In the midst of the pandemic, a group of Jewish teens is forging important connections with seniors four or five times their age.
It doesn’t take much to make 13-year-old Sam Goldstein smile. Just ask him about his pen pals, Shirley and Howard Bernstein. “I’ve always wanted a pen pal,” he said. “I really look forward to their letters,” he said. “While we’re at home and we can’t do a lot, it makes the time go quicker. Plus, it’s really fun to make that connection.”
Like all of us, Sam has had a challenging year, missing out on milestone celebrations like his upcoming Bar Mitzvah, which had to be postponed due to the pandemic. Even his ability to do community service was compromised. He used to volunteer at Seashore Gardens Living Center (SGLC) regularly with his family and knows many of the residents.
“Now I’m doing virtual piano concerts for the residents as part of my Bar Mitzvah project,” he said. “When I heard about Better Together, I jumped at the chance to be involved. I was very excited to be able to get a spot in the program.”
Better Together is a program of the Board of Jewish Education of Atlantic & Cape May Counties. It connects SGLC residents with Jewish teens from the Kulanu School of Jewish Studies, with programs centering around Jewish values. Now in its fourth year, Better Together has transitioned from in-person to virtual due to the pandemic.
“This year has been a very challenging year for Better Together, now called Better Together in a Box,” said Susan Weis, Executive Director, Board of Jewish Education of Atlantic & Cape May Counties and Kulanu School of Jewish Studies. “Although we have not been able to meet in-person, we have been able to communicate with our buddies through video messages, letters, journals and phone calls. Even though it has been more difficult to facilitate the program, we all feel that the need for building relationships through points of contact is greater than ever.”
Lois Shapiro moved to SGLC last March, the night before the Home closed to visitors. Better Together has been a welcome activity. “I was approached by the staff and asked if I wanted to participate,” she said. “My kids are all older and even though I talk to them every day, they’re busy with their lives. I’m bored and I thought it was a good thing to do. They asked me, and I said I’ll try it and if it’s not for me, I’ll let you know.”
As it turns out, Lois enjoyed the first encounter so much that she can’t wait for the next. She raves about her buddy, 17-year-old David Lillienfeld. “He is absolutely one of the nicest kids I’ve ever met,” she said. “He’s so sweet, so great. We had an instant connection. We spoke about ourselves. I asked him what he was planning to do with his life. I told him about my children.”
David enjoyed the connection as well. “I was really interested in the intergenerational aspect of the program,” he said. “It wasn’t like the other community service opportunities. I thought I might gain some perspective from this experience, and I have. Better Together gives us the opportunity to get to know someone who is older and learn from their life experiences. For the residents, it provides a connection to the younger generation. It gives them a chance to make a difference in our lives as well.”
“The pandemic has brought a unique set of challenges to the Better Together program,” noted Cindy Weinraub, Assistant Director of Recreation. “We were no longer able to enjoy our monthly gatherings to share lunch, conversation and activities. The residents and students exchanged framed photos and Susan facilitated a bag of items that were sent back and forth (with time in the middle to make sure they were sanitized) that includes a notebook for written messages between each pair. Each person completed a Mad Lib style Getting-to-Know-You questionnaire to learn a little bit about each other. They also connected via snail mail with many partners writing cards and letters to one another. Recently phone conversations were completed so they could attach a voice to their pictures and the paper biographies. One of the most innovative items that has been exchanged are the e-Cards that the students have made – little mini videos of themselves and their families.”
The program also comes with important life lessons. “We had the unfortunate happening of two resident participants passing away this year,” said Cindy, “a sad teachable moment that Susan had to navigate with her students. The kids have been flexible and we found two new resident volunteers to fill the void. As everyone else, we are being flexible and innovative to develop and maintain this intergenerational connection under extraordinary circumstances.”
“A lot of these kids don’t get to see their grandparents that often,” said Shirley Bernstein. “In Better Together, they get an opportunity to talk to older people, get their views and a little history. Sam wrote to us last time about his volunteering. We’re professional volunteers; we’ve been volunteering over 50 years. You have things that are in common despite the generations, and it’s so fulfilling to be able to share. Anytime there is an intergenerational conversation, both people learn.”
“We knew Sam before he was paired with us in Better Together,” said Howard Bernstein. “He’s been around Seashore Gardens since he was little. We’ve watched him grow up. Now he’s a young man, and we’re enjoying getting to know him on another level. He’s an exceptional kid, very articulate and caring.”
This is the second year in the program for high school freshman Pauline Leiderman. “I initially signed up for community service hours but this doesn’t feel like community service,” she said. “It’s really social and fun, like hanging out with friends.” Last year, Pauline enjoyed visiting in-person with the residents. “We painted rocks, we had a joke day, and I was looking forward to doing some baking with them. This year, we recorded videos and sent e-cards. We’re writing letters and making phone calls.”
“It’s a big age difference but that’s good,” she noted. “It’s good to be able to learn things about each other. The times you lived in are different and the activities you do are different. We learn about them and they learn about us.”
The Simon & Sylvia Zisman Seashore Gardens Living Center (SGLC) is a nonprofit home for the aged, guided by Jewish tradition, law, and charity, dedicated to enriching the quality of life for its residents. The 125,000 square foot senior Living Center features a continuum of services which include assisted living, short and long term nursing care, Alzheimer’s care, respite care and full rehabilitation services all under one roof. For more information, visit www.seashoregardens.org.