“Remember the days of yore, understand the years of generation after generation. Ask your father and he will relate it to you, your elders and they will tell you” (Deuteronomy 32.7).
And as the great medieval commentator Rabenu Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi) wrote about this verse, “[S]et your heart upon the past to learn its lessons to be able to recognize for the future.”
This is the mission that two local Jewish day schools, Hillel Academy and Yeshiva Elementary School, have set out to do in their partnership with the Milwaukee Jewish Home & Care Center and Chai Point.
In separate programs, Hillel and YES students meet with JHCC residents to forge relationships and create learning opportunities.
Mary Wishne, Hillel’s English Language Arts teacher, said, “It is important for kids to have experience with people who have an enriched life.”
Esti Hiller, YES’s former Ruach (Spirit) director, said, “Our visits to the Jewish Home have been a win/win situation. The students are offered an exceptional opportunity to give in a way they have never given before, and the residents receive incredible attention from our adorable students.”
Rabbi Levi Emmer is the JHCC Director of Traditions and Spiritual Life. “The moment that a bubbe or zaide, grandmother or grandfather, realize that the life, values and traditions of their ancestors are being continued in the next generation is a very powerful moment,” he said.
An important component to these programs is funding for travel costs to and from the JHCC, thanks to the JHCC Foundation. Emmer said this funding was provided with “The double intention of enriching the lives of our seniors while educating the community about the challenges and celebrations of living a senior life.”
This program has been going for several years between Hillel and JHCC in a synthesis of Judaic and secular studies. Hillel students who participate in this program range from fifth through eighth grades.
Hiller initiated this program for YES last school year as part of a middos/character-development program for fourth and fifth grades. Although this specific program is new, YES has been involved with the JHCC for many years with varying grade levels.
Both schools have carried out varied projects with the residents, including an important one centered on interviewing.
Wishne teaches her students how to interview: “What type of higher level thinking can we arouse in our students and encourage them to have follow-up questions? We talked about using voice, making eye contact and what constitutes good listening,” she said.
Hillel students are encouraged to ask, “What life lesson can you share that will contribute to my experience in middle school and beyond? What’s one thing that your parents taught, that you benefited from, and contributed to you in life?” This, said Wishne, promotes higher level thinking skills and is consistent with common core standards.
In answer to the students’ questions, Wishne said that many residents say, “Remember who you are and where you come from. It’s important to know you’re a Jew.”
Wishne said students “received a front row experience into ‘living history.’ The residents in the Jewish Home are amazing people.”
For example, “On one interview I witnessed, we spoke with a woman who is a Holocaust survivor from France. She had been put into hiding as a child through the French Resistance. However, upon liberation, her brother was shot by a Vichy sympathizer,” Wishne said.
“Another man was one of the first doctors in the U.S. to deliver quadruplets,” Wishne continued. “While this is not so extraordinary today, it was when he was practicing.”
Emmer said, “The residents eagerly await the visits. They are impressed by the level of comprehension and are rejuvenated by the children.”
Back in the classroom, Hillel students write reflections on their experiences.
Hiller said that students are engaged with residents as residents tell students about their children and grandchildren. In addition, they play games, make projects and sing songs.
Karen Torem, a fifth grade girls teacher at YES, described a project in which students and residents decorated Seder cups together. Torem said, “They [the students and residents] were so beautiful to watch. Even the shyest girl opened up and residents were sharing their life experiences. They showed a lot of patience and empathy and a lot of attentiveness to them. The girls were really upbeat.”
Wishne, Hiller and Torem all said that students who tend to be more introverted opened up and flourished in this program.
“I can’t believe the change from September to May with students who thought they wouldn’t be successful in this project and went on to become comfortable and extremely capable,” said Wishne.
Another project instituted by Hillel was artistic installations centered on quotes from Pirkei Avot, Sayings of the Fathers. In the Judaic classroom, students analyzed the quotes with guidance from their teachers and then brought those ideas to the residents which they discussed together. Then, out of these quotes students and residents made art panels and multi-media pieces.
Wishne said, “We cut out symbols, illustrated the quotations and brought them [the quotations] to life. Each child took a piece and they went from person to person — they gave a presentation about it to the seniors in small group settings.”
After the students gave the resulting works to the residents, one resident called Emmer into her room. “The resident displayed it with so much pride, she made room on the wall [to display it],” Emmer said. “She couldn’t wait until the kids come back after the summer.”
All the interviewed educators said this program has a lasting effect on the students. In fact, Hiller said, the joint YES/JHCC program spurred more ways in giving back to the community.
YES girls now “give one hour a week to families in their community as a result of this program,” said Hiller. “[They] babysit, tutor, [and/or] walk elderly people’s dogs.”
Emmer stated, “The value of having that breath of fresh energy come and spend time with them [the residents] is immeasurable and it should teach the children of the essential commandment of Kibbud Av Va-Em, honor your father and thy mother. It’s something real, it’s about real people.”
Joshua Becker is a Spanish teacher for Shorewood Public Schools and a freelance writer. His website is Joshuabecker.info.