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Focus on Issues As Jewish Community Ages, Some Hope to Tap the Elderly As Resource by Joe Berkofsky

May 5, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Bernice Bricklin has retired as a family law attorney, but at 75 she remains active on several organizational boards and attends Mishkan Shalom, a local Reconstructionist synagogue.

But there’s a problem: When Bricklin attends Torah study classes with her daughter, people all but ignore her.

“I’m invisible,” she said, shaking her fist.

On paper, however, she’s not: As Jewish fertility rates drop and life expectancy rises, Bricklin and millions of other elderly Jews represent a growing slice of American Jewry.

The recent National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01 estimated that a quarter of America’s 5.2 million Jews are 60 or older, and that the very old are growing as a percentage of the Jewish population.

Of those elder Jews, 19 percent are 65 or older — compared to only 12 percent in the general population — an increase of 2 percent since the last study, in 1990. Their median age is 75, up from 71 in 1990.

“That’s a big change. We’ve got an aging population,” said Allen Glicksman, director of research and evaluation at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging and one of the foremost experts on the demographics of Jewish aging.

For the first time, the community is beginning to respond to the graying of American Jewry. This week, more than two dozen academics, gerontologists, rabbis and social service professionals gathered in Philadelphia for an unusual one-day event dubbed “Aging and the 21st Century Synagogue: A Think-Tank for Creating Positive Futures.”

Other responses are cropping up as well. The Philadelphia forum was preceded by a summit on the looming “age wave,” and it emerged from a new project of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns, called “Sacred Aging.”

The effort to raise the profile of Jewish aging came as surveys show that nearly half of Reform synagogue members are 50 years old or above.

These older Jews “represent a new wave of congregational entities that are only going to grow,” said Rabbi Richard Address, Sacred Aging’s director.

Co-sponsoring the event was the new “Hiddur: The Center for Aging & Judaism,” at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa.

Rabbi Dayle Friedman, Hiddur’s director and a leading figure in Jewish chaplaincy and pastoral care, said Hiddur aims to convince the community that older Jews are an untapped resource that can enrich Jewish life, not a liability.

“Hiddur’s humble mission is to transform the vision of aging in our community,” Friedman said.

For years Friedman worked in and taught geriatric chaplaincy at RRC, which so far remains the only seminary of the major Jewish streams to offer courses on aging. Like Reform’s Sacred Aging project, Hiddur also is striving to become a clearinghouse of Jewish aging tools for the community.

So far, Hiddur has raised more than $490,000 in funding. In addition to training rabbinical students, the center is producing kits that non-Jewish staffers in senior-care facilities with only a few Jews can use to help those seniors celebrate Shabbat, Chanukah and Passover.

Those on the front lines of Jewish aging welcome these moves. Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow, a chaplain at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center for the Aged in Boston, said she feels the community treats its residents “like an island” of Jewish culture.

She urged synagogues and others to run programs involving seniors, especially at nursing homes likes hers where residents are hungry for spiritual nourishment.

The home could be “a center for Jewish learning,” she said. “We have perpetual care for gravestones, but not for people.”

Much of the problem revolves around the perception of aging, said Rick Moody, director for the Institute for Human Values in Aging.

While being old once meant retirement and infirmity, many elderly people today embark on new careers, tackle new pursuits and remain healthier longer.

Still, “we have no meaning for this latter part of life,” he said.

In the Jewish world, philanthropists and communal leaders long have focused on other pressing needs like Israel and Jews in the former Soviet Union, or identity-building programs such as birthright israel, which target young people.

Synagogues, meanwhile, build pre-schools and fund adult education but largely ignore seniors, aging experts said. As a result, people aged 55-60 are “deserting synagogues in record numbers,” Address said.

Some hope to stem this tide. San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, one of the Bay Area’s largest synagogues, is conducting a Sacred Aging pilot project called “My Life As a Sacred Journey,” in which seniors write journals about their lives that explore the spiritual paths they have taken and can serve as models for others.

At New York’s West End Synagogue, Rabbi Yael Ridberg said, the congregation is beginning to integrate congregants of all ages in a step experts say is crucial to getting seniors involved.

Recently the synagogue began holding a pot-luck kiddush and dinner sandwiched between family Shabbat services and those for older members, with the aim of getting people to mix.

“These two poles of the community were focused on their own interests, but we’re starting to see them as part of a whole,” Ridberg said.

Anita Steiner, 61, has seen that bigger picture. Steiner is about to graduate from the RRC and plans to return to her adopted hometown of Ashkelon, Israel, to work in hospice care.

While in Philadelphia, Steiner worked with one woman in her 80s with terminal cancer. Because she was frail and alone, the woman was afraid to use matches, so Steiner brought her a menorah and lit it for Chanukah.

“I was sitting there, the candles were between us, and she was just so appreciative that her Jewish self could come out,” Steiner said. “It was just so amazing.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel said the way the aged are treated is the truest reflection of a society, but respect for previous generations also is key to Jewish survival, said Rabbi David Gutterman, executive director of the VAAD: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.

The Fifth Commandment says to honor your mother and father, but it really means the “collective parents of the Jewish people,” he said.

“We must have a relationship with those who came before,” Gutterman said.

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