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Transmitting knowledge

Frisch students learn communal wisdom from Rockleigh Home residents

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Students at the Frisch School in Paramus chat by Skype with George Hantgan, Marilyn Wechter, and Lillian Marion, residents of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh.

Many Jewish schools send students to visit residential facilities for the elderly.

Usually there is a group activity, such as crafts or singing, and residents tell the students a bit about themselves. But there hasn’t been a specific platform that gives retired communal leaders the opportunity to share their knowledge with the younger generation.

A new program recently initiated between the Jewish Home at Rockleigh and the Frisch School in Paramus is mining the depths of those wellsprings of wisdom.

“Linking the Generations: Training the Next Generation of Jewish Communal Leaders” grew out of a meeting on September 30 between six student council representatives from Frisch and Jewish Home residents George Hantgan, founder of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Englewood JCC (now the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly); Lillian Marion, a long-time member of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, and Allen Nydick, former director of major gifts at the Jewish Federation.

Mr. Nydick told group how the Bergen County community raised $1.6 million in the 1980s to help bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Ms. Marion talked about her father’s role in the Jewish Legion, which fought with the British in 1915 to liberate Palestine from the Ottoman Empire. Mr. Hantgan related that when he was president of the student council at Brooklyn College, he wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt about the lack of student jobs, and thereby had a hand in the passage of the National Youth Act.

Jessica Adler, a 12th-grader from Teaneck and one of the heads of the Frisch Chesed (Kindness) Society, said that Mr. Hantgan, who is 98, also revealed that he played an indirect role in the founding of the Frisch School in 1972. The school was built on land donated by philanthropist Alfred Frisch.

“George told us that Mr. Frisch was asking him what to do with his money and George told him he should make a high school,” Jessica said.

It was Mr. Hantgan’s idea to help mold the leaders of tomorrow. He retold a conversation he had with the Jewish Home’s executive vice president, Sunni Herman, last summer. He had said, he reported, that although the Frisch students he met are getting a good Jewish education, “they seem to be missing something. What about their responsibility to the wider Jewish community and Jewish organizations? Sunni said, ‘Maybe we have to teach them to use their talents.’

“So we set up a program where we take some of the brightest students and ask them what they’re doing in terms of getting involved in the Jewish community, and we are attempting to show them how to do that.”

Ms. Herman worked out the details with Rabbi Joshua Schulman, Frisch’s director of chesed programming. After the initial face-to-face meeting, the first official session of Linking the Generations was launched using the free video chat program Skype.

Fifteen students gathered in the conference room at Frisch on November 12 to watch and listen as George Hantgan, Lillian Marion, and Marilyn Wechter shared their insights on motivating and inspiring others to get involved in worthy causes. Rabbi Schulman prepared students ahead of time with background information on each Jewish Home participant.

Paramus sophomore Robin Tassler, who chaired that session, is president of the Friendship Circle, a program run by the Paramus Chabad Center providing youth volunteers to visit and play with local children with disabilities.

“I want others to get involved and get excited about what I’m excited about, and that’s what we talked about in our session,” Robin said. “From the stories they told us, we learned that when they were excited about a program they were running, people joined. Both Lillian and George said, ‘Your passion will help others’ passion for the activity.’ As soon as they said that word, ‘passion,’ the teachers in the room said that is one of Frisch’s core values.”

Frisch’s principal, Rabbi Eli Ciner, took it a step further. “Cultivating Jewish leadership, both inside our community and in the broader community, is a critical goal of our school, and there probably is no better example than those who have accomplished this in Bergen County and surrounding areas,” he said.

“Fortunately they are eager to share the wisdom of their experience with our students and give them an appreciation of what leaders of the past have to offer. We hope the program will cultivate a desire for leadership among any of our students who choose to join in.”

Rabbi Schulman said that many students who walked by the conference room during the session came to him later and expressed interest in the next Linking the Generations session, scheduled for November 26 on the topic of “What Can Jews Living in America Do On Behalf of Israel?”

“I never ran a program in school using Skype like this before, and I walked away amazed that once you’re able to break down the walls of school, the possibilities are endless as to what we can offer our students,” he said.

Mr. Hantgan already had been involved in a Skype conversation about bullying with students from Yavneh Academy in Paramus. During those calls, he shared insights from his childhood with the Yavneh middle schoolers. For Marilyn Wechter, however, the Frisch session was her first experience with video conferencing.

“Sunni approached me and asked if I’d be interested in participating,” she said. “I had never Skyped before and it sounded very interesting. We rehearsed in the morning, going over the questions. In the afternoon, we saw the children on the screen, and they introduced themselves.”

Among the 10 questions were: Did you ever experience hardship while attempting to get people to participate? How should motivation tactics be the same or different while dealing with kids instead of adults? Do you have any motivational tricks or techniques that you use for yourself, and potentially for others?

Mrs. Wechter, 78, was happy to tell about her successes as vice president of fundraising for a chapter of the Children’s Asthma Research Hospital and Institute. “I told them how I used newspapers and fliers – and even something called the telephone! – and how I traveled to different places to get people involved,” she said. “One year I brought in the most money of any chapter and won a trip to Denver to see the facilities. I think the children gained from what I was able to tell them.”

At the end of the session, she and Ms. Marion treated the Frisch students to a rendition of the classic Yiddish song “Oyfn Pripetshik.” It was met with resounding applause, according to Ms. Herman.

“Intergenerational programs like this are so important,” said Carol Silver Elliott, the new head of Jewish Home Family. “Working with older adults, we know that age is just a number. We know that our older adults have much to contribute and that the opportunity to share their wisdom is invaluable.”

Future sessions will touch on what the community can do for people with special needs and their families, and the keys to successful fundraising.

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