As the Jewish Community Goes Gray, Synagogues Adapt To Serve Older Congregants
Baby boomers and seniors are a growing segment of the community, with specific needs for programming, rituals, and accessibility
The recent Pew study of American Jews placed heavy emphasis on the challenge of retaining younger unaffiliated Jews, but Layman takes the findings with a grain of salt. “Certainly the reactions to the Pew survey seem to be focused on what this means for the future,” he said. “So, in that regard, a lot of people are looking at people with school-age children and younger, what the potential is for them. We’ve always tried to focus on the population that we have and trying to make them as religiously and Jewishly satisfied as possible.”
Some synagogues have always catered to an older membership, particularly in places where older American Jews have long tended to flock en masse. West Palm Beach, Fla., for example, boasts the third-densest Jewish population in southeast Florida, including many residents of gated retirement and senior communities. “Florida has always been known as a great place to retire and live out your later years,” said Rabbi Cookie Lea Olshein of Temple Israel, a 90-year-old Reform temple there with 250 families. A simple perusal of Temple Israel’s website provides clues about its membership and corresponding outreach. “If you are a new resident in Palm Beach County (or thinking of moving here) … ” the welcome message begins.
This year, Olshein, after listening to comments from congregants, decided to devote one of her High Holiday sermons to the topic of death and dying. She conceded that the topic “might sound morbid” but added that it was “very appropriate for this particular generation and older congregants.” The sermon touched on issues like organ donation, the emotional and physical preparation for aging, and the benefits of pre-planning one’s funeral.
Temple Israel also has another unique demographic of older members: seasonal congregants, or snowbirds, to whom programming is targeted during the winter months. During that period last year, Temple Israel hosted adult education courses that were instructive on age-specific matters such as hospice care, drafting legal documents like power of attorney, and creating ethical wills. Olshein says she also plans to do more in-depth courses in the future on death and dying from the Jewish perspective.
Of course, it’s not all about the end. To bring people in, Temple Israel also offers yoga, tai chi, and theater events, as well as outings to local restaurants. “We’re hoping to bring in a bridge instructor so that we can host bridge in our synagogue,” Olshein added. The temple also has adopted a national trend—the “proneg”—which is an oneg that takes place before Shabbat services. For some older congregants, this allows Shabbat services to be an evening’s main social event, rather than a preview.
Rabbi Laura Geller, 63, of the Reform Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, notes the tendency of the Jewish community to dote on its young. “What’s interesting is that the Jewish community, particularly in Los Angeles, sees the Jewish future as investing in 20s and 30s,” she said, noting that “older” congregants aren’t always seniors. “I believe that Baby Boomers are also part of the Jewish future. We’re a huge cohort, we’re the largest cohort right now, and we have always been significant about pushing the edges of popular American culture. There’s a whole lot of stuff in the secular world about baby boomers, all of these new websites, sections of newspapers and NPR, but very little work is being done in the Jewish community.”
To rectify this, over the past year Temple Emanuel has launched a campaign to connect its older congregants through a series of readings, meetings, and salons where members discuss what Geller describes as “a new stage” that goes in between maturity and old age, “where you’re not old yet, but you’re no longer engaged in the work of your family or building your career.” Geller says the emphasis on baby boomers—an initiative called “The Next Stage”—is reflective of her synagogue’s demographics, of which boomers and families with young children constitute the fastest growing groups.
While the program is in its infancy, some of the conversations have centered on shared experiences like dealing with a parent with Alzheimer’s, discussing ways to continue giving to the community, or explaining healthcare and technology. In the ultimate sign of the times, Temple Emanuel also embarked on a joint initiative with the Jewish Outreach Institute to create a support group for grandparents whose children have intermarried and had children of their own who may not be raised Jewish.
Geller said the congregation’s work has even carried over into ritual: “A congregant, a mother, moved out of her home and into a lovely facility. She and her sister were about to go to their mother’s home—the dad had died a long time before—and close it up. She called before she went there and said, ‘Rabbi, what’s the prayer you say when you enter your mother’s home for the last time to clean it up? What’s the prayer?’ What a good question and the answer is: There should be a prayer, yes. And so we created one.”
Holy One, as we enter the home of our beloved mother at this moment of transition in her life, please guide our actions to be in accordance with Jewish tradition as well as in accordance with her wishes.
Help us to move through her home, which so enriched our lives, in a manner that is a tribute to her teachings and her values. May we perform this poignant duty with reverence and with dignity.
May we do so with generosity to others in the family, acknowledging their desire for some of these mementos, and with generosity to others in the community who might benefit from these possessions.
Ken yihi ratson—May this be your will.
Innovation in Jewish ritual appears to be another hallmark of the efforts to keep practice relevant. Like Geller, Lev-Cohen added that she had arranged trips to the mikveh to help older congregants observe landmark birthdays but added that innovations in ritual were an ongoing process. “I believe that we need many, many more rituals for this phase of life,” she said. “Those will begin to spring out of the kind of work that we’re doing. It’s a burgeoning field.”
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