World War One stories and helicopter parenting.
Snooki from “Jersey Shore” and pressure cookers.
These aren’t prompts for story-writing… they are just a few of the wide-ranging topics that were covered on Tuesday in a meeting that took place between two very special groups of people.
I was privileged this week to make a visit to Hebrew Senior Life in Brookline with the 6th and 7th grade Te’enim class from Kesher Newton and their teacher, Pam Pistiner. After a few weeks of back-and-forth question-and-answer sessions on Flip Video and e-mail, the group of ten students and twelve residents got together at HSL at 1550 Beacon Street to meet for the first time.
The meeting on Tuesday was the culmination of a month of preparation. The Kesher students, who had been studying the rise of modern Zionism and the birth of the State of Israel, had sent questions via video and transcribed text to the residents about their experiences during and memories of that era of Jewish history. The HSL residents were curious, on their end, about technology, how the students were studying Israel and Holocaust, their families, and their Jewish educations. With the help of the Rabbi Suzanne Offit, HSL’s on-site Rabbi, and Jeffrey Savit, an HSL social worker, we spent a the month of May preparing both the residents and the students for their meeting, and entered the room on Tuesday with lemonade, ice cream sandwiches, and high aspirations.
Within thirty seconds, it was obvious that the afternoon was going to be a success. Seated in groups of four and five, the two groups spent over ninety minutes getting to know each other and sharing their personal stories. Walking around the room, I heard some incredible questions and even more incredible answers. One of the residents shared her experiences as an El Al stewardess in flying Iraqi olim into Israel in 1952, in the height of the aliyah from North Africa and the Middle East to Israel. Another resident who grew up in New York City described how boys and girls who lived in the Bronx and in Brooklyn wouldn’t (couldn’t?) date each other because the trip on the subway was too long to make it worth it. One of the Kesher students asked a resident who his favorite President was. The response? Franklin Delano Roosevelt!
The questions went in directions that I hadn’t expected. What was discipline and punishment like in schools when you were growing up? What kind of cell phone do you have? Do you feel like your parents have too much information about what you do?
The conversations moved from the serious (hearing about family lost in the Holocaust) to the sublime (how the preparation of sweet potatoes evolved with the invention of the microwave oven), and from the world of fashion (what clothes one wore to school “back then” versus today) to music (Frank Sinatra going head-to-head with Lady Gaga). What was most remarkable was the ease with which the students and their hosts moved from topic to topic with little prompting and with real enthusiasm and curiosity.
Our goal for the mifgash (encounter) was simple- to have the groups meet and learn from each other- but so much more transpired than just that. For our students, demystifying the elderly and providing them an easy way into to a dialogue and relationship with them was important, and for the HSL residents, giving them a venue to openly share their own stories and histories with willing listeners was key. In both cases, though, the depth of conversation and the degree to which the participants opened up to each other was truly heartwarming.
As the residents and the Kesher kids went around at the end of the afternoon to share their thoughts, one of the residents spoke about how she just learned that “kesher” meant “connection.” In a voice ringing with delight, she described how “that’s just what we’ve just made here— a connection.”