Re-conceptualizing the Multi-Generation Family

By Dr. Erica Brown

Unfortunately, one of my daughters has estranged herself from me  … Sadly, my granddaughter is cheated out of having her grandparents in her life.

As grandparents, my husband and I have been the major Jewish influence in our grandchildren’s lives.”

My level of exhaustion directly influences how much I am willing to do things to influence my grandchildren.”

How did the presence of grandparents influence your Jewish life? If you’re a grandparent, how are you – or are you – transmitting Jewish values, rituals, culture or ethnic intimacy? With these issues top of mind, The Jewish Grandparenting Network, spearheaded by Lee Hendler and David Raphael, partnered with the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at The George Washington University to host a two-day convening (June 12-13, Pearlstone Center) to share the results of an in-depth survey on Jewish grandparenting and lay out avenues for further research. The central result: today’s modern Jewish family is more complex than ever, and the organized Jewish community stands before an immense opportunity to respond to trends, to provide support and to chart new territory.

The convening brought together 30 academics, national agency heads and senior leaders of denominations and foundations – many who had never met – to study, critique and think out loud about demographic trends and possibilities. After a text study called “The Silver Crown – Grandparents in the Bible and Talmud” conducted by the Mayberg Center’s director, Dr. Erica Brown, Karen Radkowsky, founder and president of Impact: NPO, shared the results of a survey answered by close to 8,000 North American grandparents, across a wide spectrum of Jewish background and practice. Radkowsky teased out the salient findings into categories of grandparents, from those who found their role joyful and Jewishly engaging to those who are not interested in passing on anything Jewish to the next generation.

Grandparents with multiple sets of grandchildren may find they can be meaningfully involved with one set of grandchildren and not another, depending on the family gatekeepers and the relationship they have with their birth and in-law children. Cognitive psychologist and former head of Israel’s Mandel Center, Dr. Eli Gottlieb, added greater levels of complexity by framing the conversation around changing notions identity generally – a disregard for exclusivity, a need for acceptance, the speed at which people move in an out of identity today and the technology they use to showcase their identities. Compounded by the demographics of aging (people living longer) the rise in intermarriage rates, and strong economic demands on the family, multi-generational families may find themselves re-configuring in unexpected new ways.

One of the survey results demonstrated that grandparents are anxious to share their family stories and want the tools to do so effectively. In that spirit, Dr. Marshall Duke, Jewish grandparent and Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology at Emory University, worked with Dr. Sharon Blumenthal-Cohen of the Mayberg Center, to create a session on the importance of story-telling, helping participants weave memories of their own grandparents or thoughts about grandchildren into six word memoirs. In the evening, Dr. Eric Goldman, professor and film historian at Yeshiva University, showed clips of Jewish grandparents in film to catalyze a conversation on roles and stereotypes, from the old Yiddish grandfather reciting a psalm with his grandson in a village to the modern grandfather counseling his grandson out of a barmitzva hangover. Multi-racial families, interfaith families and same-sex parents mean that these stereotypical images no longer resonate when we see Jewish families on the screen.

Jane Isay, former publisher and author of Unconditional Love, a book on grandparenting, addressed the group by constructing four pillars of the moral imagination critical to being a loving and thoughtful grandparent: empathy, perspective, knowledge and agency. Grandparents have an important counterbalancing role in the family, as she writes in Unconditional Love, “The current vogue in child development is to focus on noncognitive skills: self-regulation, grit, and the ability to process stress. Loving attention from adults is essential to the development of these traits.” Here’s where the grandparent comes in. Often, to establish this role, Isay points to the negotiation that must take place with one’s adult children to smooth old hurts: “Mindful of the boundaries between us and our grown children, we make the effort to take the differences between us less personally.

The convening concluded with small group conversations around central questions from what kind of support and programming the organized Jewish community should provide to help multi-generational families navigate challenges to how the survey findings could be fine-tuned and disseminated. Across groups, there was concern that the communal hyper-focus on the millennial generation may be blinding the broad Jewish community and its leaders from looking carefully and holistically at the changing family unit. A participant from PJ Library shared a small but potent change inspired by a grandmother who wrote to him and enclosed a photo of herself, challenging him to re-think the illustrations. “I went skiing yesterday. I don’t look like the grandmother in your books.”

So what is your Jewish organization doing to support Jewish grandparents? If Jewish continuity is to be meaningful, it will come from strengthening the entire Jewish family and from a Judaism robust and engaging enough that it deserves to be passed on from one generation to the next.

The convening was generously supported by the Jim Joseph and Aviv Foundations.

Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at The George Washington University and director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.