After Evan Shidler’s bar mitzvah in May, his family hosted a special luncheon for his friends at his family’s home in Short Hills so he could celebrate with them.
These loved ones are senior citizens and longtime members of Temple B’nai Jeshurun (TBJ) in Short Hills, where the Shidlers are members.
Evan, 13, befriended them through their participation in The Wisdom Project, which he developed a few years ago as a way to interact with seniors in the community. What resulted from his efforts are deep connections and an internalization of the lessons he gleaned from collecting members’ life stories.
“Sometimes a lot of day-to-day interactions with my peers can be superficial,” he said, while acknowledging that he values his relationships with people his own age. With seniors, “You can delve deeper when you interact with someone who has so much life experience.” He is not only interested in their stories, but also the guidance they provide. “The information can be applicable in your own life,” he said.
Evan’s now in the process of trying to expand his initiative and bring it to other synagogues in the area.
He developed the project when he was 8 with the help of the TBJ clergy, and in May 2015, when he was 10, the project culminated in a kind of thank you ceremony: He presented 30 seniors, whom he had interviewed at length, with a volume of lessons he had culled from their time together.
For each individual, he collected one nugget of wisdom they offered and found ways to apply them to his own life. At the ceremony, he gave each senior the opportunity to read their respective quotes aloud. For example, “Don’t squander time. Appreciate life, family, and friends” or “Treat others the way you would like to be treated. Be honest, truthful, and considerate.”
He’s tried to use their advice in everyday life. He related that one day in school he stood up for a boy who was being teased. The seniors, he said, taught him to “believe in myself” and take a stand when he sees things he knows aren’t right.
Of course, it’s hard to miss Evan’s innate kindness and depth. On the one hand, he’s not so different from other eighth graders at Millburn Middle School who strive for (and in his case, succeed in achieving) good grades, play sports (for Evan it’s baseball), and participate in extracurricular activities. The son of an opera singer (his mother), he spent the last several years singing in the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Choir.
On the other hand, there’s another side of him that his mom, Jane Shidler, says was always there. She draws a straight line from what she described as his early interest in biographies and American history to his openness to hearing the stories older Americans have to tell. It was these interests that led her, when the family lived in New York City, to take him to deliver holiday packages for Dorot — a Manhattan-based nonprofit that provides social services for seniors. Those early experiences proved formative.
“He took ownership as a little boy” of the experience, his mother recalled.
Said Evan, “The whole experience took me to another world … hearing their life stories, from their hardships during the Great Depression to their triumphs.”
When they moved to Short Hills in 2012, Evan wanted to continue the Dorot experience. Jane couldn’t find a similar organization, so she called Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz at TBJ, who welcomed the idea of Evan meeting with seniors in the community.
He connected Evan with Rabbi Joshua Stanton, then associate rabbi at the congregation (he has since left TBJ), who guided him to create a series of questions that would draw out the ethics and values of the seniors, along with their biographical details; Cantor Howard Stahl put him in touch with 30 of TBJ’s elder statesmen.
Jane lent Evan her iPhone, which he used to record their conversations. He spent hours in his room listening to the recordings about the values the elders cherish, what they want to pass on to family members, the most important person in their lives, and their most meaningful moment, as well as lighter topics such as their favorite films.
As he had hoped, the interviews enabled him to develop deep relationships with the seniors (the snacks they offered him didn’t hurt either, he recalled.) One of his treasured keepsakes is a Valentine’s Day gift he received from one woman. It’s the shape and size of a credit card; on one side, it reads “I love you” and on the other, “This card is infinite in value and never expires.”
Now he plans to expand The Wisdom Project. With assistance from TBJ’s Alyson Bazeley, director of youth engagement, he’s reached out to two local congregations so far. Bazeley told NJJN she believes the model could easily be replicated in a congregation with a critical mass of teens and seniors at almost any price point. Evan’s mother and father, Kenneth Shidler, have also helped him along by trademarking the name of the initiative.
By coincidence, TBJ received a two-year grant to create a program encouraging interaction between teens and seniors, called Better Together. Evan joined the teen group this year, the first year he was eligible.
At a meeting in October, more than a few of the seniors participating in Better Together told NJJN they had come because of their involvement with Evan and his Wisdom Project.
When the grant ends in June, TBJ plans to keep the project going as a signature feature of the congregation’s teen program. And Bazeley has brought Evan into the conversations to envision the format for next year’s program.
Evan is just excited about the prospect of giving other teens the same opportunity he has had.
“This is my dream,” he said, “We’ll see where this takes me.” And thinking about what one of his senior friends shared with him, Evan paraphrased, “Life is a journey, a series of gates.
“I want to go through the gates that lead to the best outcome,” he said.