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Generational Divides — and Conquer

December 18, 2013 By:
Josh Lipowsky, JTA
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Illustration by JA Kemp

Wendy Smith and Michael Posner wanted to do something special for their third wedding anniversary. So the couple, who had recently joined Philadelphia’s Germantown Jewish Centre, asked the executive director if there was a couple that had been together a long time from whom they could learn the secrets of a successful marriage.

The synagogue’s former executive director, Rachel Gross, knew just the people: Elaine and Lee Dushoff, who had been married more than 40 years. The two couples immediately hit it off, forming a bond that provided Smith and Posner with the older couple’s wisdom and the Dushoffs with a younger perspective on life.

That was in 2005. Today the two couples maintain a friendship that also is part mentorship for the younger couple and a way to shake things up for the elder pair. “It’s the dynamics,” Lee Dushoff said. “The topics are different. The challenges and the conversation are different. The humor is different. It’s just different than …”

“Being with old people like us,” his wife chimed in.

While many Jewish organizations create age-specific groups for young professionals, married couples and seniors, some people are reaching beyond their demographic to forge friendships across the generations. “It’s really refreshing on both ends to have the opportunity of a completely different perspective,” said Rabbi Dayle Friedman, the author of Jewish Visions for Aging: A Professional Guide for Fostering Wholeness and a Germantown Jewish Centre member. “To have the opportunity to be with somebody who has seen a lot can contextualize whatever’s happening right now — just the idea of being able to stay fresh and current is really rich.”

“For younger people to have role models that have gone through what is typical when getting older, to watch that and not just wonder, is a really helpful teaching,” she added.

That’s just what happened for Smith when she became pregnant with twins and grew worried about where to send them to school. Elaine Dushoff reminded her that she still had five years before it became a concern. “In some ways they really became friends, mentors and advisers to Michael and I,” Smith said. “Some of what we have learned from them isn’t specific advice they’ve offered, but watching how they live their lives with such wisdom and grace and thoughtfulness.”

Synagogues are uniquely set up to foster intergenerational friendships, according to Gross, now the executive director of Temple Mica in Washington, D.C. “It’s not about programs, it’s about relationships,” Gross said. “It’s not just about matching ages. It’s about matching personalities.”

One of Gross’ current congregants, 88-year-old Howard Sharlin, has been meeting the past 10 years with B’nai Mitzvah-age students for monthly coffee sessions to discuss life, Judaism, politics, dating and any other topic that comes up. “My hobby is being a conversationalist,” Sharlin said. “The way of getting to talk is to listen to people.”

During one session with then-12-year-old Hero Magnus of Alexandria, Va., the pair spent the entire time discussing the ethics of the expression “a captain goes down with his ship.” Sharlin doesn’t have an iPad or a smartphone, and he doesn’t text. But having lived through the Great Depression and World War II, he has life experience.

“There’s so much that I learned from him, discussing philosophy, ethics and Judaism, that not only did I enjoy those discussions, but it also reached into other parts of my life,” Magnus said.

Intergenerational relationships can grow out of institutional settings as well. In Milwaukee, the Jewish Home and Care Center Foundation maintains a fund to bring students to the centers to meet with residents. “Our residents feel like they’re providing lessons to these students and feel like they’re needed,” development director Elizabeth Behrendt said. “Even if we don’t see the children again, it just provides an ability for children to be much more comfortable with the older adult population.”

“I mark my calendar for the day I know they’re coming,” 102-year-old resident Teresa Hirschbein said. “When these little children come, they light up my day.”

Such optimism is integral to healthy aging, according to Sharlin, who is determined to remove the stigma that the elderly cannot be active. “We worry about all the decrepitude of being old — all the wheelchairs and walkers and living wills — all the grim stuff,” he said. “But there’s a lot of fun to be had being old.”

Elaine Dushoff says a sense of fun is necessary to successfully cultivate cross-generational friendships. It also helps to be open early on to new experiences. “This is not something that’s easy to start when you’re 70 or 75 years old,” she said. “It’s the kind of thing you develop over the course of your life. If it’s never been a priority for you, you’re not going to be able to prioritize it.”

It’s a lesson Lee Dushoff learned early. While volunteering as a dorm counselor in college, he encountered an 18-year-old freshman who wanted to skip a final because the professor told him he couldn’t get an A in the course. Dushoff was unable to convince the student to change course — at 25 he already felt out of touch with an 18-year old — and Dushoff resolved he needed to spend more time with young people.

“It’s hard to describe to somebody how people 75 can stay in touch, be friendly with a 20-something,” he said. “It works because we want it to work and we don’t have the self image of being elderly.”

This article originnally appeared in the special section, "The Good Life."

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