Suzette is able to count on one hand the number of times she has seen her grandchildren.
For 11 years, the 75-year-old and her husband have been estranged from their son and his children.
“My daughter-in-law took a dislike to me as soon as the children were born,” she said. “I was picked on for anything and everything, until eventually I was denied all contact.
“I still try and reach out to them, but I am rejected again and again. It is like a bereavement.”
Her story is not unique. The issue of grandparents being denied access to their grandchildren is gaining mainstream attention, thanks in no small measure to Childline and Silverline founder Esther Rantzen, who has spoken to victims of family estrangement across the country.
There have also been calls by MPs for a debate in Parliament on greater rights for grandparents — currently they have no legal right of access but, under the 1989 Children’s Act, they can go to court to apply for contact.
Suzette was shocked to find little help available within the Jewish community. So, with the aid of the Grandparents’ Association, a nationwide charity that works to reunite severed families, she has launched the Jewish Support Group in Hendon, north-west London.
“People think Jewish families are close-knit, with their chagim and get-togethers; but those typical families are not so typical anymore.”
“I set the group up after I met a grandparent who told me she wasn’t allowed to attend her granddaughter’s batmitzvah. I knew a space had to be provided for people in the same situation, so that we would know we are not alone.
“Friends don’t understand what you’re going through. They tell you about their grandchildren’s first words, their bar- and batmitzvahs, and their family gatherings without realising the hurt they are causing.”
The group meets every six weeks, with members sharing their stories and offering each other advice and support. Reasons for estrangement vary. Some have found their children cut ties after becoming more — or less — religious. Others have lost touch with their grandchildren after parental divorce. In some cases, members have no idea why their children will not speak to them.
“The first meeting attracted just a handful of people,” Suzette said. “We had 17 at our last session. It’s growing and it points to a real community problem.”
Meetings can be emotional occasions. “People can come and pour their hearts out,” Suzette explained.
“Grandparents in this situation really don’t know what to do for the best. The grandchildren don’t know you and might be frightened of you — goodness knows what they have been told. And you don’t want to disrupt your own children’s marriages.
“Maybe we can suggest things like keeping a memory box, or saving copies of all birthday cards they’ve sent to their grandchildren so that they can prove they tried to make contact if their grandchildren do ever get in touch.
“Our members feel better for being able to get it all off their chests and discuss things in a group that is confidential and non-judgmental.”
Privacy is crucial, with grandparents afraid that public airing of family broigeses will cause rifts to deepen. It is why the interviewees on our pages have been quoted on condition of not being identified.
Recent speakers at the group have included David Frei, registrar of the London Beth Din, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism, and MPs Lee Scott and Robert Halfon. Rabbi David Mason of Muswell Hill Synagogue is a regular attendee.
One 58-year-old member, who has been estranged from his daughter and three grandchildren for six years, believes rabbis across the community could do more to help. He said: “I’ve been to my daughter’s rabbi on many occasions and said ‘please arrange a meeting’. His reply is that he won’t get involved.”
“I suppose I see their point,” said a grandmother, who has been a member of the group since it was founded. “Rabbis may make initial contact but there is only so much they can do. They can’t put a gun to anybody’s head.”
Rabbi Mason thinks the power to intervene successfully is overestimated. “I think, understandably, these grandparents may have an over-reliance on the rabbi. Those of an older generation think the rabbi simply has to wag his finger and tell them off.
“But it is very unlikely that he will be able to step in and go to their child, who may be in another community, and get them to listen. What you can do is help them in their journey — counsel them.”
Grandparents’ options, at present, are limited. Some choose to take their children to court but this rarely provides a satisfactory outcome.
“The judge ruled that my daughter had to send me pictures of my grandchild,” said one grandfather, who took legal action against his family. “When I get the photos every six months, I just weep and weep.”
Email Hendongrandparents@gmail.com or visit www.grandparents-association.org.uk
Read here how charities will listen to grandparents, but will not intervene.
‘I wasn’t even told I was going to be a grandfather"
Sixty-five-year-old Malcolm has been attending the Jewish Support Group for six months.
He and his wife have limited contact with their daughter and are denied access to their grandchildren.
He said: “My daughter went to Israel and came back a totally different person. We’re an average Jewish family but she turned very religious and got engaged to a man from an Orthodox family.
“After the wedding, they ignored us with no explanation. After six months, I met them, with the help of a rabbi who mediated. My daughter arrived heavily pregnant — she hadn’t had the decency to tell me that I was going to be a grandfather for the first time.
“For the next year-and-a half, we let bygones be bygones. She had another child, and it was fantastic. Every week, we were in touch with the little girl and boy, and we spent all the high holidays together.
“In late 2007, they suddenly cut us out of their lives again and refused to tell us why.
“I must have written to at least 10 rabbis, asking them to try to find out why they were behaving in this way, but they just told the rabbis to stay out of it.
“It gets so hard around the festivals. I cannot bear go to my own shul and see everyone playing happy families. I also think about those children who are missing out on having grandparents in their lives.
“I don’t even know if I want my daughter in my life any more. She has hurt us so much.”