Reflections of an Oma and Opa: The Joys—and Opportunities—of Grandparenting

By the time this article is printed, my wife and I will have savored the enormous zechut of attending the first wedding of a grandchild, our eldest. Reflecting the Yekke traditions of my in-laws, aleihem hashalom, our grandchildren call us Oma and Opa. They range in age from three to twenty-four and each one, in his or her unique way, brings us boundless joy and pride. At this moment of extraordinary happiness and gratitude to Hashem, we pause to reflect on the role of grandparents in contemporary Jewish life, and on the challenges and opportunities inherent in such a role, both within and outside of the Orthodox community.

To date, much of the research on the development of religious values has, understandably, centered on millennials and parents. Have we, however, paid sufficient communal attention to the role of grandparents and grandparenting in the inculcation of Jewish learning and tradition—a process often referred to as sharsheret hadorot? 

The Perspective of Chazal on the Influence of Grandparents
Grandparents hold an important position in the family hierarchy; they are the glue that bonds families together, a source of strength for their children and grandchildren, and the pillar upon which future generations rest.

Grandparents are tasked with a religious obligation and are bequeathed a sacred responsibility: to preserve and to transmit the masorah that they received from their parents and grandparents to subsequent generations of young women and men.

We are commanded to remember the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai, and instructed to convey this to future generations (Devarim 4:9-10):

Only take heed and guard yourselves carefully, lest you forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and lest they depart from your heart as long as you live; and make them known to your children and to your children’s children: The day you stood before Hashem, your God, at Horeb…

From this verse we derive that there is a Torah obligation for grandparents to not only teach their own children about the Jewish tradition but to teach their grandchildren as well: “Make them known to your children and to your children’s children.” Indeed, the obligation to teach Torah to one’s grandchildren is codified by Rambam (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:2)1 and the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 245:3).

Chazal placed a substantial emphasis on the inter-generational transmission both of Jewish knowledge and attachment. The Talmud (Kiddushin 30a) emphasizes how important this obligation is with the following teaching:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: Anyone who teaches his son’s son Torah, the verse ascribes him credit as though he received it from Mount Sinai, as it states: “And make them known to your children and to your children’s children,” and juxtaposed to it is the phrase in the verse: “The day you stood before Hashem, your God, at Horeb.”

Simply understood, the Talmud teaches us that one who transmits our tradition to the next generation is doing something so extraordinary, it is as though he himself stood at Har Sinai.

Interestingly, Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer HaLevi Eidels (1555-1631), in his commentary Chiddushei Maharsha, suggests that the Talmud’s phrase “the verse ascribes him credit as though he received it from Mount Sinai” is actually referring to the grandchild. The Talmud is therefore to be understood as follows: If one teaches Torah to a grandchild, it is as though the grandchild received the Torah at Har Sinai. We did not actually stand at Har Sinai and witness the Revelation of God to His people. We therefore rely solely on the testimony of our ancestors about that seminal event. Thus, when a grandparent recounts the story of Har Sinai to a grandchild, the grandchild is able to connect to that moment, tapping into an unbroken chain of transmission, which had its genesis in that historic event.

How often do we find ourselves “making appointments” to visit with our grandchildren as their lives and ours become ever more complicated?

This beautiful explanation of the Maharsha highlights the unique position of a grandparent with regard to the transmission of Torah and the Jewish tradition. Simply receiving a Jewish education from one’s parents is often insufficient to firmly instill within a child the depth, grandeur and historic dimension of our masorah. It is the ability to connect with generations past that gives a child a more robust understanding of the longevity of our tradition and the unbroken chain of the masorah that extends back to Sinai.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, notes (Chumash Mesoras HaRav, Bereishis, p. 353) that Yaakov Avinu merited that his second name, Yisrael, became the generic name for the Jewish nation. Moreover, Yaakov is referred to a number of times in the Torah as “haZaken—the old one,” and in Talmudic and Midrashic literature he is often called “Yisrael Sava.” In what manner did Yaakov distinguish himself so that his name became the generic name for an entire people, and that he, in particular, was called Zaken? Rav Soloveitchik offers the following insight:

Yaakov was the first patriarch to establish direct communication with his grandchildren. He was the first to make a solemn declaration, an historic pronouncement, which is responsible for the sense of closeness we still have with the past, thereby laying the foundation for the dialogue of the generations. He literally conquered time and space when he said to Joseph, “Now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt, before I came to you in Egypt, are mine. Ephraim and Menashe shall be mine, no less than Reuven and Shimon” (Bereishit 48:5).

Yaakov was the first of our forefathers to assume direct responsibility for influencing the spiritual development of future generations. The Torah tells us (Bereishit 48:20):

“And he blessed them that day, saying, ‘By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.’”

This blessing became the blessing with which parents traditionally bless their children each week, and it symbolizes the steadfast linkage of generations that has kept our people spiritually connected with the Borei Olam throughout the millennia. And it is this blessing that has ensured the fulfillment of the words of the Prophet Yeshayah (59:21):

And this shall be My covenant with them, said Hashem: “My spirit which is upon you, and the words which I have placed in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your children, nor from the mouth of your children’s children—said Hashem—from now on, and for all time.”

The Challenges of Grandparenting
Our communities are anchored in the concept of “binareinu uvizkeineinu neileich—with our youngsters and with our elders we shall go” (Shemot 10:9). Inter-generational influence is at the core of our family life. But contemporary circumstances have challenged that fundamental tenet in dramatic and ever more complex ways.

Changing family dynamics and shifting residence patterns make the historical paradigm of a nuclear family residing under one roof a thing of the past. Growing up, my maternal grandparents lived in our home. I was indeed fortunate to have known and been influenced by three of my grandparents; countless Jews of my generation never knew their grandparents, many of whom perished in the Holocaust. My Zeide taught me the aleph bet before I entered kindergarten. Kibbud av va’em was something I witnessed daily, up close and in real time. Today, not only do families not reside in the same neighborhood or city, but many are scattered across the country (indeed, often across the globe in ever more dispersed locales), separating generations by barriers of distance and time zone.

Economic factors impact as well. As family size in the Orthodox community grows, and the cost of housing and tuition escalates, grandparents are often called upon to help with these rising costs and the resulting efforts may have cascading consequences on retirement planning, charitable giving and other spending decisions. Changing patterns of leisure time activity—both for grandchildren and grandparents—can also severely strain the ability to create or enrich inter-generational bonds. How often do we find ourselves “making appointments” to visit with our grandchildren as their lives and ours become ever more complicated?

It would be wise to consider whether the nature of our activity has shifted from life’s simple interactions (like a walk in the park, a game of chess, cooking and baking) to perhaps more exciting but less interactive endeavors? Likewise, we may ask whether the very nature of our communications (with our grandchildren and, indeed, with one another) has undergone seismic shifts. E-mail, social media and video “chats” allow for grandparental interaction, particularly across long distances and time zones. But have they replaced the comfort of tender moments and the warmth of Bubbe and Zeide’s hug or pinch on the cheek?

As family size in the Orthodox community grows, and the cost of housing and tuition escalates, grandparents are often called upon to help with these rising costs . . .

A recent article in the New York Times by Nellie Bowles, a reporter covering tech and Internet culture, referred to human contact as a “luxury good”—a direct response to lives increasingly dominated by electronic media and virtual experiences. As the proliferation of technology companies and the dazzling array of hardware and software they produce come to dominate our culture at an ever-increasing pace, human interactions correspondingly diminish. In a society built around increasing isolation, the warm embrace of parents—and grandparents—becomes ever more important to the education of our children and to the transmission of traditions and values that have preserved us as a people throughout the millennia. Each of these dynamics has wrought profound changes in the role and nature of grandparenting and has created unique challenges—and opportunities—for Jewish family life.

The Role of Grandparents in the Non-Orthodox World
Writing in Mosaic several years ago, Professor Jack Wertheimer referred to grandparents as “American Jewry’s great untapped resource.” Professor Wertheimer cited a survey of Birthright Israel alumni which found that “connection to Jewish grandparents is an important predictor of a wide variety of [positive] Jewish attitudes and practices in later years.” In the non-Orthodox world, many grandparents are eager to play (and are capable of playing) an active role in the lives of their grandchildren as role models and guides in Jewish living. A large number of grandparents take their grandchildren to services, often filling in for parents who are unaffiliated or who attend synagogue irregularly. Unfortunately, many others are far less involved.

Dr. Erica Brown, associate professor at the George Washington University School of Education and Human Development and director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, will be hosting a symposium in June, in conjunction with the Jewish Grandparents Network, on “Jewish Grandparenting in an Age of Complexity and Change.” The symposium follows on the heels of the first national study of Jewish grandparents conducted by the Jewish Grandparents Network in partnership with seventeen national organizations and federations.

While the full study has not yet been released, several key findings have already been shared in published media reports. The survey reveals five broad groupings of grandparents in the general Jewish population, based on their levels of Jewish engagement and willingness to pass on Jewish values. Almost two in three grandparents report doing little to pass on Jewish practices to grandchildren—23 percent are “engaged secularists” (engaged as grandparents, but not modeling Jewish faith or practice); 20 percent are “wistful outsiders” (family dynamics interfered with the ability to be more involved); and 21 percent are “non-transmitters” (neither Jewishly engaged nor interested in passing on Jewish practices to their grandchildren). Only 36 percent fell into the category of “joyful transmitters” (feel it is important to transmit Jewish values and beliefs) or “faithful transmitters” (want their grandchildren to have a strong connection to Judaism and to marry Jews).

What are the implications of this data for Jewish life in America and beyond? Are these findings surprising, or are they yet another manifestation of the declining importance of Jewish observance (or even tradition) in the lives of the majority of American Jewry? How are we, as Torah-true Jews with a passion for Yiddishkeit and a commitment to areivut and the spiritual development and fulfillment of every Jew, to react to such statistics? Is there a programmatic response that can be formulated that will tap into the wellspring of life experiences represented by this growing demographic? Can we find ways to spur the growing cadre of Jewish grandparents to convey their heritage to their progeny? As always, our readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and suggestions.

On Motzaei Shabbat, at the conclusion of Havdalah, our family has the minhag of singing Shir Hamaalot (Tehillim 128). As I struggle, usually unsuccessfully, to stay on key, I am constantly reminded of the beauty of this berachah, and of its eternal message that the bonds of family and heritage continue to sustain us as they have throughout our long history.

. . . Your children will be like olive saplings around your table. So shall the man who fears Hashem be blessed. May Hashem bless you from Zion; may you share the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life. And may you live to see your children’s children and to see peace with Israel.

My rav for so many years, Rabbi Joseph Grunblatt, zt”l, offered a wonderful insight into the blessing of U’re’eh banim l’vanecha. Most understand this berachah to be a prayer for long life—a desire to achieve sufficient longevity to see a third or fourth generation. But more profoundly, said Rabbi Grunblatt, this berachah is that one merit to see his children grow and participate in the transmission of Jewish values to their progeny, maintaining the unbroken links in the chain of our masorah. May we all be zocheh to the enjoyment of such abundant nachat.

Notes
1. “Just as man is obliged to instruct his son, so is he obliged to teach his son’s son, for it is said: ‘And make them known to your children and to your children’s children’” (Devarim 4:9).

Allen I. Fagin is executive vice president of the OU.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2019.