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I got my PhD at age 64…so, what did I learn from it?

It always amazes me how our human memory seems to help us along in life, mostly by forgetting huge events and periods to “make room” for the new ones. It’s a mixed bag, of course, but there are definitely some advantages. Take the world-wide Covid pandemic, which began to sweep the word with fear, panic, suffering and a huge overhaul of how our lives and societies operated exactly four years ago. Today, how often do we go there? Our minds, hearts and souls are preoccupied with other life-shattering realities, such as the price of war, terrorism and where this is all taking us…

Yet, I will never forget “Covid times” for various reasons and one of them is that in November of 2020, after a long deliberation with myself and others, I decided to dive deep into a “Big Project” on a personal level: to take up doctoral study and research at age 61. As is true of many things in my life, it did not happen suddenly or by random chance, but as a result of taking a big hard look at my life at 61 and asking the question that has popped up time and again from the day I can actually remember myself: Ok, now what?

In 2020 I was feeling that life had suddenly frozen in many ways. Inaction had replaced action, day to day “stay at home” was both the mantra and the actuality. We had buried my ailing 91-year-old mother just a few months previously, my father had been gone for over a year, my business was stuck, clients and invitations were few, the children had long been out of the house and community was virtually non-existent for me. There didn’t seem to be much of a “what for” to drive me forward, and for a person who is used to driving forward that would probably mean only the “sink downward” option- not an option for me. I asked myself what would bring me the meaning, the purpose, the energy at this time in my life, when we were encouraged to stay home and distance ourselves… and when we didn’t do that and went out and about, most faces we saw had masks on?

Do a Doctorate!

The answer came up for me: do a doctorate! Where did that come from, I wondered? Where would that get me? I recall feeling that it was not about “getting me somewhere” as it was about “being with me somewhere”. I had long felt uncomfortable about my academic history and the two degrees I had till then, I did not end up studying what I was really interested in,  and for many years I was not doing things I had any passion for. Nor was I especially talented at what I was doing, and what I was more competent in, I wasn’t doing! A doctorate seemed to offer a “deep dive” into something that drew me out and called me forward, not a sprint or one of the many zig-zags I had been known for but a marathon that keeps you digging, exploring, searching- what a breath of fresh air that would be, I thought.

My parents visit me while living in Japan in 1985

I also thought about the gift of my parents, the sums of saved money that was theirs that became 1/3 mine (shared with my two brothers), and what a meaningful use of some of that money would be in their minds, I believed, if it were put into education, a value they held profoundly. I knew that at my age I would not be pursuing any academic career, and that I needed to avoid the pitfalls of rigid academic structure and much of the senseless “prerequisite mentality” of these institutes; that due to Covid, it would be best to circumvent the need to actually attend physical classes. I needed an institute what would be flexible and allow me to navigate my own path…but most of all, I need to research, explore and “write from the heart”. Of course, I knew that academia was not about “heart” but was all about “head”, and so if I really wanted to do this “right” I needed to go with a topic that came right from the heart and then went to the head.

From here it did not take me long to decide what to pursue,  and after some weeks of researching and consulting, the “where I will do it” came about as well. I would research how children of Holocaust survivors (such as I) viewed the influence of the Holocaust on how their lives evolved? I would utilize the fact that we “second generation”, as we are called, are all in the age 50–80-year range, the “second half of life”. I would allow the reflective and retrospective vantage points to come forth in my interviews, to address the question that has always interested me and that really has not yet been addressed adequately: how has the Holocaust impacted who we are, who we have been and who we will be in the years to come as the legacy passed on to me moves on (or does not) to future generations?

In November 2020, I enrolled in Ubiquity University, an online institute of Humanities study that offers a flexible path towards a Doctorate of Philosophy in Wisdom Studies. Ubiquity prides itself in encouraging topics of social activism, appreciation of global wisdom traditions and cultures and a type of academic writing that expects reflective processes.

Doctor, Be a Doctor, Doctor, Doctor, Doctor!...

Truth be told, I need to say a few words about the word “doctor” as it manifested itself in my early childhood, without anything to actually do with me directly. For this I need to talk about Aunt Fanya, may she rest in peace.

Fanya (Dunetz) Brodsky, speaking at a Zhetl memorial, in her late 90's

My beloved Aunt Fanya was the only aunt I ever knew till about the age of 12. Growing up in New York I had no grandparents and one biological aunt, Fanya. I never knew my father’s parents or siblings as they were killed in the Holocaust, my mother’s parents and siblings were in Jerusalem so they were not a part of my life. Fanya assumed a special position in our lives, even though we did not see her that often as we lived quite far apart. Fanya lived till over 100, moving to Jerusalem when she was 88. She was a loving, intelligent and colorful woman, always ready to share a story or a piece of gossip, give you advice (even if you did not ask for it), and move everything aside so she can take your arm, sit you down at the table and make sure you eat something at her house.

Fanya and brother Motl (my father- Max/Mordechai), both of them in their 90's

For some reason, Fanya had an overwhelming, even mystical, worship of the term “doctor”, for her to say someone was a “doctor” placed him/her on a special pedestal full of transcendent aura. The story I was told by my father was that when I was born my parents were looking for a name that would “sound American” but also be easily translatable to Hebrew. They called Fanya and she suggested the name “Ronald”. When my father asked why, she said “Because Dr. Ronald Dunetz sounds impressive!” (I must say that I have personally always detested the name “Ronald” and eventually struck it out from my passport and all official documents forever).

Fanya, Motl and cousin Chaim just after the war in Zhetl, 1944

Fanya, Motl as children with their parents and grandmother around 1930 in Zhetl

Fanya would often come back to “doctor worship” in conversations through the years, “Betty (her daughter) got a doctorate…cousin Sammy did his doctorate in his mid-twenties…and did you know that cousin Frieda’s son David is a doctor? Doctor, doctor, you should be a doctor”. Years later when my brothers and I visited Fanya at her assisted-living home when she was already 100, we sat in the lobby with Aunt Fanya and she would call out to people who walked by, “Come here meet my nephews they are all so smart, ALL DOCTORS! Doctor, doctor, doctor (only one of us was, in fact)”. When towards the end of her life I told Fanya I had enrolled in a doctoral program she was ecstatic with joy- “You can come treat me, Ronele', you will be better than my doctor, believe me.” I told her, “Fanya, I am not that kind of doctor, it’s a doctor of philosophy, we don’t do things like heart surgeries.” She did not lose her focus, “Philosophy? Very good, I love philosophy, just be a doctor…”

I really have no way of knowing if Fanya’s “doctor worship” impacted my eventually wanting to do this doctorate, but one never knows. Life’s messages come in all kinds of ways and forms.

Doctoral study at Ubiquity University

I am very appreciative of the great flexibility I had within the Ubiquity University framework to pick and choose topics that I deemed to be helpful, relevant and enriching towards my dissertation topic. Each course could be chosen asynchronously and virtually from a wide range of topics, each required copious amounts of reading, writing of personal reflections and a final paper of 25 pages. This framework alone enabled me to converge or diverge as I saw fit and allowed me to engage with sources of knowledge and inspiration that I doubt I would have thought to do otherwise.I wrote papers on such diverse and stimulating topics as the following, among others:

Insights from Humanistic and existential psychology

The works and wisdom of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the poet Khalil Gibran

Antaranga Yoga (“Internal Yoga”)

Can women save the world?

Retrospective reflection of personal career choices by applying a critical thinking model

Changing One’s Mind: Connection between personal perspectives and societal changes

There were some papers that were directly related to what I was exploring within myself towards my doctoral dissertation, such as:

Finding meaning amidst the impermanence of life

Factors influencing the resilience of Holocaust survivors in rebuilding their lives after WW II

However, there was another part of this journey which I found at times painstakingly difficult- I was all on my own. I am not a person that has difficulty working and exploring on my own, to a certain extent, but I found that when it comes to the learning process of philosophical, psychological and spiritual concepts, I crave a learning environment where there is discussion, cross-fertilization and peer dialogue. This was sorely lacking for me, and gave me the insight how important “other people” are to me in learning and reflecting on life.

Delving into the second generation experience: my dissertation

No doubt the dissertation process of reading, writing, interviewing all about what it meant to be a child of a Holocaust survivor was the highlight of my doctoral experience, as expected. It was an experience I savored and cherished as it involved both learning about others as well as learning about myself. I was privileged to have a superb doctoral advisor who accepted my invitation, Dr. Lane Fischer, Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology at Brigham Young University in the US. His interest in my motivation and work focused, challenged and supported me throughout, but most of all he was able to help me call forward those things I really wanted to say in my work, which wasn’t always as easy as it sounds. In such a project as this everything seems important, but not everything can go into the research study.

This dissertation journey for me was undoubtedly the most significant thing I ever did in my academic studies, and actually it was a very significant “life milestone” as well. The flexibility of the unique Ubiquity model and its embracing of the “inner-outer” reflective view of academic writing allowed for me to reflect on my own personal journey with the material in parallel to my research findings and discussion. Thus, it was both Ronnie Dunetz learning about second generation reflections in the second half of life, as well as learning about how I personally, as a 2G, was reflecting on my own story in parallel.

Fiodor and Tamara, my gracious hosts in Zhetl, August, 2023

At the Zhetl cemetery, site of the August 6, 1942 massacre of 2500 Jews

The highlight of this came for me when I traveled alone by plane and bus to Belarus via Vilnius to stay in the small town of Zhetl (Dzyatlava) in Western Belarus, where my father was born and raised, to write the last chapter of my dissertation. I stayed for 5 days with a wonderful, older couple in their home, just 300 meters from the place where my family had lived for generations and the same distance from the cemetery at the edge of town, where my grandparents and uncle were murdered along with 2500 other Jews on August 6, 1942. The opportunity to interact with this gracious couple (via google translate as we had no common language),  to walk the streets of Zhetl daily every morning, to visit the mass grave to say the Kaddish prayer (prayer for the dead), to sit there in silent meditation and to deposit some sand from my father’s grave in Israel to be deposited at this very site…all these endowed this visit with profound meaning for me. From the very place my father had escaped death by sheer miracle/fate, I had returned 81 years later to give respects and to take inspiration with me into writing my doctoral dissertation…

Momument commerating the massacre in Zhetl

Placing sand from my father's grave in Israel on the mass grave in Zhetl

Standing at the exact place of my father's home in Zhetl, torn down in the 1960's

I will not describe my insights and questions that arose from my dissertation further here, as I trust it will come out in future blog posts. There were many insights and questions generated and this is the mark for me just how relevant the topic was that I had chosen to explore. However, I will paste in here the abstract of my work in case readers may wish to read further (please contact me if you are interested in receiving the 250 page dissertation as a PDF file).


Reflections of Children of Holocaust Survivors in their Second Half of Life  on their Life Experience


Background/Purpose: Children of Holocaust survivors (“Second Generation”) are today nearly all in their second half of life, from 50-80 years of age. Little research has been done to explore how the Second Generation view their life experience from the perspective of an older, experienced individual, how they reflect today on the impact on their lives and life-view of growing up with parents who survived one of modern history’s most horrific genocides- the Holocaust of European Jews.

Methods: This qualitative study was comprised of interviews with 41 children of Holocaust survivors who grew up in eleven different countries. Interviews were conducted in person or internationally by Zoom.

Results:  Fifteen themes were generated in the interviews which included reflections of growing up in homes where memories of genocide were carried by parents but usually not fully communicated; role reversal in the parent-child relationship often marked by parental over-protection; feeling different than others in society; influence of resilience despite traumatic memories; education for excellence of achievement; emphasis on Jewish and Zionist identity and liberal social justice, among others.  Of the themes explored, that of “passing on legacy” was seen as particularly dominant among participants, which included documentation of testimony, commemoration, teaching others and pilgrimage to sites of mass killing and extermination during the Holocaust.  Regret at not having asked survivor parents more historical details was also commonly expressed.

Conclusion: It is suggested that in line with themes raised in the interviews, that in addition to concern about legacy regarding Jewish identity and survival as well as universal messages against hate, Anti-Semitism and racism, many Second Generation express and embody an existential search for meaning in their lives. The latter theme has hardly been examined till now and it invites, beckons and calls for further research and exploration.


And then there was the Dissertation Defense…

As mentioned above, my doctoral journey was overall a very significant period of my life, despite certain aspects that in retrospect were less suitable for me (the “lone wolf learning experience”). When it came to the finale, however, the actual dissertation defense, also known as the “oral exam”, I have no ambivalence whatsoever: it was clearly a very negative experience. Not a “passing raincloud” or a “difficult challenge”, but a scarring experience that will be long remembered along with all the rest of this period.

For various and sundry reasons, I will not go into detail here about the contents and discussion that went on at my Zoom Dissertation Defense. However, I will say that it was unnerving, shocking and even painful, in total contrast to the rest of my doctoral path.  I felt that more than test my dissertation research writings, analysis and conclusions, attention and focus was put on political polemics and agendas that were exacerbated by the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. There was opposition on the committee and I was instructed by them to write an additional chapter to my dissertation which took me an additional month to provide, with the help of my first-class advisor. In the end, the committee awarded me my doctorate by majority vote (there was still opposition). With this came the end of my doctoral dissertation journey at the age of 64. Now I feel there is a whole new life awaiting me!

Final Thoughts

I was once asked by a coaching client: “How do you know if the questions you ask yourself in life transitions are the right ones to be asked? Each question may just lead you up a different path.” I don’t remember exactly how and what I said as a response, and for me that means I probably just answered his question with more questions of my own. Once this used to really bother me- I wanted to know more and ask less. I think as I have grown older (and hopefully wiser?), I realize that this desire is just more of the same phenomenon- wanting to replace the inherent uncertainty of life with certainty of decision and action. The only problem is that it usually doesn’t work that way. It didn’t work that way here either.

In November 2020, when I took my first step on the doctoral journey, I had a whole set of expectations and visions that looked and sounded nice then, but today they are all quite different. There is something special doing a doctorate when you are over 60- you feel that you have more to gain and less to lose. There is none of the competition that marks earlier life, very little of the great expectations that go along with “getting ahead in one’s career”. I would like to see it as just part of harvesting one’s wisdom. And there is no better time in life to do that then just right now…

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