"The happiest role I have ever had is being a Jewish grandmother," said one participant in the Jewish Grandparents Network's new national survey, but the role is far from simple. While some grandparents described celebrating religious holidays and observances together, others focused more on secular occasions. Still others told of the "excruciatingly painful" separation from their grandchildren for a wide range of reasons.
With such a varied range of relationships between grandparents and grandchildren, how can local organizations meet the needs of Jewish grandparents?
By conducting the "first-ever, large-scale quantitative study of Jewish grandparents," the Jewish Grandparents Network aimed to understand the motivations of American Jewish grandparents age 55-80 and find ways to help them pass on traditions in whatever ways they choose.
The survey, which was conducted this past winter, included 7,802 participants, including 557 grandparents living in the JUF service area. After providing basic demographic information, the grandparents answered questions about their beliefs and attitudes towards passing down religion and their relationship with their grandchildren. Through multivariate segmentation, a statistical process that creates distinct groups of people, five types of Jewish grandparents emerged.
The first type, Joyful Transmitters , believe that grandparenting is a joyful experience-"one of the highlights of my life," according to one participant-and enjoy transmitting Jewish values and traditions to their grandchildren. In their personal lives, they are more likely to be synagogue-goers and attend adult learning classes. 20 percent of grandparents in the national study fell into this group, while in the JUF catchment area, 40 percent were classified as Joyful Transmitters.
The next type, Faithful Transmitters , encourage their grandchildren to have a strong connection to Judaism and marry Jews. "Our goal is to give our grandson as much exposure to Judaism and Jewish life as possible… we are planting a seed," one participant said. Like the Joyful Transmitters, they are likely to be synagogue-goers and attend adult learning classes, and their children are more likely to be in-married. This group encompassed 16 percent of the national sample and 36 percent of the JUF sample.
Engaged Secularists , who represent 23 percent of the national sample and 10 percent of the JUF sample, are very engaged in their grandchildren's lives. They feel respected as grandparents and enjoy time together, but do not model Jewish faith and practice for their grandchildren. "While I hope that my granddaughter will choose a life connected to Judaism," said one participant, "it is most important to me that she be a mensch, moral and happy and contributing to society, rather than pursue any particular religious tradition."
Wistful Outsiders are grandparents who want to be more involved in their grandchildren's lives but are unable due to distance or complications within the family. "I live on the opposite coast from my grandchildren and don't see them very often. This hurts me deeply," said one participant. This group represents 20 percent of the national sample and 10 percent of the JUF sample.
Finally, Non-Transmitters , who represent 20 percent of the national sample and 3 percent of the JUF sample, are the least likely to want to transmit Jewish values and traditions to their grandchildren. Many feel that being Jewish is not an important part of their lives. This group is the most likely to have intermarried children, and over a quarter are intermarried themselves. One participant spoke of her grandchildren: "Though the children are being raised Christian, I have no problem with that as they are being raised with excellent ethics and we have great relationships."
Most grandparents are interested in passing on Jewish values such as leading an ethical life, giving tzedakah , learning about the Holocaust and their family's story, and doing tikkun olam. Specific traditions tend to be most important to Joyful Transmitters and Faithful Transmitters, including teaching Jewish customs and traditions, celebrating holidays, learning the story of the Jewish people, experiencing art and culture, reading Hebrew, experiencing a connection to Israel, and eating Jewish foods.
Joyful Transmitters and Faithful Transmitters are also likeliest to have participated in holiday rituals, including celebrating Chanukah and Passover, eating High Holiday meals, and attending services together, and also secular activities like celebrating national holidays and traveling on family vacations.
While the Transmitter types share more religious occasions like Shabbat and Passover with their grandchildren, Engaged Secularists and Wistful Outsiders often share less religious holidays. All of the grandparent segments enjoy secular activities like spending time together on birthdays, national holidays, and everyday occasions like sharing a book together.
In consideration of the differences between these grandparent groups, the survey concludes that there are three meaningful ways to enhance the connections they are looking for. For Joyful and Faithful Transmitters, creative new ways to celebrate Jewish traditions, including Jewish programming at synagogues and JCCs are optimal. Engaged Secularists could benefit from learning how to infuse Jewish values into everyday activities and celebrations of secular holidays. Wistful Outsiders are in need of tools to help them navigate family dynamics and technology to help them communicate with their grandchildren from a distance.
In the coming months, JUF will use the survey information to learn, ask more questions, and provide more opportunities for grandparents and grandchildren.