When two pieces of a puzzle fit together, the puzzle-maker feels a sense of accomplishment as well as the pleasure of getting to see the completed picture.
The puzzle-makers who pieced together an intergenerational art program at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh are experiencing that dual delight. The newly inaugurated Art Through the Ages is forging a social connection between sixth-graders and retirees, while also yielding handcrafted Judaica the participants create during joint sessions.
The concept took root when Sunni Herman, the executive vice president of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, met Yeshivat Noam art teacher Judi Dimbert and admired the decorative Jewish ritual objects Ms. Dimbert helped children create.
“We’re always looking to increase the number of volunteers and bring in kids of all ages to create meaningful interactions,” Ms. Herman said. “So when I met Judi, I thought how to bring her into the home to do these projects with the residents
That was the first piece of the puzzle. The second piece came into view when Melanie Cohen, the executive director of the Jewish Home Foundation of North Jersey, and Lisa Mactas, vice president of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, approached Ms. Herman with the idea of implementing some sort of novel intergenerational program connected to Judaism and kids.
The program would be financed through the Leah Mactas Fund for Children, established nearly 30 years ago at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in honor of Leah Mactas, an avid patron of the arts who died in January 2016. Her son Bruce is married to Lisa Mactas.
“My father-in-law, Leonard Mactas, established the fund when my mother-in-law turned 60,” Lisa Mactas explained. The money has been used for innovative Jewish programming, such as using technology to link Israeli children with kids at Temple Emanuel’s religious school.
“There was some funding available, and I know how creative Sunni is, so I turned to her and she came up with this idea together with Judi Dimbert. It took about a year to put it together and get it approved,” Ms. Mactas said.
Art Through the Ages was launched this school year with nine sixth-graders from a class of 20 at Temple Emanuel’s religious school. The children chosen to take part had expressed a serious interest and agreed, in writing, to commit approximately one Sunday per month to the art encounter.
The group of seven girls and two boys comes to the Jewish Home by bus, accompanied by their teacher, Sara Yehuda. Under the supervision of Tracey Couliboly, the Jewish Home’s director of recreation, each child is paired with a resident (or two) to create items of Jewish significance that could become heirlooms — lending a double meaning to “art through the ages.”
During the meetings, Ms. Yehuda encourages intergenerational conversations between the children and elders about Jewish lifecycle customs and practices of different Jewish communities.
Ms. Dimbert introduces participants to a range of artistic styles and media, including paint, clay, wood, paper, recycled/upcycled materials, batik, tie-dyeing, printmaking, and origami.
“It’s not just about creating and appreciating the art, but also the meaning of the object created,” Ms. Herman said. “Through the process of the art, friendships are created and discussions are launched about those Jewish lifecycle moments and how this Judaica object can impact each participant’s life or family. It crosses different denominations within Judaism and unifies them.”
Sammy Goldstein, a Woodcliff Lake Middle School sixth-grader, said he likes talking to the residents and hearing their stories. “One of the people I worked with told me she was 100,” he said.
Sammy said he signed up for Art Through the Ages because “my grandma recently passed away and I didn’t get to see her a lot since she lived in Michigan, so I wanted to spend time with other older people.”
Rabbi Shelley Kniaz, director of congregational learning at Temple Emanuel, said Art Through the Ages meshes well with the religious school’s experiential approach to Jewish education, and also with her desire to offer additional opportunities for student chesed — roughly translated as acts of kindness.
“It’s such a beautiful combination of intergenerational interaction and art,” Rabbi Kniaz said. “We felt this age group is perfect because they’re old enough to do the art and old enough to have these interactions.”
For a long time, the religious school has had informal ties with residents of Jewish Home Family facilities, which include the Jewish Home at Rockleigh and Jewish Home Assisted Living. The fourth-graders recently went to Jewish Home Assisted Living to sing Chanukah songs and play dreidel with residents, and many of the bar/bat mitzvah-age students choose to do chesed projects related to the Jewish Home.
Ms. Mactas said she hopes the joint art sessions will give the sixth-graders insight and respect for senior citizens. “They are often overlooked, and until you start talking to them you don’t know what resides within,” she said. And she hopes that the encounters will help the older participants because it will “bring joy to their day and bring back memories of celebrating holidays with their families.”
The program will be supported by the Leah Mactas Fund for Children for two years.
Volunteers are invited to help out at Art Through the Ages. For information, email the Jewish Home Family’s director of volunteer services, Stacey Orden, at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at (201) 518-1175.