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Is It Time for an Elder Revolution?

Is It Time for an Elder Revolution?

Seen from behind: older man and woman sitting on a bench

Every single baby boomer in the United States is at least 50 years of age. The Census Bureau tells us that every day some 10,000 people are turning 65. The Jewish population in the United States is aging; with some 25% of us over the age of 65. Indeed, a Pew study from the summer of 2016 showed us that the median age of our community is now 50.

This boomer cohort is bringing our historical and cultural baggage with us and, in doing so, has helped redefine American Judaism in the last several decades. From the feminist movement to the drive for LGBTQ equality; from the shift from formal affiliation with congregations and the accompanying resurgence in a search for spiritual meaning, to a growing acceptance of inter-marriage; the new Jewish elder has played a major role in restructuring our community. Now, as we enter life’s next chapter, a question is raised as to whether we will bring that sense of activism and change into our own aging, or quietly go gently into sedentary retirement. Don’t bet on it!

The spiritual question underlying this next chapter of life rests within a simple, but consuming question. We cannot control the time we have left to live, so the question is what shall we do with the time we have left? If we leave full- time work in our 60s or early 70s, we can, if blessed with health, expect decades of life. Thus, what shall we do with that time?

If this is a time for harvesting the fruits of our life, what shall we reap? We can, as many do, choose to turn inward and see this time as personal. As we become more and more acquainted with the reality of our own mortality, many of us choose to devote more time to family and self. Yet, equally compelling is the call to harness the wealth of life experience that we have to mount a revolution of elders who can, by the sheer impact of our numbers and experience, help transform a community -- and maybe a world.

James Firman, president and CEO of National Council on Aging voiced this call to action in March. Firman spoke at a think tank convened by my Jewish Sacred Aging program. It was a session that brought together some two dozen activists in the fields of Jewish aging. Firman called on the group to examine the concept of what he called “sacred responsibility.” He challenged the group to consider ways for boomers to actualize the values of Judaism as we age; just as so many did in our youth.

Certainly the issues associated with health care, the economics of aging, the ageism of America and the profound need for meaningful social relationships call out for action and involvement.

Many of the issues specific to our aging speak to family and communal concerns. So many of us have been, are, or will be caregivers that this issue alone could be the foundation for action. Linked to this, of course, is the very personal desire in each of us to have our life count for something. We become aware, as we age, that material things are temporal.

What of us do we wish to leave behind to our children and grandchildren? What legacy shall be ours to endow? Do we not have a sacred responsibility to live what Talmud Sanhedrin spoke of when it said that each of us is responsible for the other?

Perhaps it is time for this cohort of Jewish elders to sanctify our time by responding to the call to continue to seek meaning and purpose by engaging in acts of kindness and personal responsibility. In each of our communities there are myriad issues that need to be addressed. We can model a new elder activism and by doing so, help change the face and perception of what it means to grow older with dignity, meaning, and purpose.

What is clear to many of us is that we are living through what can be called an age of transition. Much of the outward presentations of the Judaism that we grew up with have evolved and we are in the process of creating what can be called a “new” American Judaism. Boomers have been an engine that has driven this transition and change.

Now, as we begin the third stage of our own lives, the opportunity exists to reshape – and perhaps redefine – what is means to grow older within a sacred Jewish context. What would this elder revolution look like? That remains to be seen. It will, however, begin with each of us as we examine our own unique place in the universe and, hopefully, accept the challenge to ask: "How I can live my life so that my life and legacy have meaning beyond the moment?"

Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, served on the staff of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1978-2011 as regional director and as director of its Jewish Family Concerns department. He has also served congregations in California and New Jersey and currently teaches classes at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City on issues related to family and aging. As your congregation begins to explore these issues, feel free to contact him via his website, JewishSacredAging.com.

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