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Better together

Yavneh students and Jewish Home at Rockleigh residents learn from each other

Students from Yavneh Academy in Paramus bring the latest technology to residents of the Jewish Home of Rockleigh.

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Shirlee Stern spent her career as a librarian in suburban Maryland.

She loved to read children’s books to groups of preschoolers, who sat glued to her every word.

Ms. Stern, who lives in the Jewish Home of Rockleigh, still loves reading to preschoolers, but now she holds the books up to the camera in her computer and uses Skype. On the other end, students at the Yavneh Academy in Paramus sit in a circle and watch her.

That is just one aspect of the intergenerational relationship between Rockleigh residents and Yavneh students. At least once a month throughout the school year, more than 22 Yavneh Academy eighth-graders visited the home, where they taught residents about technology. Students showed residents how to do everything from using email to researching a topic on Google to shopping online.

In the last three years, Yavneh students have brought everything from a smartphone to a laptop to an iPod to the home, and have helped residents use software ranging from Skype to green-screen technology.

The program grew out of a meeting between Yavneh’s director of educational technology, Chani Lichtiger, and Rockleigh’s executive vice president, Sunni Herman.

The project that provided the climax to this school year put Yavneh students and Rockleigh residents in a dancing mood. The Yavneh students, all eighth-graders, used a popular Katy Perry song, “Firework,” as the soundtrack to a music video they produced. They used green-screen technology to make it look as if they and the Rockleigh residents were standing in front of a fireworks display. Everyone in the video is dancing – some standing in place, some from their wheelchairs – and many of them, students and elders alike, lip synch the words.

“Cause baby, you’re a firework

Come on, show ’em what you’re worth

Make ’em go ah, ah, ah!

As you shoot across the sky-y-y”

Ms. Stern loved every minute of it.

“The children are proactive in having projects to do and coming up with great ideas,” she said. “They had us miming, and it was just like Hollywood when we saw ourselves on the screen.

“They were so good and so loving. They behaved so nicely. Their eyes were wide open. We had this interaction which was just marvelous.”

Ms. Lichtiger said the connection between the two institutions opened up new worlds to the residents.

“Our students taught them how to get on the Internet, how to get an email address,” she said. “Some of the residents even started communicating with family members, because our students taught them how to do it.”

Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, Yavneh’s head of school, said that the intergenerational program is important to the students as well as to the residents of the Jewish Home.

“In a short time, it’s become one of the school’s signature programs,” he said. “It’s a win-win for the residents and the students. There wasn’t any fear from our eighth-graders, just a little bit of the unknown. They embraced the opportunity. And the reason why it worked so well was the exuberance of the Home at Rockleigh. The Home allowed this to develop in such a great way.”

The Rockleigh program became so popular at Yavneh in its first year that now students have to apply to join it.

Among many other lessons, students have learned that bullying is not a new phenomenon, and that its scars can last a lifetime.

George Hantgan, who lives at the Home, talked about having been bullied when he was a child. His mother chased away the bullies with a broomstick.

“He’s 92 and he remembers being bullied when he was a little boy,” Ms. Lichtiger said.

Ms. Herman is a Yavneh parent; she met Ms. Lichtiger at an open house meeting at the school.

“We were showing different things that we do to integrate technology,” Ms. Lichtiger recalled. Ms. Herman was impressed. “She said, ‘I can’t believe the things you are doing here. We really ought to have a relationship.'”

The effects on Home residents also are far-reaching. “We were opening up a new world for the residents,” Ms. Lichtiger said. “Some of them had never touched a computer. Some had cell phones and never used them except to make calls. Our kids were calling the children of some of the residents and asking them for their email addresses. When the residents then started communicating with their family members, it was an incredible experience.”

As they learned about Google, the residents often talked to the students about their lives. As he learned about Google Earth, one resident went on a virtual trip to his birthplace in Europe with the students, and he described what it had been like to grow up as Jew surrounded by hostility and anti-Semitism.

Ms. Lichtiger said that sometimes students would learn even more difficult life lessons, when a resident with whom they had been working died.

“The relationships were built from week to week to week,” Ms. Lichtiger said. Sometimes they were so close that the students kept in touch during summer vacation.

Ms. Lichtiger said the students’ program has evolved. At the end of the first year, they were taught interviewing skills. They interviewed a resident, and created a personal video telling that resident’s life story. The videos were shown at a special presentation; the resident sat with his or her student interviewer and the resident’s family members. Each resident was presented with his or her video.

“They have that for life,” Ms. Lichtiger said.

Next, she continued, “We excerpted life lessons from the different interviews, and we put together a video of those lessons.”

The students also benefitted from the program.

“The first year we chose students who didn’t necessarily shine in other ways,” she said. “By the end of the experience with the Rockleigh residents, they were like different children. They felt great about themselves. It made a difference in their lives. They didn’t shine in the past, but now they did shine.”

At the start of the second year, Home residents received many pieces of artwork from a school in Israel.

“That began yet a different relationship,” Ms. Lichtiger said. “We wanted to write thank you notes for the artwork to the Israeli children. So the emails needed to be written in Hebrew. We brought along an Ivrit (Hebrew) teacher, and using a program, we translated the English of the residents into Hebrew.

“We started to see that the students were learning so much from the residents. The residents were making a difference in the lives of our students.”

Sophia Malozany of Suffern, N.Y., who just graduated from Yavneh, said she loved every visit to the Home.

“At first it was kind of hard, because we had to learn about one another,” Sophia said. “But it got easier as we moved along.”

She talked about Skype sessions about bullying as one of the high points of the year. Another was the “Firework” video.

“To see the residents waving their arms and smiling – it was really nice,” she said.

The program has been magical for Ms. Lichtiger.

“I’ve been involved for more than 30 years in teaching, and when I started this program with the Jewish Home at Rockleigh I felt we were making a big difference,” she said. “I saw the children change and the residents change with their relationships. These memories will be with our students forever.

“It’s been a totally remarkable experience.”

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