Jewish seniors join with teens to create documentary series

Two groups with seemingly little in common — one, average age 90; the other, a bunch of tweens and teens — got together for a recent Shabbat dinner and found they had a lot to talk about after all.

The Sept. 30 gathering at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville marked the first time the students, all participants in the weekly Contra Costa Midrasha, were making personal connections with the residents as part of a project with an ambitious goal: the youth will be creating films about the seniors’ lives.

Doris Leiber, 93, and Sydney Brandeis, 14, bond at a Reutlinger Shabbat dinner, photo/devra aarons

“I was really impressed to see them come and want to be with the old people,” said resident Ellen Klebanoff. “And they showed such interest and excitement.”

The project is part of the “Better Together” program made possible by a grant from the New York-based Legacy Heritage Fund, an initiative that encourages students and senior citizens to develop intergenerational Jewish relationships. The nationwide program aims to help students foster their own Jewish identities while connecting them with living history, creating a space in which an oral tradition can bring people together.

“That used to be the primary way we learned,” said midrasha director Devra Aarons, a former television producer who came up with the idea of the documentaries, to be shown next spring. “I love the idea of a public sharing.”

The midrasha is bringing in Berkeley-based StoryCenter to help the young participants learn how to ask questions and think about what the answers mean. After the students have spent several months talking to the seniors, facilitators from the Berkeley nonprofit will hold an intensive session in December at a weekend retreat to help them figure out what to tell and how to tell it.

“I think it really does set our program apart from the other ‘Better Together’ projects,” said Hannah Lesser, an educator with the midrasha who will facilitate the program.

It is outside the regular scope of the midrasha, and the students who signed up for the program are getting involved in something that Aarons hopes will make a real impression in their lives, “a level of serious commitment,” she said.

Eighth-grader Alison Ennik is up for it, especially the intensive StoryCenter workshop. “I’m really interested in making films,” she said.

Ennik is one of eight students who signed up for “Better Together.” The Contra Costa Midrasha also has a regular program for Jewish students in grades 8-12, with sessions every Wednesday night at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek. Reutlinger is a senior living community of around 180 that provides health care and social support in a Jewish environment.

According to Carol Goldman, director of wellness and life enrichment at Reutlinger, the first meeting went so well that residents called her to marvel. Klebanoff said she was pleasantly surprised the young people were willing to spend three hours with old people they didn’t even know.

“I thought it was absolutely wonderful, beautiful,” Klebanoff said. “I was so impressed.”

Ennik said she had fun, connecting with the residents on a common theme of Judaism but mostly just hearing about their experiences.

“We got to learn about their lives,” she said.

And that was just the beginning. Aarons and Goldman are planning several activities for the two groups in order to strengthen the bonds. Even though the festival is planned for spring, the “Better Together” grant runs for two years and Aarons is hoping this year will lead to wider involvement in the project.

“We’re really hoping it’ll bear the fruit that we’re planting,” she said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a journalist based in Oakland, CA, and Budapest, Hungary.