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Focus on Issues Survey Shows Older Jews’ Concerns: Holocaust, Anti-semitism and Money by Joe Berkofs

May 5, 2004
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What are old Jews thinking?

According to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, which found that 19 percent of America’s 5.2 million Jews are 65 or older, the most important Jewish priority is “remembering the Holocaust,” followed by “living an ethical and moral life” and “fighting anti-Semitism.”

This growing segment of older Jews — up 2 percent since the last survey, in 1990 — also rank a rich spiritual life, Jewish law and synagogue among their top Jewish concerns.

But the Jewish community at large isn’t likely to know that: Younger Jews often ignore their parents and grandparents, experts at a Jewish aging forum said this week.

“Why are we so obsessed with how they die but really don’t know how they live?” said Allen Glicksman, director of research and evaluation at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.

Glicksman was among the experts on Jewish aging who attended a one-day seminar in Philadelphia on the graying of the Jewish community and America. The conference, “Aging and the 21st Century Synagogue,” aimed to raise the profile of older Jews and get them more involved in communal Jewish life.

Much of the ignorance steams from fear of death, since younger people often associate aging with sickness and the end of life yet remain in denial of their own mortality, experts at the conference said.

Rabbi Dayle Friedman, director of “Hiddur: the Center for Aging & Judaism” at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa., and a leading advocate on Jewish aging and pastoral care, said that view must change.

“We need to get over being terrified of the age wave, and think of it as the save wave,” she said.

Glicksman said the community’s attitude was reflected in the “scandalous” handling of the NJPS by the United Jewish Communities, the Jewish federation system’s umbrella organization, which funded and produced the $6 million study.

“We don’t want to hear the bad news,” Glicksman said. “We don’t want to hear that the community is getting older.”

He accused the UJC of having “trashed and trampled” the survey “because they did not like the results. But we have to be able to handle the realities” that the Jewish community is getting older.

The senior planner of the NJPS, Lorraine Blass, disputed that view. Blass said the UJC’s mission was “to present the findings — hundreds and hundreds over many months.”

“At no time verbally or in writing did we pass judgement on” the study, she said.

The UJC did “raise policy and planning implications” contained in the study, she said, but “the data is what it is.”

The study did reveal a great deal of detail about Jewish seniors. Their median age had risen to 75, from 71 when the last study was done 1990, which Glicksman called a “significant” jump.

In addition, of those aged 65 and older, the study found:

aa.. 60 percent were women, a rise of 6 percent from 1990.

ab.. Half lived alone, up from 37 percent in 1990.

ac.. 36 percent said they were in “poor” or “fair” health, while 32 percent said they relied on home care on limited funds.

ad.. The study found that the Jewish attitudes and practices of those aged 65 and older revealed a liberal community that does not cling to tradition:

ae.. 54 percent said they were politically liberal, up from 49 percent in 1990.

af.. 46 percent affiliated with the Conservative movement, 30 percent with the Reform movement, 15 percent with Orthodoxy and 2 percent with the Reconstructionist movement.

ag.. 14 percent said they believe the Torah was revealed by God at Mount Sinai.

ah.. 11 percent called themselves “very religious” and 8 percent “very observant;” 10 percent said they kept a kosher home.

ai.. 52 percent said they were “comfortable” with the Reform movement.

aj.. The survey found that financial concerns also ranked high for older Jews:

ak.. Some 35 percent of senior households earned less than $25,000 annually, though 18 percent earned more than $100,000 annually.

al.. 26 percent said they “can’t make ends meet” or were “just managing financially.”

am.. 20 percent said costs had prevented them from joining a synagogue in the past year, while 18 percent said financial concerns had prevented them from synagogue membership in the past five years.

an.. 14 percent said money woes kept them from joining a Jewish community center in the past year.

ao.. Rabbi Richard Address, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and its Sacred Aging project, said the conference in Philadelphia signaled that the community is changing its attitude toward the elderly.

ap.. “What we’re seeing now represents an overwhelming opportunity for creativity and new thought,” Address said.

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