The future of grandparenting

What we’ve learned from COVID about Jewish families and Jewish life

 A GRANDFATHER welcomes his grandchildren back home in Ramat Gan. (photo credit: CHEN LEOPOLD/FLASH90)
A GRANDFATHER welcomes his grandchildren back home in Ramat Gan.
(photo credit: CHEN LEOPOLD/FLASH90)

Last year, when the COVID-19 crisis was at its peak, Lee M. Hendler, my cofounder and president of the Jewish Grandparents Network (JGN) assumed the shared role of teacher (with her daughter) at the Gromzy Academy (Gromzy is Lee’s grandparental nickname) – the home-schooling program for two of her grandchildren. As spring turned into summer, the Hendler home became Camp Gromzy where the children explored the outdoors, did arts and crafts and played games.

Several months ago, as my granddaughter headed back to preschool after an 18-month hiatus, my wife Jo sat at her sewing machine and crafted ten small face masks designed with penguins, balloons, and hearts for our granddaughter to evoke a spark of joy in the midst of a difficult, challenging, and dangerous time.

These efforts provide a window into the roles grandparents continue to play in their grandchildren’s and families’ lives during the COVID-19 crisis. In turn, the crisis has both elevated and elucidated grandparents’ vital roles in today’s intergenerational families.

“Grandparenting During the COVID-19 Crisis,” a small study conducted by the Jewish Grandparents Network, presents a window into the many ways that grandparents have stepped up and provided valuable and – at times – essential support to their grandchildren and their adult children during the most difficult times of the pandemic.

We conducted a small study of grandparenting during COVID and learned that 40% of surveyed grandparents played a role in their grandchild’s remote learning program and a third (36%) assumed additional childcare responsibilities. To a great extent, these findings from the COVID-19 period affirm the essential roles that many grandparents play in the daily lives of their grandchildren. For instance, as reported in the Jewish Grandparents Network’s 2019 National Study of Jewish Grandparents:

Grandparents 'Zoom' the Seder with their family (credit: JOSEFA SILMAN)Grandparents 'Zoom' the Seder with their family (credit: JOSEFA SILMAN)

Close to three quarters (73%) of grandparents who live within an hour of their grandchildren (by car, bus or train) provide daytime or overnight childcare or transportation services on a scheduled or as-needed basis.

Looking ahead, the pandemic has given us a preview of what may be enduring changes in the grandparent-grandchild relationship. In the 2019 (pre-COVID-19) study, close to half (47%) of grandparents reported that they had not participated at all in a video call with their grandchildren in the previous year. During the pandemic, 80% of surveyed grandparents reported that they had participated in a video call with their grandchildren a minimum of 2–3 times a month.

Those of us who have attended holiday and Shabbat services and other religious and educational activities via Zoom over the past months also know that the pandemic has dramatically changed Jewish religious and organizational life. In our survey of grandparenting during the COVID-19 crisis, we learned that 68% of grandparents had attended a remote Jewish life-cycle event (brit, bar- or bat-mitzvah, shiva mourning period call) during this period.

IT SEEMS evident that staying in touch with our families and engaging in Jewish life will increasingly rely on and benefit from virtual connections. The 40% of grandparents who live five hours or more from their grandchildren by car, bus or train (as reported in the 2019 study) will no longer feel so isolated from their families. A growing number of adults will pursue Jewish learning, prayer, and engagement via webinars. Virtual baby-naming rituals, Passover Seders, and shiva calls now welcome family members from around the world.

Another finding of the 2019 National Study is that the most frequent grandparent-grandchild engagements happen at either the child’s or the grandparent’s home. Through the recently released Family Room, the Jewish Grandparents Network invites grandparents, grandchildren, and family members to rethink home through a unique virtual space where they can have shared experiences, learn, and play together. Upon entering the Family Room, grandparents, grandchildren, and family members can explore and engage in over 60 experiences and activities in eight different areas of interest. While we hear many reports of grandparents, grandchildren, and adult children feeling “Zoomed out,” the engaging, joyful and educational Family Room adventures can bring an entirely new dimension to a shared online experience.

JGN is partnering with Jewish communities and institutions across North America to rethink the organization-home divide. What if, through initiatives such as the Family Room, Jewish cultural and educational organizations could further engage multigenerational family members as partners in Jewish education and identity development? From our perspective, grandparents are an essential part of this mix. Overwhelmingly, grandparents want to share their Jewish identities and want their grandchildren to be engaged in Jewish life.

From the 2019 National Study of Jewish Grandparents on Jewish Aspirations for their Grandchild (the percentage who agree strongly or somewhat):

• It is important for me to transmit Jewish values to my grandchildren: 71%

• It is important for me to teach my grandchild about Jewish heritage: 70%

• I want my grandchild to have a strong connection to Judaism: 64%

• I want my grandchild to be interested in doing Jewish activities: 63%

Grandparents bring a wealth of knowledge, history and wisdom to Jewish families and Jewish life. Changing patterns of communication and engagement brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic offers families and Jewish communities exciting opportunities to connect, engage, celebrate and learn, both from each other and from the great blessings of our Jewish heritage.

In the context of the broader changes in Jewish life today, Jewish organizations would do well to heed the advice of the Cohen Center at Brandeis University: “For all childhood experiences, Jewish grandparents should be viewed as a critical resource, and programs should be designed to leverage their influence.”

Grandparents are a hidden treasure in plain sight and perfectly positioned to help families and institutions thrive as we all adapt to our new realities.

The writer is co-founder and executive director of the Jewish Grandparents Network.