The Value of Intergenerational Learning

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By Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein

We learn in Proverbs/Mishlei 16:31 that “the head that has lived and aged is a crown of glory, it is found in the way of righteousness.” In Jewish thinking and life, aging is an important value and we are instructed to honor those in our lives who have gained the wisdom that living our lives yields. The insight that comes with experience is highly regarded and the notion that we listen to and learn from these voices of experience is often emphasized.

In our society today, we know that the importance of passing our traditions and knowledge from generation to generation is a key component to our survival. It maintains our way of life and the values that have defined who we are as Jews for so long, even as we confront so many challenges that threaten that continuity.

However, our reality is that as our communities address so many conflicting needs and demands, this value unfortunately is too often lost. Simultaneously, we know that our aging population is the fastest growing segment of our community, and of course, we are all part of it.

We are acutely aware that as time goes on, we are seeing more and more age-related ailments, which can be exacerbated by a sense of feeling lost or without purpose. We are feeding, clothing and sheltering our aging population, but we have to focus on nourishing their souls and insuring that they feel that they are still worthwhile and needed in our society as well. Additionally, we have our younger members of our community who can learn so much from these living sources of history and experience. Bringing them together is clearly a win-win situation.

This is the motivation behind MiDor LeDor: Intergenerational Learning, a program that is funded through a generous grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. This ongoing learning and experiential program insures that our Senior Life Long Learners (SLLLs) continue to learn, share their experiences and work with learners of all ages as mentors, fellow learners and friends.

At the Samuel A. Green House in Elkins Park that is associated with Federation Housing, Inc., a group of residents gather every Thursday afternoon to learn and share their thinking. They have been meeting for about three years, at first under the aegis of Gratz College and now as part of this program. They have explored topics including lessons from the weekly parshah, comparative monotheism, theodicy and When Bad Things Happen to Good People, contemporary issues, stories and legacies of our lives and other subjects along the way. This group includes learners who are in their 70s, 80s and 90s. They are intelligent, insightful, eager to learn and share, and vital.

Research indicates that this sense of vitality and purpose will bode well for people as they age and stave off dementia-related problems. The level of learning is high and we will soon be sharing some of these sessions with other SLLL populations throughout the United States, using the vehicle of the internet learning platform provided by Senior Learning Network out of Kansas City.

This year, the group has begun to share their learning and experiences with a group of students at Perelman Jewish Day School through monthly meetings that include a variety of sharing and learning experiences. We have brought together learners aged 8 to 98 to learn and share stories of their lives, to build model sukkahs and to share a multicultural celebration. Future plans include a Black History Month program, small group chavruta learning experiences and more sharing of stories.

The stories we share include immigration experiences, what life was like in Appalachia for one of the residents in her younger formative years, how one of the residents lives a purposeful life while moving around in a wheelchair, and how grandparents and great-grandparents of the young students have left various legacies with their families. With the wide range of ages in the group, we are collecting stories from as many as seven generations. Eventually we plan to create and publish a collection of these narratives for all to share.

Requests for expansion of this program are presently being addressed and as time goes on, our hope for programs such as MiDor LeDor: Intergenerational Learning is that we will all remember that some of our most valuable members of our learning communities are those who have lived the longest. They can share experiences, help our younger students “see” history and hear firsthand accounts and so much else. It is our hope that as our generations learn from and with each other, all will benefit and we will continue to nurture those who have nurtured and supported us all their lives.

Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein directs BeYachad: Bringing Jewish Learning and Best Practices Together. She is the program director of MiDor LeDor: Intergenerational Learning.