They crowded around the confirmation wall at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (TBJ) in Short Hills, long-time members pointing out to teenagers their relatives featured in confirmation portraits that date back to 1921. The wall was one of four stops on their Oct. 21 scavenger hunt.
As they walked through TBJ, Lynn Tull and Diana Apter listened to teen Avery Schwab talk about tutoring young students.
Marilyn and Howard Rauchberg shared with high school freshman Evan Schidler what it felt like to return to TBJ, where Howard had grown up attending its High Street location in Newark.
The nostalgia and hallway conversations were part of the opening session for the second year of Better Together, an initiative designed to foster relationships between seniors and teens.
Made possible through a grant from the Legacy Heritage Fund, Better Together is now in its fifth year. Over 100 schools have participated, including Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains, which was also part of the 2016-2017 cohort.
At TBJ, the project is in the second year of a two-year grant and many of the participants returned for the second year of programming.
“I love learning about the history of both the congregation and the Jewish people,” said returning teen Alex Margulies, who also participates in a Torah study with some of the seniors. “And I love being with all the people in the room. I feel I have a lot to learn from everyone.”
The desire to engage with another generation extends to the seniors, as well. “I learned so much from the kids,” said Peg Foster. She believes spending time with teens keeps her relevant. “I don’t want to be out there as an older person and not know what’s going on.”
Of course, she also hopes she and the teens can find some common ground even if they don’t have the same taste in everything. “I want the kids to know we still like baseball,” she said. “Maybe not so much the music.”
The grant calls for an equal number of teen and senior participants. On this day, because of a virus that felled at least three teens, the group skewed older, with 10 seniors and six teens who ranged in age from 12-17.
The teens meet every month while the whole group meets every other month. This year, there are plans afoot for the group to cook family recipes, visit TBJ’s former home on High Street, and tour the Lower East Side and Ellis Island.
Matt Bressler, 17, said he is interested in learning “what this temple was like 50 or 60 years ago.”
“Last year we had some really powerful experiences and so many powerful moments,” said Alyson Bazeley, TBJ’s director of youth engagement, who is managing Better Together for the Reform congregation.
Bill Foster and his wife, Peg, were among those who returned for a second year. Bill said he particularly enjoys learning more about the teens, such as “what they want to see, where they want to go,” as he put it. But he also enjoyed the walk down memory lane, especially visiting TBJ’s old building in Newark — now the Hopewell Baptist Church — which they did in the first year of the program.
“I got to sit in my old pew,” he said.
Participating was a no-brainer for Evan Shidler, who has been building bridges with seniors since he was in the fourth grade and created “The Wisdom Project,” which involved interviewing many long-time members of TBJ, a project that culminated in a book and a video; Evan is working on expanding “The Wisdom Project” to other synagogues.
“These individuals have so much life experience and wisdom to pass on to us,” Evan said.
His project drew seniors, such as Elaine Brown, to Better Together. “I want to know where young people are today — what their needs and desires are and what we can do to help them,” she said.
If the kids seem, well, a little more open to learning from seniors than most kids might, it’s not simply good fortune; Bazeley handpicks them from the teens who participate in the synagogue’s other youth programs.
Matthew Bressler learned about TBJ’s history from Bill Foster, who shared his memories of former rabbis, including Solomon Foster, Foster’s uncle, who served from 1902-1942.
Bob Rosenberg regaled Jonah Dutch with stories of discussions from board meetings in the 1970s, such as a debate about whether to invest in Israel Bonds.
The scavenger hunt, which took groups to four areas of the synagogue — the confirmation wall, the early childhood center and religious school areas, the tikkun olam donation box, and the board room — included questions that served as prompts for meaningful conversation, such as “Share a time you participated in a tikkun olam project … What was the project? What made it meaningful?” and “What values and beliefs would you like to pass down?”
Most participants hardly needed the prompts, as the conversation flowed freely. One participant, commenting on the enthusiasm for the scavenger hunt, said, “You’d think there was a prize at the end of this.”
Asked to share something they took away from the day, Harriet Perlmutter-Pilchik, a past president and widow of one of the congregation’s rabbis, Ely Pilchik, said she “loved” meeting middle schooler Emma Glickman.
“I don’t think we would have met otherwise. She had a whole bunch of other questions and was delightful.”
And said Bob Rosenberg, “I have a feeling that if the future of Judaism is in the hands of young people like these young people, we’re in very good shape.”