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Sacred Aging – What Judaism can teach about the spiritual road ahead

By Cindy Mindell

Last month, two Fairfield County Jewish congregations publicized programs geared toward Baby Boomers interested in learning about healthy aging. That in itself is unremarkable: given the growing numbers of 52- to 70-year-olds in the U.S., the topic seems like a timely one. But what is noteworthy is that these discussions do not seem to occur more often in synagogue communities. With adults aged 75 and older representing the fastest-growing segment of the American Jewish population, aging is certain to become a focus of synagogues and Jewish organizations, as the needs of this cohort come increasingly to the fore.

The graying of Jewish congregations was a phenomenon reported on some 20 years ago by Rabbi Richard Address, founding director of the now-defunct Department of Jewish Family Concerns at the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), which operated from 1997 until 2011.

“When we started the department, the major focus was very simple: how do we get congregations to understand that the changing demographic is real, that the Baby Boomers who are leading this demographic are all over age 50?” Address says. “We started to see an increasing number of Baby Boomers who were leaving congregations, which is being borne out again now around the country, because in many congregations, there just isn’t anything substantive that speaks to what we’re going through.”

In 2009, Address was inspired by his findings to launch the Jewish Sacred Aging website, which received a Best Practices in Older Adult Programs: First Place award by the National Council on Aging/National Interfaith Coalition on Aging. The explosion of interest and speaking invitations that ensued led Address to leave the URJ in 2011 and commit himself full-time to the organization.

Jewish Sacred Aging has grown into a forum for the Jewish community on what Address calls “the revolution in longevity” for Baby Boomers and their families, with resources, Jewish texts, a podcast, guest essays, events, and opportunities to participate in research projects.

Address considered many names for the website, rejecting the off-putting “senior” for the more positive “sacred.”

“The reality is that the Jewish approach to life is sacred and it embraces holiness,” he says. “That’s a dream we all have: to live our lives in a way that’s defined and embraced by holiness.”

While at URJ, Address edited A Time to Prepare (URJ Press 2002), a workbook to help families faced with the imminent death of a loved one navigate end-of-life decisions and processes. Before he left the organization, he wrote Seekers of Meaning: Baby Boomers, Judaism and the Pursuit of Healthy Aging (URJ Press, 2011). The book explores six Torah texts through a Baby Boomer-tinted lens.

“Here’s a way that you can look at classic Jewish texts as a blueprint for an empowered aging, an aging of growth, an aging of spiritual maturity, an aging that celebrates elderhood – no matter what physical state you may be in or what number attaches to your life,” Address says. “We all know 92-year-olds who are on their way to a cruise or don’t have time to do anything because they’re so busy and we know 45-year-olds who are basically curled up and have shut down in life.”

For example, Address combines “Vayishlach” (Genesis 32:4), where Jacob wrestles with an angel and receives a new name, with “Lech-Lecha” (Genesis 12:1), where Abraham is told by God to leave his home and start anew.

“Basically, what it says to anybody is, ‘Don’t be afraid to change your identity, don’t be afraid to go into a place where you may not know where things will lead,’” Address says. “That engenders faith in oneself, it engenders faith in a cause – political, social, emotional – and you may wind up changing who you are, you may wind up changing what you call yourself and how people call you. Age is not a factor in that. I’ve interviewed so many people on my radio show and podcast who are Baby Boomers in their 60s and 70s and they’ve changed their lives. Like in Genesis 3, when you’re 65, 70, 75, you understand that the horizon that you look out at is limited. There’s a greater reality of our own mortality and that’s a highly motivating factor. Some people look at that and they curl up and they say, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die’ and some people say, ‘Oh my God, I realize I’m going to die but screw it – I’ve got my life to live and as long as I can, I’m going to live it to the fullest.’”

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Rabbi Vicki L. Axe

Address served as thesis advisor to Rabbi Vicki L. Axe, founding spiritual director of Congregation Shir Ami in Greenwich, for her doctoral project, Baby Boomers Confront Their Mortality: A comparison of those whose parents are living and those whose parents have died. The focus groups convened by Axe from 2013 to 2015 as part of her research morphed into “Boomers and Beyond: Monthly Conversations for the Third Act of Life,” launched by Axe in October and running through May. In addition to Axe, facilitators include a “second act” career coach, a certified Sage-ing leader, the palliative-care chaplain at Greenwich Hospital, and the founder of the Transplant Support Organization.

The line-up reveals the broad range of topics under the Baby Boomer umbrella. Known by a number of names – sage-ing, conscious eldering, conscious aging, Jewish Sacred Aging, Wise Aging – the “movement” seeks to help bring meaning to the “third chapter” of life. Issues run from finding new purpose to articulating the terms of one’s own death, and everything in between.

“We live in a time of great challenge because we’re living 30 years longer than previously, which raises all kinds of issues medically, ethically, psychologically, and physically around family needs,” Axe says. “Most Boomers are dealing not only with the struggle with adult children in today’s world – most kids, after college, are living at home for a time before they emerge and find their way – but at the same time, dealing with parents in their 80s and 90s.”

And in youth-obsessed America, it’s challenging to deal constructively with the lifecycle events deemed taboo.

“Our Western, American society is based on vibrancy and being alive, and illness and death are viewed in a negative way – that there’s something wrong with you if you’re ill, if you are in your twilight years,” Axe says. “I believe that how we view our mortality impacts how we live our lives. If one’s mortality becomes not a taboo subject but something to be acknowledged, confirmed, affirmed, embraced, we can live more vibrantly, knowing that there’s an end. There’s an expression, ‘Live each day as if it’s your last,’ and that sums up my feeling: once you accept the fact that you are going to die, I don’t see that as a depressing reality, but rather as an opportunity to be more life-affirming.”

In fact, Axe says, Judaism teaches that our time on earth is a gift to ourselves and to everyone that we encounter.

Axe came to her worldview the hard way: when she was 22, her mother died at age 58. When she was 31, her sister died at age 34. Her son, now 35, was diagnosed with leukemia at age 16. Axe survived both breast cancer and a heart attack.

“I think it’s too bad that we have to have those real-life experiences to understand how fragile life is,” she says. “I wish we could understand that without going through those very tragic life experiences.”

In “Boomers and Beyond,” Axe strives to create an environment in which to have the important conversations, with speakers addressing various issues around aging and death.

The next speaker in the series is Jerome Kerner, a Westchester-based certified leader in Sage-ing International, a movement that grew out of the 1995 book by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Revolutionary Approach to Growing Older.

A Polish-born founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, “Reb Zalman” was inspired at age 60 to explore how to make the most of his ‘elderhood.’ What emerged was “Sage-ing,” a three-fold practice based on the movement’s mission of learning, service, and community.

“When we start a workshop, we talk about our intention – a new vision of aging as a time for deep reflection and spiritual growth,” says Kerner, who recently facilitated a workshop at Congregation Shir Shalom in Ridgefield. “The deep reflection is looking back to complete unfinished business like regrets, disappointments, the need for forgiveness or the need to forgive, seeing how the disappointments and what we consider the setbacks really were ways in which we grew, which is the way wisdom is formed – by the ‘grit’ of life. The spiritual growth that we talk about is non-denominational: it’s a deep personal relationship with self, with another, with the community, and with the planet.”

Step Two is to look at mortality and legacy – setting down in writing or recording one’s beliefs and values, a chronicle of one’s life, and what one wants to pass on to future generations.

“Once you’ve done that, we like to look at gifts that we have to give,” Kerner says. “What are our strengths and what new strengths would we like to acquire, to continue giving in this last third of life? Then we deal with service opportunities.”

Kerner points out that the Sage-ing process can be likened to teshuvah, the Jewish practice most associated with the High Holidays, but that can be done on a regular basis.

“We also emphasize looking forward and not fearing what appears to be the diminishment of mental and physical capacities, but doesn’t have to be that way,” Kerner says. “If the body begins to fail, you’re not only your body – you have other aspects and qualities that carry on and that’s the goal: to carry on. By not expending energy to prevent yourself from looking back or looking forward, you have all this new energy that can be utilized in the moment. That’s what Reb Zalman referred to as ‘the box of unlived life,’ the box we keep ourselves in in order to not look back or look forward, and the way of stepping out of the box is to reverse those two tendencies.”

For Kerner, the biggest challenge to Sage-ing’s reach is the image of aging in today’s American society, modeled in home environments that no longer include grandparents, and portrayed through mass media.

That’s where Judaism can provide a helpful roadmap.

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Rabbi Devorah Jacobson

“In contrast to these Western attitudes, Judaism views aging, dying, and death as part of the cycle of life,” says Rabbi Devorah Jacobson, director of Spiritual Life at JGS Lifecare in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. “Judaism is a culture that possesses deep reverence for elders and a deep respect for elderhood, viewing it as a time of reflection and harvesting, and sharing the wisdom that comes with the harvest. Judaism does indeed counter some of the prevailing tendencies of secular culture to deny death at all costs, to view youth as what is most valued, and to hide the ‘embarrassing’ signs of aging.”

Jacobson lists six values from Jewish culture and tradition that provide what she calls “an important critique of and counter to societal ageism. None of us must face alone the challenges of being human. Nurturing and connecting to Jewish community is an essential antidote to the painful and all-too-common reality of isolation as we age and the misplaced ethic of individualism.

“At whatever age, we are here to serve. In whatever language you want to use – pursuing a life of mitzvot, helping others, avodah, redeeming the sparks, and tikkun olam – our purpose on this earth is to serve the divine/spirit and all creation and to do so without the expectation of any sort of reward, in this life or in any other.

“At whatever age, our mission is to try and serve with joy: ‘Ivdu et Hashem b’simcha.’

“We are here to keep learning and to keep growing, especially in our character and in our spirit. None of that ends with ‘retirement.’

“At each stage of life, we must find, or help others find, a sense of meaning and purpose.

“Life is not about fairness and there is no guarantee that life will be other than what it is. The essential religious response across all cultures, as one teacher of mine wrote so eloquently, is ‘to rejoice and to weep, to sing and to dance, to tell stories and create rituals in praise of an existence far more complicated, more intricate, more enduring than we are.’”

Judaism offers many entry-points, processes, and rituals for meaningful engagement in elderhood, says Barbara Z. Perman, founder and president-CEO of Moving Mentor, Inc., based in Amherst, Mass. Working throughout New England and the New York Metro, the company specializes in working with seniors and their family members on all aspects of a relocation. Perman is also a certified facilitator of Wise Aging, a program of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality in Manhattan, developed by Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Dr. Linda Thal. Based on Cowan and Thal’s Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience, and Spirit (Behrman House, 2015), Wise Aging sessions explore aging and elderhood with the help of Jewish texts, contemplative listening, mindfulness meditation, gentle movement, and reflection and journaling.

“You don’t go from knowing no Hebrew to being a scholar in Hebrew; in your bar mitzvah preparation, you don’t go from never having looked at the Torah to reading the Torah in a short amount of time,” she says. “You don’t HAVE a bar or bat mitzvah; you BECOME a son or daughter of the commandments. I think the same should apply to spiritual eldering.”

Perman says teaches The rapid rate of change in 21st-century society presents a lot to deal with as a 70-something in America today. Perman likens the current environment of rapid change and widespread uncertainty to “permanent whitewater.”

“If you’re a kayaker and you are in a river and there’s whitewater all around you – which is a kayaker’s dream – if you just paddled all the time, you’d be totally breathless and you couldn’t sustain being in the boat,” Perman says. “But if you decided you were going to dip the paddle only at the crest, only when it was strategic, you could actually flow with the river in that whitewater. But you have to know where to dip the paddle. If you are gaining the kinds of tools and practices that Sage-ing and Wise Aging teach – the work of life completion, harvesting, etc. – and spending your time thinking about these topics, then you are more in a position to be the kayaker in the boat, dipping your paddle at the time that’s strategic. You have learned what to look for and how to respond, and not react to everything that happens. Because if you were to react, you’d be out of breath completely; you’d be lying on the floor.”

The “third chapter” should be seen as its own stage of development, as outlined by psychologist Erik Erikson. “As we move through adulthood, our longest stage of development is the Age of Acquisition, when we define ourselves by what we have acquired or what kind of work we do,” Perman says. “So what happens when you come to the end of that? Do you drop off a cliff? You have to do what’s right developmentally at each stage in order to have the best quality of life.”

Jacobson is heartened by the growing presence of conscious-aging initiatives in the Jewish community.

“All of these efforts can help us in our collective desire to change our attitudes towards aging and the elderly in this culture,” she says. “They can help us address some of the challenges and questions that longevity will bring to each of us, including the ongoing issue of finding meaning and purpose in the later years of our lives, moving towards more reconciliation with our family, our nation, our planet; synthesizing or harvesting from long life experience and formulating legacies for future generations; and developing spiritual practices focused on gratitude, reflectiveness, and awakening to the daily miracles of creation.”

From the helm of the Jewish Sacred Aging movement, Rabbi Richard Address has a similar impression.

“My sense is that more and more congregations are beginning to look at this very seriously, probably because they’re concerned about the loss of membership, but whatever the motivation is, that’s OK,” he says. “There’s a lot of stuff going on. Slowly but surely, the sea is changing. That’s why the jewishsacredaging.com and our Facebook page are continuing to grow. We’re at the beginning of a significant shift in attitudes within much of the Jewish community.”

 

Resources:

“Boomers and Beyond: Monthly Conversations for the Third Act of Life:”
Congregation Shir Ami, Greenwich congregationshirami.org
(203) 274-5376

Sage-ing International: sage-ing.org

Jewish Sacred Aging: jewishsacredaging.com

Institute for Jewish Spirituality: jewishspirituality.org

Rabbi Dayle Friedman, “Growing Older: Wisdom and Spirit Beyond Midlife:” growingolder.net

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