Jerry Witkovsky encourages grandparents to take an active role in their grandchildren’s lives to help teach them values that endure l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, while unleashing the grandchildren to enrich the family’s legacy of values with their own passions.
Witkovsky, who wrote “The Grandest Love: Inspiring the Grandparent-Grandchild Connection” is coming to the Valley – as the guest of the Jewish Community Foundation and its B’nai Tzedek Youth Philanthropy Program – to speak about “the seven secrets of grandparenting” and other things he learned as he researched and wrote his book.
“I’m really trying to unleash the creativity in grandparents as they express their desire to be part of their grandchildren’s lives,” Witkovsky told Jewish News in a phone interview from his home in Chicago last week. “Often we struggle with who we are, what we want to do and how we want to enrich our grandchildren’s lives.”
Witkovsky, 87, has six grandchildren. He said he was immediately hit by his responsibility when he first became a grandfather in 1981, asking himself, “What kind of role will I play, do I want to play, can I play in my granddaughter’s life? And I just got smitten. It just meant a great deal to me that this new young thing was in our lives, and I hoped that I would be a very good grandpa.”
He worked 47 years with the Jewish Community Centers of Chicago, the last 18 as its general director.
“When I directed our resident camp, Camp Chi, some 30 years ago, I created a weekend for just grandparents and grandchildren,” he said. “No adult children were allowed, and thank goodness, cellphones weren’t invented at that time. And it was sacred time, sacred time for grandparents and grandchildren just to be together for the weekend, to eat meals together, to walk in the woods together, to sit under a tree and read a book, to meet other kids and other grandparents.”
His interest in having grandparents forge connections with their grandchildren spurred him more recently to create a program at his local high school where grandparents receive an orientation in what their grandchildren are doing in school. “When a grandparent says, ‘So how’s school, sweetie?’ You get a grunt or you get, ‘OK,’ or ‘It’s crappy’ or whatever,” he said, but with this orientation program, grandparents can ask more informed questions. For instance, they received a list of the books their grandchildren would be reading. “One of the books was ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ” he said. “Well, many grandparents have read that book. So when you talk about what’s going on at school, you can say, ‘Oh, the book you’re reading in English is “To Kill a Mockingbird,” what do you think of this character?’ ”
He brought some of the expertise he developed at work home with him, establishing family meetings and the Witkovsky Living Legacy Foundation. The latter is “not a legal foundation,” but a framework in which his grandchildren serve as both the board of directors and the recipients of grants from the foundation. The grandchildren apply for a grant for a cause and have to make a case for it, if the other board members approve the application, “then grandpa funds the project,” Witkovsky said. “The only rule I have is that they must teach the family what they learned, because what I’m trying to create, throughout all that I’m doing, is a culture of learning and teaching in the family.”
This structure has allowed him to teach his grandchildren his values, while the grandchildren bring their own creativity and passions to the fore.
“What I hope I can teach the people in the audience, especially the teenagers, is ‘What are your passions? What do you like? What do you want to contribute?’ ” and encourage their pursuit of those ends.
Who: Jerry Witkovsky
What: ‘The Grandest Love: Inspiring the Grandparent-Grandchild Connection’
When: 7 p.m. Oct. 1
Where: Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus, 12701 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
Cost: $10, includes dessert and a copy of Witkovsky’s book