Sharing perspectives on the culture of youth today from far-distant points on the generational spectrum was the focus of a program held last Friday at the Daughters of Israel nursing home in West Orange.
“Television and the world situation have made things different from when I was your age,” said 90-year old DOI resident Aida Malagood as she leaned across a table in the facility’s dining room. “Our upbringing was stricter and there was more time being spent with parents than there is today.”
“I think our lives are less social today. With all the technology, I think we are behind the screens a lot,” responded 14-year-old Gillian Andersen.
Her classmate Anna Lackey agreed. “Everybody was close and people interacted more than now,” she told NJ Jewish News.
The three were members of eight groups that partnered senior citizens and high school freshmen as participants in an oral history project sponsored by the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey and West Orange High School.
The seniors and the youngsters came together on May 4 for a third and final time in the spring semester, joining in an intergenerational program that was conceived of by Mali Schwartz, a JHS board member who now resides in Florida.
JHS president Howard Kiesel told NJJN the aim in bringing the generations together was so that “one learns from the other. The kids learn to respect a generation they may not know much about. They can learn through the eyes of the seniors, and the seniors get a new understanding of what youth is all about.”
“I’ve told the kids lots of things,” said 80-year-old Gordon Smilowitz, and his conversation partner, Kristin Vargas, agreed. “We talk about his life and experiences and try to learn a little more about history and reflect on what he has told us,” she said.
“One of the great things about coming here is building a relationship,” said 14-year-old Evan Henriquez Gross. “And because we come from very different times, we get an idea of what it was like to be a kid back when Gordon was a kid and to preserve the history he is passing down to us,”
Eighty-five-year-old Sydelle Zabow said, “There has been a lot of progress since I was a teenager. You can get a lot of information now if you are interested. I think these kids are very interested, and that makes me happy.”
But her teenage companion, Harrison Blum, was not so sure. “Aside from technology, a lot of things have stayed the same. But a lot of people are more cynical, more negative to each other now,” he said. His classmate, Victor Itty, agreed, saying, “It was a simpler time back then.”
At the age of 87, Frances Feuer recalled that “life was easier when I was a teenager.”
After hearing her describe that life, freshman Michael Leonardis said, “I wish I had more of the values of someone back then because today’s generation is so hung up on technology, and people had a happy life without technology.”
His partner, Pinal Patel, nodded in agreement. “We are hung up on technology, and we don’t care about other things that should be important.”
Before receiving certificates from the JHS for taking part in the program, the students showed off collages they had created depicting highlights of their partner elders’ lives. The mounted graphics ranged from a postcard of a drive-in movie theater to a Beatles poster to memorabilia from vintage television shows, including Martin and Lewis and The Price Is Right, along with many family portraits.
As 94-year-old Anna Vicari admired the artwork prepared by her two young partners, she reflected that “the teenagers today are a lot smarter than we were at their age. They’ve got computers that we never had, and they can learn so much more than we did. The brain doesn’t work as fast as the computer, and we had to use our brains.”
But as he compared her life with his, Conal Donagher lamented that today’s teens “missed something because we could have learned more from hands-on experiences.”
“I don’t think it makes a difference when you grow up,” said his classmate, Eddie Easterling. “The main experience is learning and making mistakes and getting wiser as you grow older,” he told NJJN.
“This program is about trying to show students that history is a living thing,” said Douglas Drabik, the teacher of their freshman honors class in world history.
“It is not from textbooks. It is not from tests. That keeps history at arm’s length but it is right near you. So we are bringing two groups together — seniors and students. They are learning that history is a personal story,” Drabik told NJJN. “I think the students get out of it that history is all around and people you know — your aunts, your uncles, your grandparents — have interesting lives….
“They have their own history, and maybe they are a greater resource than you realize.”
Drabik said the seniors benefit by learning “how interested the kids are in their lives. I think a lot of times the seniors think what they did doesn’t matter, but when the students come, I think the seniors realize how important their experiences are.”
The program — now in its second year — has provided a learning experience for the teacher as well as his students. “I get out of it and the school gets out of it the idea of community outreach.” Drabik said. “Students shouldn’t just stay in the classroom. There shouldn’t be the school and the community. They should be one.”