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Boomers or Bust For Jewish Community

Published on 8/17/2016
 By Gara Rosenblatt for The New York Jewish Week

Rabbi Laura Geller, who recently retired at 66 after more than two decades as spiritual leader of an 800-family Reform temple in Beverly Hills, Calif., is deeply involved in her next career. She and her husband, Richard Siegel, 69, former director of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, are founders of the first faith-based village in the country. It’s called ChaiVillageLA, a creative effort to allow people to remain in their homes and communities as they get older, helping one another in a variety of ways based on Jewish values.

“We see this as reinventing the kehillah [Jewish community] model for the 21st century,” Rabbi Geller told a group of about 25 activists from around the country interested in promoting volunteerism and communal engagement among senior adults in the Jewish community. She explained how her synagogue, Temple Emanuel, and nearby Temple Isaiah, have just formed a “village” where members — those who pay an annual fee of $100 in addition to their congregational dues — pray, study Torah, socialize, exercise and provide assistance to each other, which could mean offering computer lessons or a ride to the doctor.

“We are framing the experience of aging not about decline, fear and isolation, but about a range of exciting opportunities,” Rabbi Geller noted at the conference, held in June at the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service on “Boomers and Faith-Based Civic Engagement.” The program was sponsored, through a grant from the Covenant Foundation, by B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform, a nonprofit seeking to engage Jewish baby boomers in Jewish life. Although boomers — born between 1946 and 1964 — represent more than 25 percent of the national population and are expected to live longer and more active lives than previous generations, the organized Jewish community has focused its limited attention — and resources — primarily on senior living in terms of providing care for the elderly and infirm.

That approach, though widespread, appears to be short-sighted. While large and growing numbers of boomers are seeking “encore careers” after retirement from full-time jobs or looking for meaningful, ongoing volunteer work, few Jewish organizations are taking advantage of their interest, skills or resources.

That is mostly because Jewish federations and foundations are targeting millennials, funneling their funds into programs to reach that elusive cohort of young people in their 20s and 30s. It seems that the communal Jews in their 50s through 70s, when they are thought about at all, is as a problem rather than a prospect.

“We don’t want to be on panels [at Jewish conferences] that just deal with geriatrics,” said David Elcott, a co-founder of B3 and an NYU Wagner professor of public service and leadership. “We want to be involved in discussion on improving the world.”

Elcott and his B3 co-founder Stuart Himmelfarb, a senior fellow at NYU Wagner with a long career in business and Jewish volunteer work — he is president of The Jewish Week board — convened the recent program to foster creative ideas among specialists in the fields of volunteerism, senior living and Jewish communal life. It included those from the larger community representing major groups like AARP, Encore, and the National Council on Aging. The conference featured presentations and discussions whose common theme was that the boomer generation presents a challenge, in that many are turned off to organizational affiliation, but also a great opportunity because these people tend to have more time, mobility, energy and skills than those their age in decades past.

‘This Enormous Asset’

The two-day program was praised by participants for identifying and exploring the rarely discussed issue of Jewish volunteerism in an aging Jewish community. (Statistics were cited that showed the average age among American Jews is around 50, compared to the national average of about 40.) A key takeaway was that the community needs to think of boomers as an active, vibrant asset rather than continue to focus on “where will we put these people,” noted Barbara Raynor, a Denver-based professional who mobilizes boomer volunteers, referring to worries over sufficient hospital beds and nursing homes for the elderly.

In an interview after the conference, she said the gathering was “important” because it dealt with “the upside to aging,” stressing that “adults 65 to 80 have acquired experience, wisdom and perspective that they want to, and should, impart to our communities and make them better places to live.”

Raynor said “Jewish institutions and funders are looking to the next generation and not seeing this enormous asset right in front of them: adults over 50 who in many ways are not done yet and desire to contribute to society.”

One of the few major Jewish organizations paying serious attention to mobilizing senior volunteers is UJA-Federation of New York, through its Caring Commission. Lauren Epstein, planning manager for the commission, said that most of its funding is directed toward resources for the frail and vulnerable population, including Holocaust survivors, and often deals with end-of-life care. But in the last three years about $700,000 — less than 10 percent of the commission’s budget — has gone to a program called Engage, for those who are “more active and well,” she said. Building slowly, Engage operates out of several JCCs and has almost doubled the number of its volunteers from the previous year, to about 2,000.

Many of them are not otherwise affiliated with the community, Epstein said, and “they are finding meaning and purpose in their volunteering” through programs like bikur cholim [visiting the sick], Shabbat activities and fighting hunger.

The combination of socializing, making friends and using skills to help others is most appealing for the volunteers, according to Epstein. But she said the challenge is in getting them to commit for an extended period. “They like sophisticated, diverse and flexible opportunities.”

Himmelfarb, the B3 co-founder, notes that “episodic engagement, in contrast to commitment and membership,” is a hallmark of the broader culture, including boomers and many others. He says this is a critical moment when “we can capture and re-engage older boomers, strengthening Jewish life, or we might lose them.”

‘Change The Paradigm’

While some participants at the B3 conference emphasized the economic benefits of recruiting Jewish boomer volunteers to keep them connected to synagogues and JCCs, which are losing members, Rachel Cowan spoke of the effort as an expression of Jewish values.

Cowan, a rabbi whose Institute of Jewish Spirituality trains leaders on “wise aging,” says that many boomers “have given up on synagogues” and Jewish organizations but can be reached “by offering them something fulfilling for them. We need to change the paradigm of the silver tsunami, the burden of old people, in our youth-obsessed society,” she said in an interview.

Rather than discuss “aging,” the conversation should be about “inclusive community,” according to Cowan, “and maximizing everyone’s ability to find purpose in Jewish life.”

That’s what Laura Geller and Richard Siegel are trying to do with their cutting-edge ChaiVillageLA, which could be a role model for synagogues across the country seeking to attract or maintain a boomer population.

“People are beginning to pay attention,” Rabbi Geller said. “They are thinking about ‘what kind of community will there be for us?’ And we are offering a community of practice that offers lives of meaning and purpose.”

Barbara Raynor points out that the issue of engaging boomers and other older adults in Jewish life isn’t going away. “This is not a wave that ebbs and flows,” she observed. “It’s a rising tide that will stay high as people have fewer children and live longer. This is the changing face of the Jewish community.”

The community’s ongoing challenge is to meet people’s needs. If Jewish organizations don’t offer opportunities of depth and substance, the boomers, and those who succeed them, will take their talents elsewhere, and the loss — communally and individually — will be great.