Dan Chamberlin on Jerry Witkovsky Day


Dan Chamberlin, Co-Chair of the Special Education Department and School Champion for the Grandparent program at Deerfield High School, joined Jerry Witkovsky, along with family and friends, when Mayor Rosenthal proclaimed “Jerry Witkovsky Day in the Village of Deerfield” last month. (See the Facebook Live Video of the event here.)

Dan’s words:

So, Jerry, congratulations. You are my Carpe Diem

I work with Jerry at Deerfield High School. It’s been 3 years, but it’s felt a little bit longer, just because, not in a bad way, but because you are so endearing.

You have a passion for starting a tradition that is through this kindness and generosity that you carry in your eyes and your soul.  It warms my heart every time you come into my office.

It‘s always “how can we do this better, Dan?” And he’s always pushing, in a good way. You have touched me as an educator and it’s only been three years. I really think what you want to give to other people, other grandparents and grandchildren is so endearing and special that I think it’s only fitting that we have a day in Deerfield named after you, for grandparents day, Grandtimes, grandparent programs and everything you are even bringing into the middle school.

You are my carpe diem. You do seize the day and say we are going to make it and keep on going.

Thank you for your time that you give to Deerfield High School and the Village of Deerfield.




Deerfield Mayor Announces Jerry Witkovsky Day March 20



March 20 will be been named Jerry Witkovsky Day in the Village of Deerfield, to honor the long time Grandparenting Activist’s 89th birthday.
Please join Mayor Rosenthal at Deerfield Village Hall, 850 Waukegan Road, on March 20 at 7:30 p.m for the ceremony.
Read more about the honor and Jerry in the Chicago Tribune/Deerfield Review.

Jerry Witkovsky is an amazing Deerfield resident who has brought thousands of grandparents and grandchildren closer together and enriched their lives through his tireless passion behind his Grandparent Connection School Program.


Lifelong Chicagoan Jerry Witkovsky (MSW, University of Illinois) has been a beloved mentor to thousands of individuals and generations of families, thanks to 47 years of professional leadership – 18 of them, as General Director – of Chicago’s Jewish Community Centers.


In 1995, Jerry was named one of the city’s “Most Effective Nonprofit CEOs” by Crain’s Chicago Business Magazine.


Since retiring in 1997, Jerry has focused his considerable energies on grandparenting – helping multigenerational families work (and play) together to create a rich family life.

At 88, Jerry is a force of nature. His wife’s passing from cancer in 2003 was very difficult. But, he realized he could wallow or could keep on living. He has since authored a book, The Grandest Love: Inspiring the Grandparent-Grandchild Connection, recognized in Grand Magazine’s 2016 list of 13 Best Books for New Grandparents.

Jerry’s joyful commitment to his six grandchildren (ages 14-34) and to their parents, and his passionate belief in the transformative power of becoming a “Teaching-and-Learning” family, is at the heart of his book and the Grandparent Connection School Kit which he produced in 2016.


He has spearheaded annual orientation programs for grandparents in a growing roster of Chicago public and private high schools, designed to keep grandparents engaged with their grandchildren as they become adolescents, teens and young adults.  Schools with Grandparent Programs in Deerfield include Deerfield High School (300 grandparents attended the November Grandparents Day for Seniors!) and Shepard and Caruso Middle Schools.


Jerry now has launched an evaluation process to learn from the current programs and to see how the program could be built into a business model and scaled to set up Grandparent Connection school programs across the country. He continues as a tireless advocate for the power of grandparents to transform families and communities and to help pass values from generation to generation.


Please learn more on Jerry’s active engagement Online.

Website:         http://www.grandparentsunleashed.com/

Facebook:       https://www.facebook.com/GrandparentGrandchildConnection/

Twitter:            https://twitter.com/TheGrandestLove

YouTube:        https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHGq2c-BkROzz2SYAm74CLg

A Grandparent Connection Theory of Change: Transforming Relationships and Community


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Jerry Witkovsky with Grandson

The 4th Generation of Witkovsky’s–a new great grandson

Grandparents have a transformative effect on their family when they teach their skills, manifest their creativity and give voice to their passions.

I set up my first Grandparent Connection School Program at Deerfield High School in 2009. The Deerfield High School grandparent program is still going strong. Over 300 grandparents attended the star event for senior year students: The annual Grandparents Day that took place the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Grandparents (or other special guests) shadowed their grandchild—attended their classes, ate lunch together, experienced their world.

“It’s beyond wonderful,” said one grandmother who was there to be with her grandson.

This connection at one of the critical stages of development goes beyond the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. Grandchildren are becoming young adults. Grandparents are the presence of all the adults that precede the grandchild. From distant relatives to the teen’s parents, the grandparent brings knowledge, wisdom and hope to their grandchild.

Teenagers bring different knowledge and wisdom, frequently with anxiety about the present and trepidation for the future. Amazing things happen when these two get together and share stories of their life experience with one another.

The Power of Schools to Strengthen Families

Connecting with school administrators or counselors is a way for grandparents to understand what their grandchild might need at this age intellectually, socially, and emotionally.  In fact, at a gathering of grandparents of freshman earlier in the academic year, questions were less about what students were reading in English class. They were more about if and how their freshman grandchild was making friends, or how students felt about the pressure of transitioning to high school. A panel of sophomore students talked about their experience of a more “holistic” approach to school, being involved with all aspects of school and not just academics: Participating in sports and clubs is a way to make friends; connecting with older students in the peer tutoring program is an avenue to focus on academics and get perspective on high school.

The school connection and yearning for understanding didn’t end there. “How can we help our grandkids? What are they into these days?” asked one grandparent. The initial response was expected, “visit the school website. Read what your grandchild is reading in English class and ask questions about it, attend their events.” But another answer was more unexpected: “Hide your prescription medicines and dispose of them if you are no longer taking them.” Why? Because prescription drug abuse is a national epidemic. National Institutes for Drug Abuse report that in 2014 1,725 teens started prescription drug abuse every day of that year.

Grandparents must know what is going on to be able to be connected and make a difference in their grandchildren’s lives. This difference can be made not only in the relationship to the grandchild but to the school and the community as well. Schools benefit from volunteers in many aspects of school function, including speakers for career days, event and planning committees, tutoring and more. Community residents who are informed and invested in the school’s success vote on bond issues or raise funds for school projects.

Grandparent programs in schools, both secular and religious, add value, and they are catching on: Over the past seven years, the program in Deerfield has moved into a middle school, with plans to add more schools in 2017; programs are established in two Jewish high schools in the Chicagoland area, plus a number of religious schools in Chicago and beyond.

But, the question remains—what are other case studies of success at schools throughout the US? How can we show that when grandparents enter their grandchild’s school world, it can have a positive, lasting impact across the family and community? My theory is that it brings families closer together around shared values; improves mental health for grandparents and grandchildren; provides community support for schools and encourages positive implicit association with aging.

Theory of Change to evaluate the power of establishing Grandparent Connection Programs in secular and religious schools.

When grandparents of teens successfully connect with their grandchildren’s schools, they will become better informed about their world. 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 engage in meaningful discussions and connections.

Both grandparents and grandchildren will deepen their knowledge of one another’s life stories and values, and grandparents will contribute their compassion, wisdom and love through the various transition points of their grandchildren’s young lives. Additionally, grandchildren and their parents gain positive implicit associations with aging and older adults.

Simultaneously, host schools will gain additional support in the form of enthusiastic volunteers, deeper involvement from school age families and positive influence on the broader community via grandparents’ social networks.

For Religious school connection there is an opportunity to engage spiritually and foster conversations at home around religious or cultural issues. It can create a safe space to share personal stories of religious identity, at times when it might have been difficult or even dangerous to practice their faith. Grandparents involved in religious school learning may find an entrée to sharing values such as kindness or generosity, or enjoy passing on family traditions to grandchildren.

Long term, family units will be enriched, contributing profound and enduring impact on individuals, families and communities.

What grandparent school programs are in your community?

Last year I created a Grandparent Connection School Kit to share what I have learned from my own experience and provide a step-by-step guide for grandparents to set up Grandparent Connection programs in their grandchild’s schools. In the coming year, I am embarking on a research and evaluation project to see what works, best practices, and to create a model to expand the program across the country.

What do you think? Are we on to something? Do you have examples of successful school grandparent programs in your community? We’d love to hear from you! Please share–even programs that did not succeed are good to know about, for informing success for the future.

Please contact me at jwitkovsky (at) att.net.


A long-time social work professional, grandparenting activist, and passionate Grandpa, author Jerry Witkovsky offers fresh approaches to help grandparents enter their grandchild’s world, to leave values, not just valuables, and create a living legacy. http://www.grandparentsunleashed.com

Activism, Inspired by a Grandmother


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(Excerpted from The Grandest Love: Inspiring the Grandparent-Grandchild Connection.)

About a dozen years ago – when I was a middle-school student, like those I currently teach – my grandmother began sharing with me the details of her own teenage years.

During the Holocaust, she was one of nearly 30,000 “Partisans” – Jewish and Russian fighters who resisted the Nazis, banding together in the Polish forests.  As Grandma Sonia opened up, so did my whole world.  I can hardly say that she had a “normal” youth, but that’s what it was until 1939, when the Soviets occupied her Polish village, Luboml.   In 1941, the Germans invaded and established a highly restrictive ghetto for the Jews, and the true nightmare began.

Sonia escaped into the surrounding forest with her parents and uncle in 1942.  After enduring a horrendous winter on their own as fugitives, they managed to join with the Soviet Partisans.  It was then that Sonia assumed the responsibilities of caring for wounded soldiers, guarding the camp at night, and using hand-grenades on missions to sabotage Nazi trains.

Despite our lives having been so different on the surface, I know that Sonia felt many of the same things I have felt, as a young woman going out into the world:  growing out of girlhood shyness, leaving a protected family cocoon, experiencing the first stirrings of romance.

Today, I find myself struggling to understand her frame of mind at two distinct life-junctures: that of the courageous teenager who fought for survival, and that of the 87-year-old woman who has come so far and is surrounded by people who love and admire her – yet who at times feels utterly alone and empty, as one of so few survivors.

Grandma bravely wrote and published a memoir several years ago, titled Here, There Are No Sarahs.  There’s a story in it I’ve known since childhood, and it always stuck with me.  During the first, bitter-cold winter that her family hid in the Polish forest, they were extremely depressed – huddled together for warmth and hardly speaking, knowing they were hunted and their lives were in danger.  A Ukrainian peasant named Tichon came upon them.  He could have abandoned them or even turned them over to the Nazis.

Each person has the choice to make a difference.

Instead, when he saw 16-year-old Sonia, he started to cry.  “You older people have lived already,” he wept, “but this child hasn’t had the chance to live yet.”  Tichon became instrumental in the survival of Sonia and her family, bringing them desperately needed food, information, and hope.  My grandmother’s grateful recounting of this humble man’s heroic acts taught me that each of us has the power to stand up against evil and injustice, by helping those in need.

I fight for human rights and justice because my grandmother fought for her life.

As I’ve grown into adulthood, the more I have learned about Sonia’s unexpected role as a resistance fighter, the more I feel the mandate to carry on her spirit.  Clearly, she was fighting for her life, and I fight for justice and human rights because I have the luxury to do so.  Still, I believe that we are guided by the same truths, encapsulated in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”   Sonia’s story was part of what inspired me to my current work as a teacher in a public school in a seriously disadvantaged neighborhood.

At the same age as Sonia was in the forest, I organized a panel at my high school to raise awareness about the genocide in Darfur.  A Sudanese refugee, then living the Bay Area, came to bear witness.  Mr. Ibrahim spoke of his village and how he was among a handful of survivors out of 200 friends and family members.  In a voice shaking with despair, frustration, and urgency, he begged us to do something.  Watching the tears stream down his face, I felt an intense connection to this man, as if his family and mine had the same story.   That was the moment I realized that human suffering cannot be compared – it is simply shared.

We live in a world where injustice and bigotry, persecution and genocide, have still not been conquered. Sometimes this feels overwhelming.  But I know I will always find strength and inspiration to keep doing my small part, when I think of my grandmother – the strongest woman I know.

EVA ORBUCH (age 23 when the letter was written)
San Jose, California

Deerfield High School Celebrates Annual Grandparent Day


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“I learned from my grandpa what a traditional date was supposed to look like and how we were doing it all wrong,” said school Principal Kathryn Anderson in her welcome to 300 grandparents and special guests who attended the annual Grandparents Day program at Deerfield High School on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. While it was the 7th year for the school, it was the first year for new principal Anderson. “We love this event,” said Anderson. “It’s fun for students, grandparents, and faculty and staff, too. The seniors really look forward to it. Plus it guarantees school attendance the day before Thanksgiving break begins!”


Grandparents were already lining up at 9 am for the beloved 9:30 event, where high school seniors invite their grandparents to visit their school. Grandparents filled the cafeteria, enjoying coffee and donuts while waiting for their grandchildren to find them. Once connecting, grandparents accompanied their grandchild to classes and joined them for lunch in the cafeteria. The grandparents enjoyed a final showcase of arts, music and theater in the auditorium before heading home before school let out, to make it out of the parking lot before the after-school rush.


“It’s beyond wonderful,” said Barbara Rottenberg, who was there to be with her grandson Jake. This was Rottenberg’s second time attending the program at Deerfield High School, having previously come when her granddaughter was a senior. “Anything that’s for the grandkids is good,” said Rottenberg.


Dan Chamberlin, Department Co-Chair for the Special Education Department was the coordinator for this year’s event. “Jerry has put his heart into this program,” said Chamberlin in his welcoming remarks, by way of recognizing Jerry Witkovsky, the grandfather who inspired the program at the school seven years ago. Chamberlin also planned the Freshman Connection program in October, for grandparents of incoming freshman.

Jerry set up the first Grandparent Connection School Program at Deerfield High School (DHS) in 2009, and based on this year’s attendance, the Deerfield High School grandparent program is still going strong. This connection at one of the critical stages of development goes beyond the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. Grandchildren are becoming young adults. Grandparents yearn to know more about their grandchild’s social and emotional development and challenges they face at this age.

Grandparents and grandchildren filled-out surveys during the event this year to collect insights into how connecting via the school can enhance the Grandparent-Grandchild relationship. Jerry is hoping to learn from the success at DHS to build a model to spread the program to schools across the country.

Interested in setting up a Grandparent Connection Program at your local school? Learn more here, or contact Jerry Witkovsky.

Grandparent Activism: Theory of Change


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Grandparents, when they unleash their creativity and use their skills and passions, can have a transformative effect on their families.

I set up my first Grandparent Connection School Program at Deerfield High School in 2009. The Deerfield High School grandparent program is still going strong, with 300 grandparents expected to attend the event for senior year students next week. Over the past seven years, the program has moved into a middle school with plans for expansion in 2017, into two Jewish high schools in the Chicagoland area, plus a number of religious schools in Chicago and beyond.

But, the question remains…how can we show that when grandparents enter their grandchild’s school world, it can have a positive, lasting impact across the family and community, bringing families closer together around shared values and improved mental health; providing community support for schools and encouraging positive implicit association with aging.

To that end, I have undertaken a process to create a Theory of Change, that as the basis for an evaluation/outcome management project to assess the feasibility of expanding the Grandparent Connection School Program and develop the business model for that expansion locally and nationally.

Here is our Theory of Change for the Power of establishing Grandparent Connection Programs in secular and religious schools.

If grandparents of tweens and teens successfully connect with their grandchildren’s schools, they will become better informed about their world. 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 engage in meaningful discussions and connections.

Both grandparents and grandchildren will deepen their knowledge of one another’s life stories and values, and grandparents will contribute their compassion, wisdom and support through the various transition points of their grandchildren’s young lives. Additionally, grandchildren and their parents gain positive implicit associations with aging and older adults.

Simultaneously, host schools will gain additional support in the form of enthusiastic volunteers, deeper involvement from school age families and positive influence on the broader community via grandparents’ social networks.

Long term, family units will be enriched, contributing profound and enduring impact on individuals, families and communities.

What grandparent-school programs are in your community?

What do you think? Are we on to something? Do you have examples of successful school grandparent programs in your community? Please share–even programs that did not succeed are good to know about, for informing a success for the future.

Grandparent Connection: Enter Your Grandchild’s WORK World



As grandparents we know it can get harder to stay connected to grandchildren as they age. I recently published a new booklet for grandparents and schools administrators on how to enter your grandchild’s school world. With my granddaughter living in my same City (or close enough, I’m in Deerfield, she’s in Chicago) and this wonderful program put on by Booking.com, I was given a window into my granddaughter’s Work World.

This invitation made me feel cared for and loved by Kathryn.


Kathryn has worked at Booking.com for just over a year now. She said that the “Friends and Family Day” is an event each Booking.com office hosts annually at local offices. The event types vary from outings to hosting at the office itself. The Chicago office set up their event in the tenant lounge in their building, to include tours of the actual office.


I felt honored that Kathryn wanted me to be with her on this occasion, that she wanted me to share her work world. I met two of her bosses and they spoke very highly of her work and of her as a person. Her fellow workers also spoke highly of her. I’ve always been proud of Kathryn, but this reinforcement from her bosses and peers made me doubly proud. My significant other, Felice Padnos, who joined me at the event, was equally appreciative of Kathryn and her accomplishments.

She took us into the office space and it was all open space with desks.  We sat at her desk area and I realized that she is part of a service industry.  No products –just her skill in selling the service and that can be a tough job.


Kathryn let me enter world as when she was 13 years old and I asked her “how was school” and she told me grandpa I am more than just a student. She then taught me her school world, soccer world-and friendship world.

It is so special to me to have the opportunity to connect to Kathryn and enter her world now that she is an independent adult.

I often hear in the news that Millennials, those born between 1980-2000 or thereabouts, want to know that the companies where they work care about them as a person, both inside and outside of the workplace. Kudos to Booking.com for coming up with this program to allow friends and families more deeply connect employees in the space where they spend a good part of the week. It makes employees feel valued and deepens family relationships, by letting us have a glimpse into their world.







When I was little, my paternal Grandfather Abe and I enjoyed many hours of playing Rummy at his kitchen table.  First, my Grandfather would conduct the impressive table shuffle, then the mystifying riffle shuffle and then the cards would be flicked out – dealt one by one to each player.   Next, “the gathering of the cards”…where you familiarize yourself with the cards you’ve been dealt with and strategize how you will proceed.

While the “big kids” quickly made their choices of which cards to keep, I would always need a bit more time.  Grandpa would always wait so patiently for me to complete my turn – which is not an easy thing to do.  Ever try playing Rummy with a 6-year-old?  Poor Gramps had to endure my eight-minute turns – four minutes to decide which card to get rid of and four minutes to arrange the cards in my hand so I could see what I had to work with.

Grandpa noticed my frustration stemming from not being able to hold all of the cards in my hand.  With an eye for “fixing,” he disappeared for a few minutes.  After a few clanks and clangs from spelunking through his kitchen, he returned to the table with a million dollar idea.  He took two plastic coffee can lids, stapled them together in the middle and placed the cards in fan-like fashion and viola! my very own personal card-holder!

I proudly held that cardholder filled with my cards spread out in a beautiful fan of black spades and red diamonds, of kings and queens and oh my… this was a whole new card game! I’ll never forget the sensation of pure fascination watching in awe how my Grandfather so quickly thought of a solution – creating something from nothing.

Thanks to Grandpa’s ingenuity, the once anxiety-provoking situation of decision-making was now time spent bonding with a loved one, making the experience far more enjoyable to play (for everyone).

My grandparents, as Holocaust survivors, had become experts at relying on themselves because they were forced to.  It was their quick, out-of-the box thinking that led them to survive the incredible hardships they experienced.  We have much to learn from their incredible sense of self-reliance.

The seed was planted in my mind – to approach life with an intention to make the best of any situation by working smarter, not harder.  These days, visits with my grandfather are still filled with the same amount of love and laughter as when I was a child, but where there once were many joys, there are a lot more “oys.”  I’ve watched how the cruel hands of time have left their marks on my 93-year-old grandfather.  It’s hard to watch him struggle to remember things, not being able to participate in conversations because of his hearing loss, and witnessing the constant “it’s-on-the-tip-of-my-tongue” look on his face.

I am always trying to find activities that empower him and give him a sense of autonomy.  And while there aren’t many, I have learned that although his verbal abilities may not be what they once were – the man can still play a round of Rummy.

Recently, our family played 14-card Rummy together – and while we’d quickly make our decisions, when it got to my Grandpa’s turn, we’d wait…and wait and I noticed he was struggling to keep his cards together in his hand.  They kept falling out when he tried to see what cards he was dealing with, leading to a sense of frustration that looked all too familiar.

Just then, a cartoon light-bulb appeared above my head, ‘I’ll be right back.”  I went scurrying through the kitchen drawers and found two lids from the “The Kosher Nosh Deli,” stapled ’em in the middle and arranged his cards in a fan-like manner.  Grandpa held to the lids, smiled with relief and said, “hey…that’s a good idea” – without even realizing, that he was the mastermind behind this invention.  We quickly reminded him that we were merely resurrecting his genius.  (I later saw this product on an “as seen on TV” commercial).

If there’s one thing I’ve learned and continue to learn from my Grandfather – it’s that in life, while we don’t get to choose the cards we are dealt, we do have the choice of what we do with them.  We could choose to complain that none of the cards are the same suit.  We could get mad if someone else has a better hand, we could worry that we’ll never get a straight or a flush – but none of these paths would lead us to a better hand of cards.  All we can do is arrange our cards to the best of our ability, be mindful of what we have to work with and play an honest game.  But the most important thing is to enjoy the company of who we’re playing the game with.  Whether it’s a 6-year-old or a 93-year-old, we all have a card or two to share that might just help us win the game.

Brooklyn, New York


Grandparent Freshman Kickoff at Deerfield High


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“Be sure to tell us about sex and drugs,” advised Jerry Witkovsky, originator of the Grandparent Connection program, now in its fifth year at Deerfield High School in Deerfield, IL. But first, new principal Kathy Anderson kicked off the Freshman Connection program for forty or so grandparents who filled the faculty cafeteria for this special event just for them.


Dan Chamberlain, Special Education Department Chair and the coordinator for this year’s program served as MC. Additional speakers included Brian Verisario, who talked about the 100+ clubs and 30+ sports teams available at the school. Brian’s advice to freshman, “Find the one thing you love…the thing that makes you want to be part of the group.”


Joe Taylor, head of Instructional Technology, talked about Chromebooks for students (each student is given one at Deerfield High School” and how the “no cell phone” policy is changing. “In the past cellphones were not allowed in class, but now students can simply snap a picture of teacher outline rather than writing every word, allowing them to listen more. The policy for each class is determined by the teacher.” Later in the program, after a question about cyber-bullying, Joe pointed out that it was smart to allow cell phone use for school purpose, in school, pointing out that if cyber-bullying takes place on-line, outside of school, the school legally has no recourse. But, if phones are allowed, and things take place during the school day, school’s then have the right to intervene. Joe also talked about other online support for learning, such as “quizlet.com” that allows students to use flashcards to study for tests. He also recommended a couple of books about kids and technology, including “Screenwise” by Deborah Heitner and “It’s Complicated” by Danah Boyd, about the online lives of kids and the social lives of networked teens, respectively.


The highlight was to hear directly from three students, now sophomores who talked about their experience of being freshmen at the school. “I was most concerned about the social aspect,” said one of the students who is not on Student Council, the Tennis Team, and five more activities. “Activities were a great way to meet with other students,” she said. “I was concerned about academics,” said another student. She was grateful for so many opportunities to reach out and get help, from counselors to organized help from older students.


The grandparents had lots of questions, from college preparation to sports, and in particular, how do you learn a sport if you don’t make the team, and you are new to the sport? “Freshman sports are almost all “no-cut” teams, most coaches offer training that is open to all prior to a tryout and they practice most sports in gym as well,” Dan assured them. Grandparents also wanted to understand where their grandchildren were intellectually, socially and emotionally at this pivotal stage of their development.

And back to that original question, about sex and drugs (which had the two speakers chanting sex and drugs and rock n’roll…presumably they are not often asked to talk about these subjects in a professional setting). “I asked on purpose,” said Jerry. “I wanted the other grandparents to know this was going on.” And the response was serious business. “Students take a sexuality class in 7th and 8th grade, and they are sexually active in high school,” Dan advised. And, unfortunately, drug and alcohol abuse is a problem. “Don’t leave your prescription drugs in cabinets or where they are accessible to your grandchildren. Kids will find them and use them themselves or sell them to their friends.”

The program began at 4:00 pm, and at 5:30 grandparents were still eager to learn more. “Please come and attend school events, and visit the school website to find out what students are reading, which activities are coming up.”

For Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Taylor, the Freshman Connection Kick-off is just a start. “We have to send out the invitation on Monday,” they were overheard planning after the meeting. The Senior Grandparent Day, with over 300 Grandparents expected to attend, is coming up soon in November. “The grandparents shadow their grandchild to classes, they eat lunch together, everyone loves it!”

Does your grandchild’s school have a Grandparent Program? Ask your grandchildren and adult children! Invitations to these kinds of events go out via the students and their parents, who then alert the grandparents. Be sure to let your family know you are interested. You may also check your grandchild’s school website, or call the school and give them your email address (learn how to set up a free gmail account here if you don’t have email) so they can contact you directly. Learn more on how to set up a grandparent program at TheGrandestLove.com.


On Grandparents Day, One Grandma Shares what she Learned from her Grandma


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Photo of Hirsh and Perl Lieberman and family, c. 1908 or 1909.

By Esther Manewith

My Story Begins 120 Years Ago in Ukraine

My story starts in Zhitomer in Ukraine about 120 years ago. Zhitomer was an oblast, a provincial center, at that time, home to about 200,000 people, ten percent of whom were Jewish.  Many Jews owned farm land in the outskirts of Zhitomer – and let me give you some Russian history.

The Tsarina, Katherine the Great, had come from Germany as a teenager to marry Peter III – the feeble-minded Czar who eventually was assassinated by one of Katherine’s lovers. Katherine ruled alone from 1762 until her death in 1796. In the 1770s and 80s, seeing that the rich, rich lands of Ukraine were not being farmed properly by the local peasants, she had opened land for sale to Germans … of Jewish and Lutheran background …no Catholics.  Only Germans, she felt, would know what to do with such good rich land. So … only Germans who were Lutheran … or Jewish … were allowed to buy and own land.  And, obviously, she was correct – as Ukraine did become the bread-basket of Europe for many years!

At 16, Grandma Meets Grandpa

Fast forward to 1896 and a farm on the outskirts of Zhitomer. Perl Seidelskaya had just turned 16. She fed chickens, gathered eggs, milked cows. She did what she was told.  One morning her mother told her to wash her hands and face, put on her Shabbos dress and go sit in the orchard and sew.

As she sat and sewed, a tall, slender red-haired boy came and stood before her. “Ich ben Tzvi Hersh Lieberman und du bist mineh besherte” he said.  (I am Tzvi Hersh Lieberman and you are promised to me as a bride.)

Within a month they were married.

Learning about Life on the Farm

Perl went to live on Tzvi Hersh’s parents’ farm – also on the outskirts of Zhitomer, in a place called Pietka – which translates from Russian as “heel of the foot,” not even big enough to be called a shtetl.  Several Lieberman families lived there.

The wedding night was a surprise to Perl.  She knew so little about life.  She woke up the next morning to find no one in the house.  The men were all out in the fields – her mother-in-law most likely working in the garden.

On a small side porch outside the cooking area, Perl found a bowl of little cucumbers and another of sour cream.  “I deserve a treat,” she said, “I’ll have cucumbers and sour cream and feel better.”

As she was eating, her mother-in-law came back into the house. “Pikelach und smetena!!! Dos is fur a Yontiff, nisht fur a prosten tog!”(Cucumbers and sour cream!!! This is for a holiday – not for a common workday.)

So, Perl cried. Tzvi Hersch walked in and calmed the situation down. But for Perl, at 16, it was the start of growing a very strong and very tough disposition.

Tzvi Hersh, known as Herschel to his family, did not like farming and had gotten a job.  He traveled by horse and wagon, selling pots, pans, teapots, even samovars to the shtetls around Zhitomer as far as Poland and Bela Russ.  He spoke Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, Yiddish, and could read and write Hebrew, all assets.   Meanwhile, Perl worked on the farm and began a family.

And, so they lived a quiet, a hard-working, quiet life.  For a few years.

Growing Anti-Semitism in Russia

Ukraine had been annexed by Russia in 1793, 100 years earlier. For many years there was little anti-Semitism.  In 1881 there had been some pogroms, but by the early 1900s they were mostly forgotten.

But the times, they were a’changin’. I want to quote from the Haftorah of Isaiah “…that you forget the Lord your Maker, who stretches out the Heavens and who lays the foundations of the earth… you live in constant terror every day because of the wrath of the oppressor, who is bent on destruction…”

That is what our grandparents live with starting in 1903, during Passover, with a pogrom in Kishenev which opened a series of pogroms all over Ukraine. Cities from Kiev to Odessa, and shtetls between them were attacked.  Chernikov, Bela Tsarkov, Karkov, Berditchev and more.

“It’s time to leave,” Perl said. “It’s time to go to America like your cousin did.  We cannot stay here with this constant threat to us and to our children.”

Herschel’s answer was “no.”  There was the farm, his job.  They were doing well and even making money.  The pogroms were not coming to Zhitomer.  It was too big, it was an oblast, he thought.

Grandma Perl, Entrepreneur

But Perl saw it differently.  “I am going to work,” she said, “and I am going to save for the day we have to leave.”

And, in 1903, at the age of 23 with four little ones and pregnant with a fifth, she went to work in the Zhitomer market place, selling the reject pots and pans her husband could not sell, what today we call dented and bruised. But she sold them — bargaining, negotiating, cajoling — she sold them.  As a child, she had learned to read and write, so now she learned to keep books: how many pots sold, for what price, what her percentage was.

She found herself getting even tougher, flinty, rugged.  She was going to get her children out of Zhitomer, no matter what Herschel said.  Her determination grew, as did her single-mindedness and her
kniple — her savings.

She kept her money in an old stocking, hidden in a drawer, and that stocking grew fat.

The pogroms in shtetls around them continued.  Between 1903 and1905 there were 660 pogroms in the western part of Ukraine where they lived.  (My oldest grandson, Aaron, commented to me that 660 pogroms in two years was one almost every day and one-half).

1905, The Pogroms Hit Home-Zhitomer

Finally, in the spring of 1905, the pogrom came to Zhitomer.

Hundreds were killed, many were mutilated after being murdered. Hundreds more were wounded.  Houses were burnt, windows broken, furniture demolished.  Religious items in the three large synagogues and 46 bet Midrashim were destroyed.  Torahs torn apart, taleisim ripped to shreds, prayer books burnt.

I don’t know where the family hid during the pogrom. Perhaps in the heavily wooded forests behind the house. Perhaps in the barn. Perhaps in the cellar of their home. Hidden, keeping five children quiet, one a baby.  But they survived.

It took another two years, before Herschel agreed they could go.  Perl continued to work, scrimping, saving and putting by. Now there was enough money to leave Zhitomer.

Escape to America

In June, 1907, by dark of night, they left by wagon, headed for the Polish border. There, they “gomvered dos grenitz” – literally, stole the border, by slithering under barbed wire.

One of the children, Beryl, age 7 and skinny, literally crawled out of his pants as he crept beneath the wire.

“Gay dorten und nem dine haisen,” Perl said angrily. “Go back and get your pants.”  “Ich vais nit ahz mi kent caifen haisen in America – I don’t know about buying pants in America.”

From the Polish/Russian border, they took a train. Yes, Perl had saved enough money for that, too, and went to Hamburg, Germany where they bought steerage tickets on a ship bound for the United States.

It was a miserable crossing.  Perl was seasick the entire time and became even tougher on the children, terrified they would roam the ship, fall overboard.

Building a New Life in Chicago

But they made it to America and then to Chicago.  A cousin worked for a retailer on Roosevelt Road and got Herschel a job peddling,  selling clothing “on the installment plan” ($1 down and 50 cents a week) to families in the Polish communities of Chicago – as his Polish was that good.

Soon they bought a little house with a dirt floor.

Perl could not give up the scrimping, saving and putting by. She would cut one apple into five pieces – one for each child.  She was frugal and thrifty.

And in ten years, she bought an apartment building; two years later, another.  And then, a black silk dress and a very long and very elegant string of pearls.

I wish I could say that Herschel and Perl were a love match. But, I don’t think so.

A neighbor lady once said to Perl, “Dine man hott schane bluve egen, Mrs. Lieberman.  (Your husband has beautiful blue eyes, Mrs. Lieberman)

Perl said to herself, “bluve egen?”

And when Herschel came home from work that day, washed his hands and sat down to dinner, Perl took a good look and said to herself “Takeh – schane bluve egen!”  Truly, beautiful blue eyes.

They lived nicely until the Depression. But, by 1932, Perl lost the properties she had so carefully bought.  Herschel’s business dwindled as the factories closed and his customers couldn’t afford anything anymore.

They soldiered on.  Their sons all married and went into businesses.  Their daughter married a dentist.  There were eight grandchildren to enjoy.

Herschel passed away – but Perl lived to see her grandchildren graduate from college and make their own way in the world.  She saw great-grandchildren and watched them grow.

As you may have guessed by now, Perl and Herschel were my grandparents….and the little boy who crawled out of his pants? My father.

Perl was tough until her dying day. When Bob and I were in Russia a few years ago, we learned a Russian phrase…

“We raise our children to be tough as it’s a tough world out there and they have to be tough to survive.”

That’s how Perl lived her life.

A last thought – a few years ago when we were in Israel, we went to the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.  At the time, there was a major exhibit on Zhitomer.  There were two very large pictures of the Jews of Zhitomer — men, women and children, lined up in Cathedral Square — the
city center.

Surrounding the people, who stood with their hands up, was a contingent of Nazi soldiers with rifles aimed at the Jews.  In the very front of the line, was a boy – maybe 14 or 15 – with the most expressive eyes.

The picture was in black and white – so I will never know if he had schane bluve egen.

And I thought to myself – that could be my family, the children and grandchildren of the brothers and sisters my grandparents left behind.

The caption under the picture was in German – but easy to translate: August 1941 – Zhitomer bist Juden frei (Zhitomer is free of Jews).

I closed my eyes and whispered a silent prayer.

Thank you Grandma and Grandpa – for all you have done for all of us. Your sacrifices will never be forgotten.

And thanks to all of our grandparents who had the courage, like Moses and the Children of Israel … to do whatever was necessary … to fight every battle…to get to this new Promised Land.  How lucky and how blessed we were and still are.

Esther Manewith is an Independent Public Relations and Communications Professional in Chicago, IL, where she lives with her husband Bob. They have three children and three grandchildren. This story was presented as the sermon at Ezra Habonim, The Niles Township Jewish Congregation, in honor of Grandparents Day 2016.