children returned to their classrooms, the Grandfriends had a debriefing to share their impressions.

For Chanukah, meeting in a “light studio” the teachers had created, the group conducted experiments exploring the properties of light, surrounded by an array of illuminated holiday displays.

At Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of Trees, the Grandfriends and their young friends assembled free-form artwork from pieces of wood, twigs, and other growing things. In keeping with the theme, photos of the classes’ “forest walks” — rambles through a nearby wooded area to explore the wonders of the natural landscape — were on display.

Around Israel Independence Day, the kids and seniors joined in some lively Israeli dancing.

For each visit, Ms. Zamist said, they sharpened their focus on “building relationships and sharing experiences that would incorporate Jewish values, teachings, and holidays.”

The last gathering of the year was, fittingly, a visit to the ECC garden, where they eagerly reaped the fruits — and vegetables — of their labors, as they enjoyed the produce of their months-long cultivation of their special friendships.

A magical world

The session I attended was all about clay. It was the culmination of the 4’s unit on the substance, so they were comfortable as they found their seats with their Grandfriends — after hugs and boisterous greetings — and surveyed the materials laid out on the tables. While encouraging their young charges, the Grandfriends “let the children lead.”

What it led to was creativity and individuality, as the youngsters wielded an arsenal of tools and shared their projects with their Grandfriends. Each child produced something unique; one preferred pounding his clay into a free-form pancake, and another made a layout of train tracks. One small girl took a tool, covered it in clay, added some paper towel, and informed her Grandfriend that she had made the Statue of Liberty.

What was common among all was their confidence in their abilities, their satisfaction in their creativity, their pride in sharing their achievements with their Grandfriends — and their comfort in their Grandfriends’ generous offerings of attention and careful appreciation.

As Ms. Zamist put it, “Everyone just wants someone to give them their full attention.”

In talking to the Grandfriends, it was clear the program’s goals had been more than met.

Barbara Sebiri said the program had been “a two-way journey with benefits for both the children and myself.” She could tell that “the children look forward to each session by the way they run into the room and greet you with a hug and a smile.”

“What a win-win!” declared Iris Bashi, adding that the experience created “a magical world of friendship with endless wonders of creativity. I can’t believe how much I learned — even at this age.”

Rosanne Bornstein had a keen perspective, since in her working life she had been a teacher of young kids. “I think there is intrinsic value in children learning to relate to adults who are not their family members or teachers and that don’t have authority over them,” she said. She noted that the adults “just let the time and activity happen organically; there were no ‘shoulds’ except to enjoy our time together.”

Another Grandfriend, Edna Alberts, said her own grandchildren are getting older and live far away. She misses them, she said, and being a Grandfriend “fills a little of that void for me. The smile I see on my little friend’s face when she sees me brightens my day.”

Roberta Diamond summarized her feelings with one word: “Joy,” explaining, “When we older people meet young children, it gives us a feeling there will be continuity, and to me that is joy.”

The teachers were unanimous in their response. Lori Wolfson, who has been working at the ECC for 26 years and is retiring, said she’s always believed in intergenerational learning but was “completely surprised at the depth of the relationships that formed.”

Robin Beckerman said she was particularly struck by the “true affection” between the Grandfriends and the children. “I have no doubt some of these connections will continue even after their time in nursery school has ended,” she said.

At the end of the school year, a pre-Shabbat gathering brought everyone together. The 4’s parents got to see the interactions for themselves and afterward offered wholehearted endorsement of the program.

Jessica Fenster, a mom — and teacher of the 2s at the ECC — echoed many others when she said the program “has been a source of such joy for my daughter. She comes home with stories to tell about what activity she did with her Grandfriends — always with a huge smile on her face.”

Ms. Zamist was eager to point to another impact of the Grandfriends model, in light of the U.S. surgeon general having raised an alarm about the country’s “epidemic of loneliness and isolation,” exacerbated by the pandemic. Among his recommendations: “Cultivate a culture of connection.” Grandfriends, Ms. Zamist is convinced, “is a powerful weapon against this epidemic and public health crisis, particularly therapeutic for our elders.”

Perhaps the strongest evidence of the program’s success: most of the inaugural year’s seniors signed on for another go-round; with new recruits, there are now 28 Grandfriends — full disclosure: I am among them — looking forward to a year of fun and bonding with a new crop of CAI 4-year-olds.

To learn more about IDEAL 18, go to or email its codirectors, Diana Ganger and Sharon Goldman, at or

Abby Meth Kanter of West Caldwell is a longtime member of Congregation Agudath Israel and a former longtime editor at the New Jersey Jewish News.

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