By Devra Chriss Aarons
Growing up in today’s world, our teens face unprecedented levels of mental health issues. A recent study published by the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, showed a marked increase in feelings of loneliness by high school seniors, from 26% in 2012 to 39% in 2017. Similarly, a 2017 AARP Public Policy Institute study found that “socially-isolated older adults are likely to be sicker and die sooner and have higher health care expenses than seniors who retain their social connections.”
How can we help high school students and older adults combat social isolation and the ills that go with them? We can bring them together. Jewish community organizations (and other faith-based institutions) are especially well-suited to this work because they often have programs already in place that separately address these groups of people. Caring for elders is “baked” into our Jewish DNA. The Torah tells us, “You must rise up before the aged, and honor the face of the older person.” (Leviticus 19:32) In order to honor our elders and find creative ways to support our teens’ mental health, Jewish community organizations need to find creative and consistent ways to build intergenerational relationships between elders and teens. Connecting teens and elders collectively enhances their well-being and constructs a sense of purpose and meaning in both of their lives.
Three years ago we were accepted into the Better Together Program – then a two-year program (now four) – generously supported by a prominent national foundation, designed to encourage meaningful interaction between young and old. As the founder of “Better Together,” at the Contra Costa Midrasha (Hebrew High school program), I witness first-hand the impact and value of fostering these relationships. Our teens make monthly visits to the elders (or zakenim – revered, wise elder in Hebrew) at The Reutlinger Community in Danville. The project enables seniors to make new friends and preserve memories while also creating new ones. Our project partner at Reutlinger, Life Enrichment Director Carol Goldman, reminded me recently that “most seniors don’t start new relationships at this point in their lives.” Through this project, however, teens and elders build true friendships. Take Varda Goldman – 95 years old and Adee Franbuch – 15 years old; when Varda met Adee in the Fall Varda said, “I liked meeting a girl who speaks Hebrew and is from Israel.” By late Spring Adee would pick up Varda from her room. The two of them often showed up late. Adee said it’s because “we were putting on make-up together.” At our year-end event Adee said, “I felt like I had another grandmother.”
Ohio State University published a national study in 2018 of 180 intergenerational programs nationwide which cited benefits including, “children involved in the programs demonstrated higher levels of empathy than those who hadn’t participated in such programs.” A key component of our Better Together project places teens in the role of a film-maker, constructing short documentaries about each elder. The story sharing process enables the teens to hear the stories of the elders, building empathy and understanding. Our teens attest to the truth of this data. Sometimes the teens come to understand the small things as Esther said, “I learned that I have to speak loudly and clearly so the zakenim can hear me.” Abby expressed, “I have come to understand that Henry and I, two completely different people, who have lived through different times and have seen the world in completely different ways, can still sit and smile and laugh together.”
The filmmaking process enables the elders to feel heard and their life’s stories truly valued. It allows them to see they still have a vital role to play with today’s teens. Sheldon took the project as an opportunity, “I want to teach more about World War II.” He created a World War II powerpoint. For many, this lesson was their first encounter with a WWII veteran. The year ends with a community-wide Film Festival transforming the usually quiet dining room into a bustling theatre. Can you imagine a more gratifying way to “rise before the elderly” than to publicly share the elder’s stories, as told by teens, in front of the whole community?
Teens gain confidence and real-life skills in storytelling, and public speaking. I witness Abby consistently overcome feelings of nervousness each month. “When I finally got over my fears and struck up a conversation Henry immediately told me that he was a Holocaust survivor from Poland.” She even agreed to speak publicly about Better Together at our Gala this Winter, where she had the audience in the palm of her hand. As Abby said of Henry, “I feel like I have been presented with a great honor being able to hear and share Henry’s story.”
To be sure, community dollars are needed to support the basic needs of our elders and the institutions who are educating today’s Jewish children. That said, our teens are living in dangerous times. The increase in violence, in anti-semitic threats, and in the negative rhetoric of our culture make it a time when our teens need more support. It is imperative for them to hear how elders in our community have lived through similar times and still had successful, happy lives. It enables our teens to see history through the eyes of those who directly experienced it, empowering them to feel both hope and responsibility for the future.
It is imperative for Jewish community foundations and donors to fund creative endeavors like Better Together that build intergenerational relationships between elders and teens. This project is replicable and can be brought to any community. Parents can be encouraged to sign up their teens for programs that offer intergenerational connections. Families of elders can encourage their elders/zakenim to participate in youth programs. Everyone’s story deserves to be heard and all of us have the ability to use a compassionate ear to listen. The health and well-being of our elders and teens, and our past and future depend on it.
Devra Chriss Aarons, is the Executive Director of Contra Costa Midrasha (CCM), where she has engaged over 1000 Jewish teens. She believes in storytelling and teens’ ability to “be the change.” Better Together at CCM just completed its third year, and has resulted in 26 student-made mini films about elders living in the community. To see the films mentioned in this piece, visit: ccmidrasha.com/better-together.
This piece is part of a series from members of Voices for Good, a Bay Area fellowship, sponsored by Jewish LearningWorks, that amplifies the voices of women working in Jewish professional life.
- https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2019/03/20/teen-loneliness-social-media-cell-phones-suicide-isolation-gaming-cigna/3208845002/ – March 20, 2019
- Generations United: https://www.gu.org/who-we-are/mission/