When she was 12 years old, Roz Shaw was asked by a friend if she would like an overseas pen-pal.
The North Brunswick resident had no idea that her correspondence with a British girl would lead to a 60-year friendship that continues to this day.
Shaw found her pen-pal, Helen Gordon, through the University of Minnesota, which, she said, “matched us perfectly.”
The two quickly found they had much in common — both were Jewish and both eventually became teachers. Over the decades the two have shared memories of celebrations and raising children.
“We just hit it off,” said Shaw. “We even got married around the same time.”
Their special bond evolved with the times, from letters to e-mails to FaceTime via their cell phones.
“When we first started to write I used to tell her a lot about my family because she has no siblings,” recalled Shaw. “Life was very different, very simple back then. She’s even connected to my daughter through Facebook, although Helen hasn’t seen her since she was six.”
Gordon also recalled those days with some nostalgia.
“From 12 years of age I loved words and writing long letters to friends,” said Gordon in an e-mail to NJJN. ” So, when I was fortunate to receive a first letter from Roz, I was very excited. Being an only child, I wonder in retrospect whether I used my letter writing to express myself fully to another of the same age. From 12 to our early teens we wrote regular letters to each other. I described my life, teenage loves, feelings, etc.”
Gordon is a biology teacher; Shaw taught elementary school, and, while living in Middletown, NY, taught at the State University of New York at New Paltz. She and her husband now teach film at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Rutgers University for adults over 50.
The two friends didn’t meet face to face until they were 19, when Shaw went to Europe after her freshman year of college. They spent three days together, including a day at the seaside in Brighton, which, Shaw said, was “really special.”
They didn’t see each other again until 1975, when the now married Shaw moved to England for a year when her husband, Steve, became a Fulbright exchange teacher. While excited to see Gordon again, she admitted some trepidation.
“Since the last time we saw each other, both of us had gotten married and had children,” she said. “What if our husbands and children didn’t get along? But, it turned out we just hit it off.”
Steve Shaw taught middle school in Worlingham, and the couple lived in Lowesoft, in the easternmost part of the United Kingdom. The Shaws have three children and five grandchildren; the Gordons have two children and three grandchildren.
“We used to drive our kids 40 miles to the synagogue in Norwich, a beautiful city that still has the ancient walls around it,” said Shaw, noting that the town had a Jewish community dating back to the 11th century.
The couple also made friends at that synagogue. During a trip this summer they returned there to attend a garden party promoting the local interfaith council.
“They’re struggling to keep going, like hundreds of synagogues here because their young people are leaving to move to the cities,” said Shaw. “They don’t have a rabbi.”
Instead, it has a cantor, who welcomed the visitors and issued an invitation for Shaw’s own rabbi, Bennett Miller of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, to visit.
During their visit they also stayed with Gordon and her husband, Bob, in west London. “We visited with Helen and Bob’s friends, who are all Jewish,” said Shaw, who was also given a tour of the Edgware section of London, which she said is largely Arab and Jewish, the latest of many Jewish areas of Great Britain to which her friend has introduced her over the years. “If Helen and her husband lived here they’d probably be our best friends,” said Shaw.
Gordon and her husband visited the Shaws once in America.
Gordon recalled that a few years ago Shaw brought over all of her saved letters, which read like a teenager’s diary.
“At the time I used to write and write just as if I were talking and — wow — did I tell her so much,” Gordon said. “I was also, at that age, very excited about the USA, as were so many young people. Roz’s letters told me about her life, friends, parties, and I would imagine myself being there and everyone flocking around me because of my English accent! Silly, childish imaginings, but so good for the soul perhaps! Our relationship is wonderful and warm; we ‘know’ each other far more than words can tell. We are at ease always; she is like being with a member of my family but even better because we never quarrel!”