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

By Cindy Mindell

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 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.’”

Address served as thesis advisor to Rabbi Vicki L. Axe, founding spiritual director of Congregation Shir Ami in Greenwich, Conn. for her doctoral project, Baby Boomers Confront Their Mortality: A comparison of those whose parents are living and those whose parents have died.

“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 1995, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi wrote the book, 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 Jerome Kerner, a Westchester, N.Y.-based certified leader in Sage-ing International, a movement that grew out of Reb Zalman’s book. “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.”

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.

“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.”

 

Taking Stock with ‘Mindful Aging’

By Laura Porter

In March, Temple Emanuel Sinai will introduce the concept and practice of Mindful Aging during several workshops to be held at the synagogue.

What is Mindful Aging?

“It is being intentional in how we think about and live our second stage of life,” says Rabbi Valerie Cohen of TES, who, with educator and TES congregant Karen Kaufman, has led the effort to bring the program to Worcester.

Kaufman notes that “mindful aging allows us to pause, take stock of where we are, looking deeply into our own experiences and sharing them with others in a trusted, safe environment.”

The program is based on the concepts developed by Rabbi Rachel Cowan, former executive director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, and explored in her book, Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience and Spirit, written with Dr. Linda Thal (Behrman House, 2015).

Working in peer-based groups of ten to twelve, people meet every two weeks. Sessions last two hours, and there is a start date and an end date, says Rabbi Valerie.

By design, the groups are neither support groups nor intended as therapy.

Rather, they are “journey groups,” she says. “There is opportunity for growth and productivity in this period of people’s lives, but it has to be done intentionally. A program like this gives folks a chance to share with each other both the joys and challenges around this time, which is a great way to work through them.”

On Sunday, March 19, a two-hour program called “A First Look at Mindful Aging” will offer a chance “to explore and practice some of the core components of the upcoming mindful aging groups, including meditation, gentle movement and discussion,” says Karen Kaufman.

The following weekend, March 24 to 26, Rabbi Myriam Klotz from the Institute of Jewish Spirituality will be the synagogue’s Scholar in Residence, a program supported by a bequest from the Joseph Persky Memorial Fund.

A certified yoga teacher and yoga therapist, she writes and teaches about the body and Jewish healing nationally.

Rabbi Klotz will introduce the concept of Mindful Aging at Shabbat services on Friday night, followed by a Body Image workshop for teens on Saturday morning, a three-hour “mini retreat” on Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning Torah Yoga with bagels and coffee.

All programs are open to the community.

Rabbi Valerie stresses that, although Rabbi Klotz’s teachings will be directed toward Mindful Aging, these modalities apply toward any and every stage of life.

Rabbi Valerie and Karen Kaufman, who has been involved in hospice work, were both deeply interested in the idea of aging mindfully long before they had their first conversation about it shortly after the rabbi came to Temple Emanuel Sinai in 2014.

Several years ago, Rabbi Cohen took part in a rabbinic cohort at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality just as Rabbi Rachel Cowan was retiring as its Executive Director. During a hike, Rabbi Cowan spoke about her retirement project: “to focus on how do we deal with this new stage in our life in a Jewish and spiritual way.”

“Ever since,” Rabbi Valerie recalls, “I was inspired and just looking for the right moment to bring it to my community, wherever my community might be. When Karen also showed interest and we had that bashert moment, that’s when we began talking about it.”

Last spring, they attended a program called “Spirited Aging” at the Worcester Jewish Community Center sponsored and organized by Jewish Family & Children Services (JF & CS).

The interactive workshop drew 65 people who ranged in age from the mid-30s to almost 96, says Deb Shrier, who heads the Worcester office of JF & CS.

“Everyone was eager to learn and to talk and to share about this next exciting stage of life,” says Shrier.

Since then, the same program has been presented at the Worcester Senior Center, and Kaufman and Rabbi Cohen spent time at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality to be trained and certified as Wise Aging facilitators.

In Worcester, Mindful Aging will begin with one or two groups as a pilot program. Applications for these groups will be available during the March events and also online starting on March 19th. Participation will be on a first come, first served basis and include the opportunity to talk with facilitators to determine the makeup of the group according to age and availability.

Additional groups will be added as more facilitators are trained at the IJS; two people are already interested in pursuing certification.

Ultimately, the goal of Mindful Aging is to help participants to “reframe this stage of life – later adulthood – into a time of growth, wisdom and joy,” says Kaufman.

“Most of us in our lives have rushed from one thing to the next because those were the needs that were present in our lives – taking care of our children, doing our jobs,” she says. “Now, for the first time, we have an opportunity to stop, take a deep breath and take a look at what is.”

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