NEW YORK (JTA) — Four years ago, Pastor Stephen Weisser found himself struggling to meet the religious needs of Jewish residents of Paul’s Run, an elder-care facility in Philadelphia affiliated with the Lutheran Church. Roughly one-third of the 500 residents at Paul’s Run were Jewish — the percentage has since risen to half — but there was little opportunity to satisfy spiritual needs that many experts say increase with age. Many Jewish residents were unsure they could still be Jewish outside the context of synagogue membership, let alone in a Lutheran institution, Weisser said.With help from materials prepared by Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism, a division of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Weisser will help lead two Passover seders at Paul’s Run this year, serving roughly 140 people. The materials, part of a series called Sacred Seasons, are designed to help caregivers who may not be familiar with Jewish traditions provide a spiritual outlet for Jewish elders.”I’ve learned some of the songs. Last year I led ‘Dayenu,’ ” Weisser said. “I put the stuff on my iPod so I can practice the singing, right from the Sacred Seasons materials. It was ringing in my ears on my way to work.”Sacred Seasons holiday kits have been downloaded from the rabbinical college’s Web site by more than 240 communities across the world. But Jewish professionals say holiday celebrations are just one of many challenges facing older persons, a category that now includes a demographic never before seen: recent retirees in their 50s and 60s “sandwiched” between aging parents in need of care and their own children, who often still need help themselves.According to the most recent National Jewish Population Survey, 19 percent of the Jewish population is over age 65 — compared to 13 percent of the general population — and the proportion is rising.Older persons are the fastest-growing segment of American Jewry. Though a host of new initiatives has cropped up to equip communities to serve them, some Jewish professionals warn that the baby boomers face the possibility of several decades of good health post-retirement, with the attendant spiritual questions of later life, in a community obsessed with the needs of its younger members.Rabbi Dayle Friedman, Hiddur’s director, says the Jewish community — with its focus on the young and issues of Jewish continuity — is largely ill-equipped and ill-prepared to deal with the changing demographics. Synagogues measure their vitality by the ratio of members to children in the religious school, Friedman says, a metric that discounts the value of an engaged older population.”We’ve tended to look at elders as a population to be cared for or served, or a problem to be solved, as opposed to a vibrant potential population to engage,” Friedman said. “We are aging. We can’t stop that. We are going to have increasing numbers of elders in our midst, and we better start to revalue that and recast that as something positive.”With life-spans extending and many people now enjoying years of vitality and good health after retirement, Friedman says the wealth of time, wisdom and money today’s elders enjoy can be a tremendous untapped resource for the Jewish community. But retired elders approaching the end of life often endure profound spiritual challenges that Jewish professionals may be unprepared to address.As a result, recent retirees increasingly are looking beyond the synagogue to find meaning later in life, according to Rabbi Richard Address, director of the Department of Jewish Family Concerns at the Union for Reform Judaism, the department that runs the union’s Sacred Aging initiative to meet the needs of the elder population.”People in their 50s and early 60s, with less of a commitment to the congregation as a transcendent Jewish institution, are basically leaving,” Address said. “This generation has much more of a fee-for-service mentality.”At Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J., a committee of seniors held a senior seder March 8 that attracted 80 people. The seder followed a special haggaddah prepared for the occasion that reworked aspects of the Passover story to include themes that resonated with older people.The Ten Plagues, for example, were recast as afflictions like loneliness and disability that affect seniors. A number of musicians enlivened the festivities with age-appropriate tunes like the Beatles’ “When I’m 64.””It came from the idea that each of us has our own Mitzrayim from which we have to escape and seek redemption,” said Joyce Kay, who helped organize the seder. “Mitzrayim” is the Hebrew word for Egypt, but also is used to mean a spiritually narrow or restrictive place.Though the seder wasn’t formally a product of the Sacred Aging initiative, its objectives — particularly in providing a social opportunity for older congregants — meld nicely with Address’ relationships-based approach to serving older congregants.”Our whole approach to Sacred Aging is really our whole theology of relationships, based upon a simple idea that the most powerful thing that congregations can create is opportunities to be in relation with one another,” Address said. “We’re finding that people want to be in connection with other people. This whole exposition of Jewish spirituality, I’m convinced, is part of this.”The Conservative movement has adopted a similar strategy with its Hazak program, modeled on its popular USY youth group. The program boasts roughly 8,000 members spread among 103 chapters and is mainly an opportunity for seniors to gather together for services and social activities.But Friedman believes the challenge of an aging population requires more than “cohort-based programming,” envisioning an integrated approach that welcomes elders as integral members of the community. It also requires expanding beyond providing for the material needs of elders — an area in which the Jewish community traditionally has excelled — to serve their spiritual needs as well.”The purpose of later life is really to go deep spiritually,” Friedman says. “This is the time to really live in the spiritual dimension, when you’ve done your work in the world and now you can really cleave to God and search your soul and find meaning.”
Ben Harris is JTA's former associate editor.