My Three Words for 2018: Passion. Creativity. Commitment

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Jerry Witkovsky My Three Words

I didn’t come up with the idea for the three words. But I know a good idea when I see one. This one comes from consultant Chris Brogan, who has been coming up with his Three Words for over ten years now. The three words frame the “big story” for the year. They simply and powerfully provide a framework for prioritizing decisions and approaches to work and vision in the New Year.

When in doubt, I can turn to my three words and say, does this activity align with my three words? Does it help me grow in this area?

Here are my three words, and what they remind me about my purpose.

Passion and Creativity

Passion and Creativity are intertwined for me. It is a passion to help others that drives me, but the creativity to develop solutions is what gives real life, practical applications that have allowed me to help my family and my community.

When I was seventeen I worked in the Chicago Boys Club Resident Camp as a counselor. I experienced such joy in helping children from the inner city of Chicago learn new skills, make friends and enjoy the camp setting.  It gave me great happiness when I was helpful with problem solving, listening to them talk about their life back home.

After serving in the U.S. Army for 16 months upon graduation from high school, I went to George William College to get a BA in group work and a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Illinois.

All of these life experiences helping children and serious academic learning enabled me to grow a great passion to want to do this as a way of life. As my passion deepened I also found that I became very skillful in understanding personal problems and creating solutions to work toward solving the underlying problems that get in the way of people truly connecting with one another.

I then found that I could create ideas and programs to circumvent or even avoid problems in life experiences. I could put this skill into action when I was the General Director of the Jewish Community Centers of Chicago for 18 years. I never saw JCC as a job it was always and opportunity to put my passion and creativity into place.

In a touching tribute, a senior member of my management team once shared:

“A leader needs the ability to develop and communicate a vision that others can share and eventually and own. A leader has to provide the resources to carry out that vision.  Lastly the effective leader brings people up to their highest potential. From what I have read observed and experienced it is this leadership trait that yields the greatest personal reward and satisfaction. For Jerry Witkovsky it is a satisfaction very richly deserved.”

I’m not always successful, but my passion to try has never lessened and my creativity linked to the passion has led me to do some exciting things in my family and in the community.

Commitment

When I say commitment, I mean a commitment to what I believe in, regardless of the negative reaction from family or friends. My commitment to myself is to be as clear and learned as I can be and not to be afraid to ask for help when I need it.

I will be 90 years old in March. I attend weekly lectures at Northwestern University, where tenured professors share updates and discussions on their research and work. My passion for a strong and connected family for me and for all grandparents drives my continued work to set up Grandparent Connection school programs at public and private schools (contact me to see how you can do this at your school).

My mind continues to grow and my ideas continue to spread. This year it will be fueled by a passion, creativity and commitment that is unstoppable.

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Research Proves Benefits of Intergenerational Engagement

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Benefits of Intergenerational Connections

As a grandparenting advocate, I have long said that grandparents, when they unleash their creativity, can have a transformational effect on their families.

And, research shows that the benefit of intergenerational connections does, indeed, have positive outcomes for the grandparents, the grandchildren and the community as a whole.

I’ve always believed this, and last year I set out to prove it by engaging the incredibly smart and talented team of Elizabeth Cole and Annette Charles from Graettinger Cole Impact Consulting to do an extensive research and evaluation project to document the power of the Grandparent Grandchild Connection School Program.

Here’s what they found:

Benefits of Intergenerational Engagement for Older Adults

  • Enhance Socialization
    • Older adults want to remain productive and engaged in the community. A way to prevent isolation in their later years is to increase interaction with children and youth.
  • Stimulate Learning
    • Older adults learn new innovations and technologies from their younger counterparts. They want to continue to use the skills they have acquired in their lifetimes as well as acquire new ones. Motivation and commitment to intergenerational programs comes when they feel they have taken part in their development.
  • Increase Emotional Support
    • Regular participation in structured social and productive activities and membership in large social networks have been shown to independently benefit health and functional outcomes as people age.
  • Improve Health
    • Active, engaged older adults remain in better health. Older adults who volunteer live longer and with better physical and mental health than their non-volunteering counterparts.
    • Regularly volunteers with children burn 20% more calories per week, experienced fewer falls, were less reliant on canes, and performed better on a memory test than their peers.
    • Those with dementia or other cognitive impairments demonstrate more gains during interactions with children than during non-intergenerational activities.

Benefits of Intergenerational Engagement for Children & Youth

  • Enhance Socialization
    • Older adults want to remain productive and engaged in the community. A way to prevent isolation in their later years is to increase interaction with children and youth.
  • Stimulate Learning
    • Older adults learn new innovations and technologies from their younger counterparts. They want to continue to use the skills they have acquired in their lifetimes as well as acquire new ones. Motivation and commitment to intergenerational programs comes when they feel they have taken part in their development.
  • Increase Emotional Support
    • Regular participation in structured social and productive activities and membership in large social networks have been shown to independently benefit health and functional outcomes as people age.
  • Improve Health:
    • Active, engaged older adults remain in better health. Older adults who volunteer live longer and with better physical and mental health than their non-volunteering counterparts.
    • Regularly volunteers with children burn 20% more calories per week, experienced fewer falls, were less reliant on canes, and performed better on a memory test than their peers.
    • Those with dementia or other cognitive impairments demonstrate more gains during interactions with children than during non-intergenerational activities.

 

Benefits of Intergenerational Engagement for the Community

  • Strengthen Community:
    • Bringing together diverse groups and networks
    • Helping to dispel inaccurate and negative stereotypes
    • Sharing talents and resources help to create a unified group identity
    • Reducing isolation/alienation across age groups, showing that children, youth and elders can contribute
    • Preserve historical and cultural traditions, enhance community spirit
    • Strengthen partnerships among community organizations and individuals
  • Maximize Human Resources:
    • Engaging older adults and youth as volunteers in different types of opportunities and populations
    • Encouraging Cultural Exchange: transmission of cultural traditions and values from older to younger generations, building a sense of personal and societal identity while encouraging tolerance.

Annette has an amazing way of making numbers and data tell a very compelling story. See the research summary here.

Grandparent Programs Continue to Grow at Deerfield Schools

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400 grandparents attended programs at Deerfield Public Schools this fall, to learn more about the school world of their 6th to 12th grade grandchildren. Grandparents of 6th and 7th graders at Shepard Middle School learned about social emotional learning and typical social media use at that age. 40 grandparents went to the annual Freshman Connection Program at Deerfield High School. Over 300 Grandparents joined their high school senior at the beloved pre-Thanksgiving Grandparents Day at Deerfield High School. All of these programs point their origin back to the efforts of Deerfield resident and tireless Grandparenting Advocate Jerry Witkovsky.

Social Emotional Learning and Social Media at Shepard Middle School

“Thanks so much for your support and participation at our grandparent’s event last night!” said Sam J. Kurtz, Associate Principal at Shepard Middle School, told Witkovsky, who initiated the program at Shepard in the fall of 2015.

The program covered Social Emotional Learning expectations for 6th and 7th graders. Social Emotional Learning is defined as awareness and self-management skills to achieve school and life success. That includes using social-awareness and interpersonal skills to establish and maintain positive relationships, make good decisions and exhibit responsible behaviors in personal, school and community contexts.

Mr. Kurtz shared some of the Social Emotional Concerns that 6th and 7th Graders experience. Those included coping with emotions (stress, anxiety), making and keeping friendships, conflicts with peers/bullying, organization skills/Executive Functioning, and more. The grandparents then learned about all of supports that the school has in place to ensure student success.

The next topic was understanding teens and social media. Mr. Kurtz cited usage statistics typical for teens (from Pew Research), including 88% of teens text at lease occasionally, and 55% text with friends every day. 72% of teens reportedly spend time with friends via social media.

So Grandparents could get a feel of what that meant, the school brought out the iPads for grandparents to explore some of the social media sites likely used by their grandchildren: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and SnapChat.

40 Grandparents attend the Freshman Connection program at Deerfield High School

“I think the connection to grandparents is very important for our students,” said Dan Chamberlin, Special Education Department Co-Chair and point person for Grandparent Programs at Deerfield High School (DHS). “The support they receive from their family only benefits the students and their performance at school and success as a well-rounded person,” added Mr. Chamberlin.

The freshman program at Deerfield continues to grow each year, with 40 grandparents attending the program for the class of 2021. The program included a welcome and overview of academic and extra-curricular activities available at the school. A highlight each hear is a panel of Sophomores who paint a picture of “A Day in the Life of a Freshman” based on their experiences of having successfully acclimated to the new world of high school.

Additional speakers talked about Chromebooks and how students use technology at school (with some inside tips for Grandparents on Apps, texting, SnapChat and other social media), the 9th grade English reading list, school safety and more. They also showed grandparents how to access information about upcoming events and programs via the school website.

Grandparents expressed concern about bullying and harassment, a hot topic in current events. Screen time and technology and how much is “too much,” is also an expected topic. Mr. Chamberlin is by now accustomed to the concerns of grandparents, and was ready with information.

“It sends a strong message to stay involved with your grandchild and how to connect to them in this fast paced technological world,” said Mr. Chamberlin. “Also, I think it is a good promotion for our school and district to showcase the opportunities and supports there are for their grandchild at DHS and District 113. And, for grandparents, “the program acknowledges the important role of grandparents to support their grandchild academically, with their activities and as an emerging young adult.

Grandparents Day at Deerfield High School

300 grandparents came to support 409 seniors at the annual Grandparents Day at Deerfield High School. The event is held the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, which also guarantees attendance during this holiday week. “You would have loved today at DHS,” school counselor Glynis Hirsch said to Jerry. Thanks to you, this program continues to thrive.  It was wall to wall people, beaming from ear to ear.”

While the other programs are about learning for Grandparents only, Grandparents Day is enjoyed by grandparents and grandchildren together. After a welcome and overview from the school principal, grandparents shadow their senior through a truncated version of the day, followed by lunch. Jerry helped initiate the program over eight years ago, and it continues to run strong.

What can you do at your school?

Research shows that when grandparents are able to enter the world of their grandchildren, it has a positive impact on all involved, including families and community.

Does your school have a Grandparent Program? Programs may start with the Principal, the District, the PTA or with a committed volunteer. Take a look at Jerry’s Grandparent Connection School Kit to see about getting started, or give him a shout. He is happy to help.

I Don’t Want My Granddaughters to be #MeToo Women

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I Do Want my Grandsons to say “me too” to ending sexual harassment and standing up for women.

I love my weekly calls with my grandson Ethan, a Rabbi at the Park Synagogue in Manhattan. When we spoke a couple of weeks ago, I opened the topic by asking for advice for an upcoming meeting I had planned with a local high school. “How can I ask the High School what they are doing about sexual harassment at school?” I asked my grandson. He shared that this topic was on his mind as well. In fact, he said he was working on a sermon triggered by the revelations and accusations in the news about sexual harassment by Harvey Weinstein.

I was very interested. My fellow grandpas in my weekly “men’s group meet-up” had been asking me, “how do we talk to our grandkids about this?” Indeed. Especially when we ourselves are finding this to be new territory. Especially when we came from a generation that propagated this behavior, even if we didn’t in our own personal and professional lives.

As a Rabbi, the framing of a topic for Ethan is always the Torah and how it applies to life today. For him that led to a comparison of Noah and Abraham. Both are deemed righteous men. But Ethan made the distinction that Noah, while righteous in his own behavior, did not turn outward to address the underlying issue and to look to change societal behavior. It was Abraham who not only behaved righteously in his own actions but went beyond to question core values. Abraham also tried to change what should be good and right in the world.

His sermon ultimately was published in the Forward: How Can Men Help End Rape Culture? By Emulating Abraham.

How to get started with difficult conversations

Ethan shared that he began thinking about the subject by discussing it with women close to him. I thought to do the same. I talked to my granddaughter Katie and her boyfriend. “Why do women dress provocatively if they don’t want attention?” I asked her. She answered sternly. “Woman have a right to dress any way they want to.” I asked what, if anything, they had been taught in high school. Lance shared that it was mostly about abstinence, which he didn’t think was a worthwhile approach.

I also spoke to my daughter, who is the COO at a Los Angeles based social-service agency. She often feels the impulse to hug people when congratulating them on a job well done, to convey her deep gratitude and appreciation. “I always ask permission,” she says,” before hugging anyone.

Another friend said that for her son, 16, she has three key messages: 1. When you are ready, practice Safe Sex; 2. No means No (and if someone is incapacitated and can’t respond on their own, that’s a No as well) and 3. That sex is okay when two people are old enough to prepare to avoid and/or accept the consequences, and when it’s consensual and honest (no lying to get sex!). On the other hand, she said that if she had a daughter there would be one more lesson… “don’t put yourself in vulnerable situations, like going alone to a man’s room at 2 am or drinking too much while out.”

The question about respect when related to sexual harassment seemed to be caught in the “sex” part. But maybe that’s where it starts (but how do you have conversations that have the word sex in them without it being sexual harassment?). And for us older folks, there are big Generational differences. My parents never told me anything. It just wasn’t something you talked about. But if you can’t talk about something, if you can’t name it, then you can never fix it.

The big difference is healthy relationships which are consensual and mutually respectful, and unwanted sexual harassment. With harassment, it’s unwanted and there’s often a power imbalance. But there’s a connection. Preventing harassment starts with respect for yourself and respect for the other person.

Luckily, the conversations about sex and being the boss of one’s own body continue to grow. It’s often in response to big news stories like the Harvey Weinstein Sexual Harassment scandal. Kids today are told at very young ages about “stranger danger” and what constitutes “appropriate touch,” possibly as a result of more and more news coverage of child abuse cases. Pre-pubescent adolescents are having conversations with their parents and doctors earlier now that the HPV vaccine is becoming more common.

My question is what is taught when and where? How are young people, both boys and girls, taught about healthy relationships? The aforementioned mother of the 16 years son said “it has to start at home. I don’t want the school to be teaching my son values that may not match our own. But, at least it starts a conversation. In our case, our son brought the learning home so that we could talk about it together as a family.”

And, while she said wouldn’t assign a role or have direction or expectation around how a grandparent could help, she welcomes knowing that there is a broad circle of loving people from whom her son might get advice. Developmentally, for teens his age, peers have surpassed family as the main source of advice. If her son does turn to parents or grandparents she would want that door to be open. “It was closed doors and a hush-hush culture that allowed sexual harassment and rape culture to continue for so long in the first place.”

So maybe just the fact that I am asking is a start. I am asking at my local school. I am asking at my synagogue. And I am asking my family. How can we all be better? How can we teach respect and healthy relationships?

I am starting with me, my family, my community.

Research Shows: More than love, it’s healthy for Grandparents and Grandchildren to Connect

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Grandparent-Grandchild Connection
When grandparents better understand what their grandchildren are learning at school, including not only subject matter but also the emotional, intellectual and social skills/development that their grandchild experiences as they grow toward young adulthood, they can better enter their grandchild’s world and engage in meaningful discussions and connections. Research shows this makes families stronger, increases positive perceptions of aging and more deeply engages grandparents with the mission and success of their grandchild’s school.

 

A Letter from My Son, Michael

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My son Michael, who recently became a grandpa himself, wrote this wonderful, deep, thoughtful letter to me. It was in response to, or perhaps to further ponder my last two blog posts about, how, at 89, I could respond to the events of Charlottesville, and about maintaining a culture of learning and teaching across the generations in our family.

First, I have to say how meaningful it is to me to have this depth of conversation and analysis of life philosophy and current events with my son.

Yes, I know that he doesn’t agree with my need for a conscientious approach to promoting learning and teaching among members in our extended family. He believes it happens organically.  On that note, I do find his commentary interesting.  He points out that while we learn all the time, we may not “have the company of others in that process” or someone to give “encouragement to demonstrate those assets we have.” Hmmm…those two missing items sound very similar to what I propose as integral to a culture of learning and teaching.

Thank you, Michael, for opening a door. Okay, maybe it’s not a door to a library, but certainly it is a door to an opportunity for so much more discussion.

Dad,

The convergence of Charlottesville with hurricanes Harvey and Irma brought me to think of your use of the library metaphor in your last blog. Hate as fuel for political action has burnt down many a library across the globe. Natural disasters have done the same damage. No library is a completely safe repository of knowledge, experience or dreams. They are temporary shelter for things we fear to lose.

Houston brought this home recently and Irma is threatening to echo that lesson. Things, beautiful things, are at risk of being lost to the stupidity of hate, or the deleterious fortunes of nature. In addition, life can be lost, hope made impotent, safety destroyed and faith abandoned.

These losses are more likely if: we never read the books in the library; or if we lived our lives by the whims of others; or if hope was grounded in the ephemeral, the digital, the fleeting sensual; of if safety was present only at the service of those not a risk, those who made money and took power by creating and playing on fear; or if faith was solely petitionary, asking for favors and trinkets and self-validation.

But if we have lived a life of deliberate participation and mindful acceptance, if we manifest hope in the face of catastrophe, if we admit that our safety is only as assured as it is for all, if our faith is undaunted by disappointment and failure, and if we read the darn books, all that is truly important to us cannot be taken away or lost to nature or hate.

The assets we have in life are not the things we own, or who possesses us. Our valued aspects of self are the results of living and loving, not consuming or even learning. They are in the ways we live, if only we stop and recognize how we are doing that.

You speak frequently of creating a culture of learning in the family. I have openly taken issue with that thought. It implies that until we make a concerted effort to do so, there is no culture of learning in a family. This is wrong. We are creatures with an inherent ability and need to learn. We do it all the time and throughout life. There is no need to create a culture of this, it is happening all the time anyway. The sins we commit against this learning nature are to not recognize that it is happening, and/or to surrender that nature for promises of other rewards.

We are constantly patrons in the library of living. What we don’t always have is the company of others in that process, the permission from authorities and experts to learn, the encouragement to demonstrate those assets we have. The wanton destructive winds of storms and the calculated destructiveness of human hatred deny the fertility of sharing what we know.

The culture of promoting human assets is to build our dwellings and communities well wand with wisdom; to eradicate the utility of hatred by cultivating healthy connection between all persons.

Michael

 

When you are no Longer Part of an “Immediate Family”

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How to teach, learn and care with extended family

At 89 years old, I found myself thinking with pride the other day about how amazing the experience and intellectual power of my extended family is. What a wealth of knowledge we are collectively.

I have learned about worlds far from mine from all of them.

There was a time when I might have learned of my family’s interests and dreams while we were sitting around the dinner table. I’ve always advocated for a culture of teaching and learning from one another, with knowledge and ideas spreading in multiple directions during our lively conversations that came naturally as were together in our day to day lives.

But today, I live alone.

No longer part of an immediate family, for teaching and learning to continue, we must seek it out across our extended family. We must make a concerted effort to connect and engage in a meaningful, purposeful way.

 A Symptom of USAmerican Culture

On the good side of USAmerican culture, we are fiercely independent. A primary goal in raising our children is to grow adults who can live and survive independently. Whereas in some cultures it “takes a village to raise a child,” in the US, parents lay strong claim to the right to correct and guide only their own children. That can even include excluding grandparents. The phrase “close mouth open wallet” is embedded in the dynamics of our individualist culture.

“In western cultures, and particularly in European American culture, families typically follow a nuclear model comprised of parents and their children,” says Marcia Carteret in her article, Culture and Family Dynamics. “This is markedly different from collectivist cultures that adhere to an extended family model. In cultures such as American Indian, Asian, Hispanic, African, and Middle Eastern, individuals rely heavily on an extended network of reciprocal relationships with parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and many others.”

To me that is a shame and a loss of opportunity to learn.

In our family I created the Witkovsky Living Legacy Foundation years ago to keep the siblings and cousins connected as they age. They and they alone make up the board of directors. They are able to apply for “grants” (aka projects or ambitions that Grandpa will fund), but they must first explain to the others what they hope to achieve, and upon completion, they must share what they have learned with the entire family.

When one grandchild recently applied for job search training courses, another who had been through a similar experience was able to provide support. We have seen pictures from African safaris and shared in the joy of another’s completing his Master’s. This process has allowed each individual success to be a joy for the entire extended family.

It makes me wonder where “interdependence” fits in. Can we cultivate a new cultural norm that lets us live independent lives while also embracing our need for one another?

Time and distance can get in the way of natural, ongoing connection.

Our family is spread across the country, literally, from New York to Los Angeles. My adult children are still driven by robust careers that keep them busy. My grandchildren range in age from teens to young adults, with one himself now a father of an eight month old boy, my first great-grandson.

I realize they all are busy–emotionally, mentally and physically–developing or managing their careers.  At the same time, the connection with my grandchildren and my adult children is critical to my mental health. I must let them know that so they understand my world.

I had this conversation recently with Kathryn, one grandchild who is 27 years old and finding success in her job at a top online hotel booking company. Kathryn said she understood my desire to maintain a rich connection. She said she will try to honor that request. And she has. With this open dialogue she also felt comfortable to set parameters. She found time by getting up early to visit me on a Sunday, but we discussed at the outset what time she would leave–which train she would need to take to get back to the City. I didn’t think “she doesn’t love me, already planning when she’ll leave.” I thought “how wonderful that she heard me and is making time.”

Shifting the Paradigm to Enter Each Other’s World

What if we, the grandparents, shook up the answer to the rote question, “How are you?” when we answered the phone. What if, rather than the expected “why haven’t you called,” “I’m fine,” etc., we responded with a conversation opener? “What’s the most interesting new thing you learned this week?” I could ask. The answer might give me new ideas and expand my mind while also shedding light on my loved one’s world.

Even if your family hasn’t grown up in a teaching and learning culture, it is never too late to make a change. Especially when you “own” the change. When you as a grandparent change what you are doing, the world around you will change in response. Here are some ideas that can shake up your family relationship dynamics and open the door to deeper connections.

Ask them to tell you a story

Going back to the intercultural model, one thing that often confuses visitors from other countries is how USAmericans constantly ask “how are you” without waiting for or expecting an answer. “How are you” is akin to “Hi,” in the US. So why ask? Instead ask for a story….”Tell me a story about school.” “Tell me the oddest thing your boss did today.” “Tell me a story about something funny that happened since we last spoke.” And then be quiet and wait and listen. What’s especially fun is that after a few weeks, you may get a phone call saying “hey grandpa…I have a story that I though you would like.”

Leave judgment at the door

Of course we have opinions and it’s hard to break the old pattern of embracing everything as a teaching moment. But as our children and grandchildren age and become adults…well, they have the right to their own opinions, even if we don’t agree.

How can we control the knee jerk reaction to respond or express doubt? Ask more questions. “Tell me more about that.” “I have some experience in that area, would you like my opinion?” Or, you may have to just agree to disagree. And also refrain from saying “I told you so” when they finally realize the nose piercing was not a good idea. (But it is okay to commiserate and get sympathy and advice from your weekly coffee klatch!)

You may mean well by asking about your adult child’s finances. But they may interpret it as you doubting them. Know that you raised them well and now they are responsible for their decisions.

Own Your Own Feelings

Ask for what you need. Own your feelings. Don’t be afraid to “need.” We can inadvertently put ourselves in a catch-22. With our cultural emphasis on individualism, we may not express ourselves and our needs, not wanting to impose on the other. But silently we think they should simply know what we need.  But no one can read your mind. If you want your family to know what you need and feel, you have to express it. Give them the opportunity to help you and each other.

Sometimes all generations are afraid to ask because we fear an obligation that we can’t fulfill, or maybe even more work—that if we ask the need will be something that may cost us time or money. But what if we looked through a lens of love and just listened and acknowledged the other?

As a Psychiatrist, my son might appreciate this “start with ‘I’ sentences” approach. How do I share my world, express my needs, knowing that I can’t control the response? What I know is that I won’t be afraid to share my world. And, when a loved one shares a glimpse into their world, I will take it as the gift that it is, and imagine with them to experience that world together.

Extended Family Inventory

Have you ever considered taking an inventory of the knowledge and experience of your extended family? You will get a WOW feeling as well. And that includes spouses, too.

It starts with a desire, a willingness to truly try to understand what the world of those we love is like. We may stand in the same space, but we don’t have the same realities. But when you add those different world perspectives up, the inspiration will take you to the moon and back.

Gratuitous Kvelling Below (and please share yours too, in the comments.)

My son Michael is a psychiatrist. I’ve learned so much from him about the power of stories to deepen communication. Daughter Ellen is the senior vice president and COO of a private social service agency. Grandson Ethan, a Rabbi, sends the entire family his sermons with so much insight into our religion and how it guides us with current ethical challenges. His brother Benny is a teaching assistant working on his Masters and PhD in sociology. Another granddaughter, Jessica, is a wild animal trainer and manager (also called “The Snake Lady” when she is hired by movies and TV shows to clear natural settings of rattle snakes before filming). Her sister Kathryn is in marketing for an online hotel booking website.

Ethan’s wife Erin is a brilliant Jewish educator and director of a religious school; Michael’s wife Julie is also a psychiatrist; Ellen’s husband Don is in charge of human resources and benefits at a major corporation; Benny’s wife Corina is a social activist committed to helping others; Kathryn’s significant other knows all about the gaming industry. The two youngest grandchildren, Aiden and Merite are a freshman and senior in high school respectively, learning and exploring and imagining where their paths will take them.

Tell me about your family? What have you learned from each other?

I am 89 Years Old. What Can I do about Charlottesville?

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Nazis Bad Jerry Witkovsky

By Jerry Witkovsky

I watched the TV news–and witnessed the KKK, the Neo Nazi’s and the White Supremacists shouting their hate. It burns a hole in my heart and soul.

What can I do about it at age 89? As I struggled with this, the following thought went through my mind:

“When a Grandparent dies the doors to the library are closed forever.”

What’s in your library?

What is in my library that can help me now? My library has stories rich with life experience. Civil rights meetings and marches with Dr. Martin Luther King when he came to Chicago in the 1960’s.  As the General Director of the Jewish Community Centers of Chicago in the 1980’s, we took four trips to Poland with Board Members and staff. We walked in the Warsaw Ghetto and saw the gas chambers; we witnessed the horror of these places where thousands of Jews were murdered. I’ve taken 14 trips to Israel, some with JCC Board Members, some with staff, some with family and some on my own.

From these experiences I was highly motivated to teach my family and JCC members and staff Jewish values: Deep caring about our people and the people in our community who live with us regardless of faith or the color of their skin.

Now I am 89 years old. What can I do?

Create a Culture of Learning-and-Teaching

My wife of 52 years died 14 years ago. Since then my greatest love and concern in life has been my seven grandchildren (one of which is seven months old and is the first great-grandchild.)  The approach I have always advocated with them is “how do we, as a family, create a culture of Learning-and-Teaching?”

A culture of Learning-and-Teaching is where knowledge and experience are shared in all directions, from young to old or old to young; where individuals draw on what they do and what they care about and teach it to those around them.

Feeling lost, I began to focus on “how do I continue to build on the Learning-and-Teaching culture of my family regarding the issues that come from what took place in Charlottesville?”

So I talked to my adult children and with six of the seven grandchildren. They said “you have a right feel the way you do. We are worried also. We think it will get worse, but” they also yearned to know, “what can we do?”

I suddenly did not feel so alone, knowing that my family understood how I was feeling. One grandchild, now age 33, said “Grandpa you taught us to be concerned about these issues, and we are.”

It was then that it became so clear that the Learning-and-Teaching culture was embedded in our family and was beginning to express itself now.

My adult son sent the following poem to the 14 members of our family (It’s by Gideon Lichfield on Quartz, imagining how anti-Nazi Pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem “First they came…” might be rewritten for today):

First Trump came for the women
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a woman.

Then Trump came for the people with disabilities
And I did not speak out
Because I did not have a disability.

Then Trump came for the African Americans
And I did not speak out
Because I was not African American.

Then Trump came for the Mexicans
And I did not speak out
Because I was not Mexican.

Then Trump came for the Muslims
And I did not speak out
Because I was not Muslim.

Then Trump came for the gay, bi, and trans people
And I did not speak out
Because I was not gay, bi or trans.

Then Trump came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew.

Then Trump came for the journalists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a journalist.

Then Trump came for the judges
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a judge.

And now Trump is coming for the Constitution of the United States
And if I do not speak out, what am I?

Connecting to Family for Solace and Understanding

This piece and the ensuing comments from the family enriched me deeply. I also sent names of organizations that were taking action to them and suggested they Google them: The Southern Poverty Law Center. The Anti-Defamation League. The American Civil Liberties Union.

I suggested they will learn a great deal about what is being done about the matters we are concerned about. They may also want to make a contribution to one of them.

The grandchildren are the Board of Directors of the Witkovsky Living Legacy Foundation. Not a legal foundation, I originally created it as a way for us grandparents to fund their projects. But it was more a way to connect the siblings and cousins to each other—to support one another’s struggles and dreams. I suggested they may ask the Foundation to make a contribution to make a difference.

I am 89 years old –what can I do?

Perhaps the Learning-and-Teaching culture instilled in my family is in itself a very special contribution. For now, among adult children, spouses, grandchildren and significant others, there are 14 of us who are talking and thinking about what we can do.

As I have completed writing this I am no longer despondent of what I can do at being 89 years old.

At 89, this grandpa is still alive and the doors to the library are still open, with plenty of shelf space still to fill.

What have you talked about this with your family?

Photo Credit Ted Eytan on Flickr/

The Quartet

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Omama Gina, our dance was through a flicker of time.  So out of place in 1950s Newark; plump, romantic, pre-Raphaelite sprite, with garlands in her hair.  We sprawled on her living-room rug, drawing rainbows and sunbursts, princesses and unicorns.  And oh we danced, channeling her rebellious sister, the one who had beguiled Kafka.  Gina’s (hard “G”) wistful aquamarine gaze – was she always yearning?  Was it for her girlhood in Poland, before blood coursed down the cobblestones of Tarnow?   Or was she pining for a husband more gallant than the dour, withholding cantor?

She called me Himmlisches Wesen (Heavenly Creature), bathing me in the tenderness she never received, introducing me to art, to movement, to the poetry of the imagination,  She was 59 and I was seven when she died, suddenly.

Opapa Juda, for you I felt mostly fear.  He clung to the tenets of his faith more ardently and knew them better than he ever seemed to know or care for us.  While Omama still lived, their apartment was welcoming, redolent of chicken soup; with him alone, it felt chilly and austere.  I found its dark, heavy European furnishings inexplicably menacing.

He once caught me defiling the Sabbath by writing and sketching when I thought he was napping.  He seized my artwork and berated me with such ferocity that I refused to stay with him overnight ever again.  Years later, long after he was gone, I realized that underneath his harshness, he too was yearning – for parents and siblings swallowed up in the Lodj Ghetto.

I felt love for him only when my brother and I sat at his feet, on the bimah of of his synagogue – where he loomed over us, over everyone, in a black satin robe and tall chazzen’s hat, swaying, chanting, bursting forth with the liturgical melodies of Europe and the atonal wails of Israel. It was there, on that bimah, that he collapsed and died after trudging to shul one frigid Saturday morning.  To my brother he bequeathed his gifts for music; I got only the love of it – but God, that was a lot.

Großvater Aaron, I never knew you.  All I have of him is a charcoal portrait – rakish, broody, movie-star handsome – hanging in my foyer.  His insistence that he would never abandon his beloved Berlin “nur mit dem letzen zug” (“only on the last train”) cost him his life; by the time he agreed to leave, Hitler had slammed shut the gate.  My parents often reproached me for displaying Aaron Orbach’s penchant for last-minute departures.  I don’t know what he would have been to me, in life.  In death, he put a face on history and ignited my fervor for social justice.

Großmutter Nelly:  living under our roof, you were the steadfast companion of my youth.  My father swore, after Auschwitz, that he would never again be separated from her.  Though her legs were failing (from a trolley accident after which she dared not seek medical attention during the war), she and my father were still a formidable duo: ferociously smart, bawdy and combative.  They invariably eclipsed my genteel, weary mother.

That she spoke only German ensured I would grow up bilingual, because I – like she – hungered to know everything, and would tolerate no secrets.  Together we watched television nonstop:  The Price is Right, As the World Turns, The Donna Reed Show, Twilight Zone, Yankee baseball, Million Dollar Movie.  I was her translator, both of us seeking to comprehend and to mimic, through that glowing box in the darkened den, what it meant to be American.

It was fitting that after she departed, it was time for me to go too.  She died weeks before my high-school graduation.  Hungry to know and see and do everything, I left for New York and college at 16, and never looked back.

What remains most vivid, from all those years at home, is her nightly prayer.  So many times I stood outside her bedroom door, listened to her breathe, and waited.  She recited the words, always the identical words, in a strong, even voice:

 “Lieber Gott, ich danke dir…”

“Dear God, I thank you… for all that I received, for all that I am now receiving, and for all that I have yet to receive.”

Each time I heard it, I could scarcely wrap my head around it.  With all that she – that our family – had endured… how could she still summon this naive gratitude?

Yet there it was.

Nellyschen, companion of my youth: your gratitude became mine.  It defines me.

I am grateful for you – for all of you – and for everything you taught me; and for your children (of blessed memory), my most loving parents.

All of you – you are with me forever.

VIVIEN ORBACH-SMITH
Wilton, Connecticut

Unforgiven: One Family’s Story

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“Separate Realities” of Parents and Children

 San Francisco-based psychologist Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., is the author of When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along (Harper Collins, 2008).  In a blog post for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Dr. Coleman recommends:

Honor the ‘separate realities’ nature of family life. Just because you made decisions with your child’s best interest in mind, doesn’t mean that they were experienced in the way that you intended. Don’t try to prove them wrong…  Take responsibility for whatever mistakes you have  made as a parent.  If there’s a kernel of truth to your child’s complaint, speak to the kernel of truth.  

Let’s face it: there are separate realities for parents and children in practically every family.  Even relatively minor, long-past separate realities have the power to destroy relationships when people don’t acknowledge them and make amends.   Take the case of Mrs. R., whose family saga is recounted here by her former neighbor.  It’s a worst-case scenario, to be sure. But sadly, don’t almost all of us know – or know of? – a Mrs. R.?

Unforgiven: One Family’s Story

             My former neighbor, Mrs. R., was a hard-working widow and a devoted mother.  Helen, her older child, was a brilliant student, but there was no question that charming, easygoing Sammy was the apple of his mother’s eye.  She didn’t think anybody was good enough for her son – not even Karen, the lovely young woman Sammy began dating when both were college freshmen.  Still, Mrs. R. was livid when she learned that Karen had broken up with him.

           Only a few months later, the young couple reunited.  But Mrs. R. insisted she would have nothing to do with her son until he came to his senses and dumped the no-good tramp who had wounded him!

            That was more than 25 years ago. Sammy and Karen are married parents of three – successful in their careers, active in their church and community.

             Unbelievably, Mrs. R. kept her word.  She never spoke to them again.

            At first, Sammy and Karen tried to make peace.  But after Mrs. R. refused invitations to their wedding, and their oldest child’s baptism and birthday parties, their overtures ceased.  They began bad-mouthing her as bitterly as she bad-mouthed them. 

             Their children were the only grandchildren Mrs. R. would ever have.  She’s in her late eighties now, in the final stages of Alzheimer’s.  Helen takes care of her, and the relations between the two siblings are extremely strained.  Sammy’s family feels no obligation to the bitter woman who they know only as a living symbol of what it means to hold a grudge.

            Mrs. R.’s story taught me one of the most important lessons I’ll ever learn.  I remember vividly how her kids were everything to her, just like my recently-married daughter is to me! How could things go so terribly awry?

            Everyone who hears this story says: “A bump in the road of a college romance – that’s a ridiculous reason for a lifelong rift!”  And they’re right, of course.  But when you think about it:  what’s a GOOD reason for anger and blame that does not recede?

            I’ve promised myself I’ll be proactive so grudges never take root between my daughter, son-in-law and me.  I will offer and seek forgiveness immediately whenever hurt feelings or misunderstandings arise (as they inevitably do).  It’s a tragic waste to do otherwise! 

                                                                                     – Marta (48), New Jersey