Ocean’s Apart

A Guide to Maintaining Family Ties at a Distance

By Rochel Berman

Format: Hardcover



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Oceans Apart will help you understand and enhance your long distance family relationships. In this book you will discover how to:
Maintain close, loving ties with family members who live far away
Plan a successful visit
Keep in touch between visits
Set aside meaningful one-on-one time with individual family members
Manage tension and conflict from afar and during a visit
Cope with illness and death at a distance
Maintain ties with grandchildren
Bridge the gap between you and your long-distance siblings, nieces and nephews
Deal with cultural and language differences
Use technology effectively to stay in close touch.
Rochel U. Berman, who lives in Boca Raton, Florida, is the author most recently of Oceans Apart: A Guide to Maintaining Family Ties at a Distance (KTAV, 2010).
Oceans Apart, received an Honorable Mention in the 2011 New York Book Festival Awards.
This essay is adapted from the book. It appeared in the Jewish Voice and Opinion, August 2010.

The long distance phone call came early one Sunday morning. It was our son to tell us that his wife of four months was pregnant. I expressed my excitement and we chatted briefly about when the baby would be born and how his wife was feeling. When I hung up, I was overcome with sadness.
Even though my son chose to study in Israel for the rabbinate, I had always hoped that he would marry an American girl and settle here. He did marry an American girl -- one whom he met in Israel and who shares his conviction that the Holy Land should be their permanent home.
I had not seen the newlyweds since their wedding in Jerusalem. The news that they would soon be parents made me yearn for a glimpse at their life as a married couple. I longed to see how they relate to each other, how they arranged their new apartment, and how the china we gave them as a wedding gift looks on their dining table. And now there would be a baby -- my first grandchild whose life I would encounter only for brief periods, surely missing many significant milestones. I began to view the distance that separates us as my personal enemy.
My need to connect in some concrete way led me to dig out the knitting needles, unused for many years. I perked up considerably at the thought of knitting a sweater and hat for the baby's homecoming. Each evening, as I watched TV, I knitted away happily as the pattern emerged and the garment grew, continuously relating it to the new life taking shape 7,000 miles away. Its arrival in Israel was received with great excitement and much appreciation.
My grandson wore my hand-knit sweater and hat for his trip home from the hospital and again eight days later for his ritual circumcision. Though I was not there in person, the labor of my hands enveloped the baby on the first two major events of his life. I was thrilled. As a working mom, time and financial constraints did not permit me to be there for these occasions. However, the children promised to make the trip to the United States when the baby was three months old.
Preparation for their prospective visit began almost immediately after the baby's birth. First, I arranged my son's bachelor room to accommodate a married couple. I set about borrowing baby equipment from neighbors and friends -- a crib, a stroller, an infant-seat, a baby bath, a diaper pail. As each item was put in place, my bond with the new arrival tightened.
I mentally adopted every three-month old I met on the street, at the supermarket or in a restaurant. Often I engaged the infant's mother in conversation, inquiring about the child's eating and sleeping habits, where to shop for baby clothes, and what baby detergent to use, gathering important data on the latest in child-care. Of course, each of these innocent moms had to hear about my newborn grandson who was about to grace the American scene.
Now that my son was a married man and a father, I wondered if he would still seek me out for long, rambling conversations about personal relationships, his work, my work, family? Would my new daughter-in-law feel comfortable in my home? Would she trust me with the baby?
The big day finally arrived. I immediately observed that the baby was a handsome, robust and responsive child and that parenthood made my son more mature and my daughter-in-law more confident. Holding my grandson's firm, sturdy body in my arms filled me with an indescribable sense of well-being.
One day, my son and I took a trip to outfit him for his first rabbinical position. As we rode in the car we talked about the many changes in his life. Having a son of his own has made him relive and reflect upon his own relationship with his father, which he now regards more reverently. We returned home with a new wardrobe and a promise that I would hand-kit him a sweater.
On the last day of their visit, I was the designated baby-sitter. It had been more than a quarter of a century since I had cared for an infant, but I found that it's much like knitting -- you never quite forget. I was out of practice, but on the whole the baby and I did fine. When I rocked my grandson in the same chair in which I had rocked his father three decades earlier, I shed tears of gratitude and joy.
For the first few weeks following the children's departure, the precious moments we shared were etched in my mind, like a series of videos that I played whenever I had the need to feel close to them. Modern technology has enabled us to view the images of loved ones on our computer screens, but you can't touch or hug the screen and feel the warmth of their affection. Knitting a garment they can wear becomes a lasting reminder of your presence. It wraps their bodies like a warm embrace. Maybe it's time for me to get started on a sweater for my son.
The ease of travel today and the need to work or study far from home, from parents, siblings, and other family members, have raised many psychological, economic, emotional, communication, and other problems, unknown or not so dire in prior times. Rochel U. Berman, who has shown remarkable sensitivities in her 2006 award winning volume Dignity Beyond Death, addresses these and related issues with similar well-considered feelings and insights. Berman knows the issues of separation from family. She lives with her husband in Florida, has a son and his family in New York and another son and his family in Israel.
Berman discusses subjects such as why people move from home, how and when to keep in touch, how to get through stressful times such as illness and death, the importance of family traditions, and the creative uses of technology. She includes "lessons from life" with each chapter that capsulate solutions for the issues discussed in each chapter, examples that help her readers realize that they do not struggle alone, and remind them that there are solutions, such as insisting that both sides be honest with the another to minimize worry, and learning to be positive. She has a detailed section on resources, such as how to make trips as comfortable as possible and, most important, how to organize. In addition, as if this were not enough, her end-notes to each chapter offer other sources to which readers can turn for additional information.
The book is filled with delightful anecdotes from some seventy people from twenty-five countries, men and women, old and young, of different faiths and backgrounds, offering interesting details and quotes, turning the book close to an engrossing novel.
Berman addresses a host of important relational and practical problems. For example, how can parents and children retain their best behavior during visits? How do they control tensions? How do husband and wife with different interests and agendas handle visits with their children they haven't seen for many months? How and when should parents, children, and siblings visit? What is the best thing to do during visits? Should they spend time together away from the house? How do concerned individuals distanced for months or years rejuvenate their relationships? Should they allow it to change? How? When? Do distances of children affect the feelings that existed between their parents? What is the affect of separations upon siblings? How should illnesses be handled? What are the unique problems faced by grandparents? What should grandparents do when they are too old to travel? What should husband and wife do when they need to separate for some time due to work?
Berman herself is an example. As stated previously, she and her husband have a son who lives with his family in Israel. How do they bond with their grandchildren? The grandsons visit them from time to time without their parents. Among many other things, the grandparents work with their grandchildren to create a book of each visit, which they bind and date, like a regular book. They put pictures in it of what they do together and what the grandchildren do alone as well as the comments that each makes regarding what they did.
Rajan is another example. He came to the US from India. His mother in India could not afford many phone calls; she could only phone once a month. Letters to India took three weeks to arrive. His mother worried constantly. Rajan's father died. His mother was alone in India, but Rajan wanted to remain in the US because of his future opportunities. He loves her mother and does not want to hurt her. He had loved his father and wants to continue showing him respect. What should he and his mother do?
These are some of the many difficulties that Berman addresses. She captures our interest by the way she presents the problems and provokes our curiosity, and she offers solutions intelligently.
Family Ties at a Distance
Book Oceans Apart: A Guide to Maintaining Family Ties at a Distance
helps families separated by oceans keep in touch with one
From the time Rochel U. Berman's older son, Josh, was 15, he knew he wanted to
live in Israel. After college, he fulfilled his dream and has been living there for the
past 20 years. That means Berman has only been able to see her son, daughter-in-law
and four grandchildren intermittently and for brief periods. Initially, being so far
away filled Berman with melancholy. That was until she decided that she was going
to do everything possible to stay connected.
Berman's experiences have inspired her to write Oceans Apart: A Guide to
Maintaining Family Ties at a Distance, a book designed to aid
immigrants and their children, international students and those on overseas assignments, as well as their
families and relatives back home. In writing the book, Berman, who holds a master's in social work and
has advised families on nurturing relationships from afar, draws on her own experiences as well as
interviews she conducted with 70 people from 25 countries.
She offers a wealth of anecdotes and practical advice while exploring such issues as getting to know a
child's spouse from a distance, planning visits that minimize tension and revitalize relationships, dealing
with a parent's illness or sudden death when you are far away, creative uses of technology for keeping in
touch between visits and maintaining ties with grandchildren.
One of her most successful strategies for the latter is to have her grandchildren visit alone or with one
sibling. This has been, she says, "a wonderful bonding experience." When her grandson Binyamin
visited her and his grandfather at their home in Boca Raton, for example, she involved him in the
advance planning. From a list she prepared for him, he selected the outings and projects that he wanted
to take part in. She even encouraged him to keep a written record of his experiences with accompanying
photos. This turned into "Binyamin in Boca," a 28-page book that he and his grandparents have enjoyed
long after his return to Israel. "This visit created bonds and developed mutual understanding that would
not have been possible in any other setting," Berman writes, adding that it was "a big victory for all of
Imagine your star pupil has justarrived in
Japan for a relocation assignment. The
intemational experience will be invaluable
to the employee's development and he
or she will surely be doing important work
for the company overseas.
In the planning and execution stages
of the move, you (or your relocation
provider) probably covered everything
from home sales and Japanese culture to
spousal-assistance programs.
With relocation budgets tight these
days, there is little room for error.
So why not go one step further and
help ensure that expats are prepared to maintain other family relationships from a
distance-like connections with parents,
grown children, cousins, or even nieces
and nephews?
Rochel Berman, author of the book
Oceans Apart: A Guide to Maintahling
Family Ties at a Distance, and mother of a
son who has lived in Israel for more than
20 years-says companies need to do
more on this front.
First and foremost, they should make
sure relocated employees use web-cam
technology such as Skype, with its free
video chat, but realize its limitations.
"Skype does help but you can't hug a
Skype and you can't hug a jpeg," she says.
She says companies should set up chat
rooms on their intranet sites so families in
similar positions can exchange ideas about
how they are sustaining relationships at a
Some of the richer relocation packages
include one or two home visits per year
for the relocating employee (and possibly
the whole family). Making the most of
them is vital. "Relationships are episodic
rather than ongoing," Berman says. "You
see them only for a period of time, and
that becomes your memory of them." .
People on relocation assignments-and
those advising them-should also consider
solo visits, even for children, as one-onone
time can help foster long-lasting
Companies should also prepare for
the possible and eventual illnesses of
relocatees' loved ones. Keeping up with
an elderly parent's health conditions from
a distance, for example, requires a lot
of effort. Is the employee going to be
comfortable not being the caretaker for an
elderly parent? Or will the illness make the
employee cut the assignment short and
head home?
Asking these questions and following
these steps could mean the difference
between a productive employee and a
relocation assignment destined to fail.
"When tough times hit a family and are'
compounded by distance, I think it's really
a significant factor in losing productivity."
And considering tight finances for most
relocations today, that's just not feasible.
"After reading Oceans Apart, I provided a copy to each of my children and their spouses all of whom are faced with the situation of separation from siblings and from parents. Having just experienced the reality of our making our home in Israel, they welcomed a book that would help us all transition. Oceans Apart has become a personal counselor to each of us, encouraging us and creating unique ways to face the numerous challenges that separation over the ocean entail. "Lessons from Life" appearing at the end of each chapter, along with the technology chapter expertly crafted by her husband, George, offer practical approaches to integrate the lessons learned into our own lives."

Judy Zexel
By Roselyn Bell
With aliyah and extended stays in Israel on the upswing, as well as international assignments for professional advancement becoming common, members of our community will have much use for the practical wisdom amassed in this advice-packed book. The author, a social worker, came to her subject because of the aliyah of her older son and the subsequent birth of her grandchildren living "oceans apart," yet she has taken her topic of maintaining loving family ties at a distance and universalized it. Her subjects include recent and long-term immigrants to the United States, American professionals who choose to live in Europe, Chabad emissaries who devote themselves to far-flung Jewish communities, and a variety of olim. All must deal with adjusting to cultural differences, coping with parental illness and death at a distance, and trying to maintain traditions and closeness despite separation from their family of origin.
Given twenty-fIrst-century technologies such as e-mail and Skype, many families manage to communicate frequently and in a variety of media, but the author points out that these are not the same as being a physical presence in a grandchild's life. She offers sensitive suggestions on how to preplan visits with distant grandchildren, deal with the tensions arising from turf issues, and extend a trip's afterglow by creating a photo album of the stay. Each chapter has a practical "take-away," and the reader feels in the presence of a wise and savvy grandmother sharing her life's learning.
This is a warm and helpful book for the kin-keepers among us, no matter how much distance separates us from our loved ones.