Who is missing in the Jewish family?

As we read from our many perspectives: educator, parent, and grandparent, who care deeply about family involvement, we felt that something was missing from “The Parenting Conundrum in Jewish Day Schools.” The article suggests many strategies for deep home-school partnership, and in an ideal world where parents and educators aren’t juggling a few too many balls, any or all of these ideas would be a great place to start. At the same time, these suggestions come on the tails of one of the most stressful and exhausting years for both groups, and add stress rather than create relationships. 

In many households, especially those that pay day school tuition, both parents are working. At the same time, educators are managing Zoom and in-person teaching, accommodations for the ever-growing body of students with special rights, and state testing standards that haven’t gotten the memo that we are teaching and learning in a pandemic. 

So now what? Do we throw in the “relationship towel,” hoping that one day the world’s stresses will lighten until we have emotional space to create the community so vital to energizing schools and the people’s lives it touches? Not yet. Perhaps we just have a small view of what the word family means. Perhaps we can expand the family circle to include the grandparents, other grandfriends, aunts and uncles? While not all “grands” are free and interested in doing so, those who are available and interested in becoming invested in the school community could be a wonderful resource (and not just financial)! Even when biological grandparents live far away or have passed, surrogate grandparents amongst the community can also add tremendously to the richness of the school community. 

Intergenerational, or co-generative, programs add tremendously to the lives of children, grandfriends, families and teachers. While intentional, high quality programs require an up front investment of time to launch, it is an investment worth making as it energizes the community. Furthermore, during the pandemic many grandparents and grandfriends have been creating new ways of engaging with their grandchildren and supporting parents. 

IDEAL18 NFP has been guiding schools and elder centers across the country to do this work. It embarked with pilot schools in engaging “grandfriends” in schools and elder centers for the past three years, and has recently begun a national fellowship to create a cohort of intergenerational social activists.

After observations of encounters and interviews with educators and parents, we believe that grandparents and grandfriends can be helpful in a myriad of ways including:

1) Helping educators think of creative ways they can enlist their own parents to engage children on FaceTime or Zoom, such as helping with homework or listening to them practice their instrument; 

2) Enlisting retired teachers, an untapped resource. These grandfriends continue meaningful work at their discretion; 

3) Transmitting knowledge, wisdom, history, and stories. We can welcome knowledge and stories about Jewish traditions, and also explore diverse narratives this way;

Many schools have begun to slightly engage grandparents (e.g. for a grandparent day). Some of us have been invited once a year to participate in our children’s day school grandparent day. These barely scrape the surface of the inherent potential these interactions can yield. Grandparents then feel used as the fundraising letter usually follows. If grandparents are seen as enhancing the “mutual aid community” and not a source of income, the income may also come as real relationships are developed. 

Some have started to involve grandparents more meaningfully, inviting them to a virtual Shabbat or creating other opportunities to give grandparents a sense of their grandchildren’s school lives. Yet there is a huge area of development that is fallow at this point, and could be nurtured. Furthermore, the time to expand our view of family involvement and educator support is NOW, as burnout has unfortunately become the new normal. 

Grandparents love connecting to their grandchildren, and grandchildren love connecting with them (whether these relationships are biological or not). While the grandparents become sensitized to the needs of the teachers and the school, children get one-on-one attention so needed in the rushed society we live in. Parents will feel relieved knowing that the family is connecting with the school community, and the school will have a larger support base. All stakeholders can gain connection, support, and belonging. 

The next time the conversation of family involvement comes to the table, we would like to suggest that the word family includes more than just parents. Let us innovate ways to engage the full potential of our larger communities as we maximize everyone’s daily life experience. 

Sharon Goldman, JD is the director of IDEAL18 NFP, www.ideal18.org, and co-founder and educational director of Within the Image.

Ruth Nemzoff,  Ed.D. www.ruthnemzoff.com is a resident scholar at Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. 

Diana Ganger, MSW is a co-founder and executive director of IDEAL18 NFP, an intergenerational initiative.

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