In 1960, American “youth” confounded the nation. This burgeoning class of teens so perplexed that other great class of countrymen, “the adults,” that a White House Conference was called, in part, to solve “the problem.” The country’s great rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, was asked to speak and arrived in D.C. with a mutinous response: Do not fixate on the young.
Heschel faced the crowd and explained that American culture and federal policy had ingrained a malignant division between the world of the young and the world of the old. This so-called problem of youth was actually a sign of intergenerational collapse. “Our society,” he exclaimed, “is fostering the segregation of youth, the separation of young and old.” Without a shared culture, space for education, or political coalitions, Heschel worried that mutual respect, appropriate care, shared moments of joy and opportunities for reverence, one of the central ideas of the 5th Commandment, would dissolve.
It is not enough, he explained, for adults to give to, or even worry about, the next generation; they must share in the experiences of that generation. “One of the beauties of the human spirit,” he maintained, is that we “appreciate what we share, we do not appreciate what we receive.” In the ensuing decades, Heschel’s diagnosis of generational collapse has grown more pronounced and relevant, not only for our youth but also for our elders.
If age segregation hurt the young, it decimated the elderly. In 1961, Heschel returned to D.C. to lament the massive separation of the elderly from the rest of society. Policy geared solely to the aged, he explained, ignored the single most important challenge of old age, the “sense of being useless to…family and society.” The only answer to the hardships of old age, he urged, was “a sense of significant being.” Rather than focusing on what the older person needs, he asked experts to focus on the way in which others need older adults. In Heschel’s estimation, each age group required the presence of the other to be significant, to be useful, and to be whole.
Since the early 1960s, the Jewish community has done an extraordinary job caring for our parents, grandparents, and children, yet we have done so while casting aside Heschel’s particular call. We have beautiful forms of nursing for our aged and rigorous educational programs for our young. We have created fellowship within age groups but not across them.
This lacuna in programmatic imagination is a missed opportunity of the highest order. Our young adults are in need of social, professional and Jewish mentorship. Too often, students are separated from the experiences of adulthood and aging. They have few opportunities to empathize with the challenges of their parents and grandparents, the concerns of parenthood or the insecurities of old age. Our older adults are equally divorced from the anxieties and hardships of American youth and, as David Elcott and Stuart Himmelfarb of B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform have reported, are increasingly detached from broader forms of Jewish communal life. The young and the old need one another for personal growth.
In addition to the individual merits of multigenerational friendships, there are real political gains to be had from multigenerational coalitions. Our community’s problems require solutions that take into account diverse life experiences. We need intergenerational movements to think about the future of the Jewish household, Israel, higher education, health care, and the environment. There is not a major issue today that would not benefit from a coalition of representatives from across the generations.
In the early 1960s, Heschel offered a solution to the trials of youth as well as those of old age: shared spaces of serious learning and service. In 2016, Hillel International’s Office of Innovation (OOI), a “think and do” tank for the Hillel movement and the Jewish people, is going to take up Heschel’s 56 year-old call for multigenerational education.
In the next year, OOI will begin the process of piloting multigenerational learning opportunities for alumni at select Hillels across the country. We will begin creating high-level multigenerational fellowships to tackle shared social concerns, while developing what we call “deep Jewish learning” curricula for Hillel students and graduates on grief and mourning; marriage and family; and work and money. We will also work to be a center of best practices on multigenerational education. To do this work, we need your help. Please reach out to us if you are running such a program, have experience with best practices in this arena, or have ideas of how we could do this work better.
There are currently five hundred and fifty Hillels operating on five continents. Through these programs potentially hundreds of thousands of students, graduate students, and alumni will be brought together to study, laugh, and problem solve. It is our dream that 20 years from now, Hillel will be at the center of a movement that gives individuals across the lifespan an opportunity for intellectual growth, leadership, multigenerational friendship and an affirming sense of purpose.
Tamara Mann Tweel, Ph.D., is a senior fellow in Hillel International’s Office of Innovation and the John Strassburger Fellow in American Studies at Columbia University where she teachers courses on the history and ethics of philanthropy and aging in America.