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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

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The Jewish community in America is going gray—even more quickly than the rest of the country.

As baby boomers hit their 50s and 60s, the United States as a whole has gotten older, but Jews have seen an especially notable demographic shift. By the turn of the millennium, the median age of American Jews was 42—far older than the overall American median age of 35. In 2007, 18 percent of American Jews were 65 or older, compared to just 12 percent of all Americans. And thanks to factors like delayed parenting, a record-low birth rate, and the aging of baby boomers, Americans in general—and American Jews in particular—will see these trends continue for years to come.

As Jewish America gets older, synagogues have begun to adapt to serve their older members and attract new ones. The creation of age-specific social groups, senior-themed educational initiatives, and innovations to make both Jewish ritual and synagogues themselves more accessible for an older set constitute just some of the widening efforts to retain and attract an older demographic. Given the complexity and diversity of Jewish populations across the country, the changes are manifesting themselves differently in different places: Some focus on older congregants centers on boomers in their 50s or 60s, for instance, while others shuls are catering to seniors who are 65 and older. How specific communities across the country address their changing memberships may differ, but the broad contours of the shifts under way can be gleaned from looking at shuls that are reprioritizing their outreach efforts.

“Not only do our Jewish values ostensibly instill in us the importance of and responsibility for taking care of the aging in our midst,” said Rabbi Marion Lev-Cohen of Central Synagogue, a Reform congregation in New York, “it’s also an opportunity to enrich the life of the synagogue.”

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The American Administration on Aging predicts that by 2030, the number of Americans age 65 or older will be over 70 million, more than double the number at the turn of the millennium. By then, this cohort will likely constitute about 20 percent of the American population. In the Jewish community, the numbers are even starker.

Professor Steven M. Cohen has tracked and identified demographic trends in Jewish communities since Ronald Reagan was first elected president. He co-authored a 2011 survey of New York’s Jewish community, which identified the 55-64 age cohort as constituting 15 percent of the population, and the 65-and-older set making up another 22 percent—up from 11 and 20 percent, respectively, in 2002. The 2011 study also noted that 13 percent of New York Jews were 75 and older, a two-point increase from 2002, and an eight-point boost since 1991.

While Jewish populations are aging everywhere, this shift is not happening evenly: Non-Orthodox communities seem to feel the change more starkly. Birthrates are three times higher among Orthodox Jews than non-Orthodox Jews, Cohen found in his research—so the demographic tilt is less pronounced among the Orthodox, and the communal effects of aging are less pronounced: “One of the problems of aging is being alone and not having children in the area,” he said. “The Orthodox have more children and tend to live in the same neighborhoods. Fewer old Orthodox Jews are left alone than old non-Orthodox Jews.”

Brith Sholom Beth Israel, a 220-family Orthodox synagogue in Charleston, S.C., has a cohort of seniors among its membership. “My community is very diverse in terms of age,” said the congregation’s Rabbi Moshe Davis. “We do have a considerable older demographic.” At events like regular Shabbat services or lunch-and-learns, which a few dozen people normally attend, older congregants make up a large segment of the participants. But Davis says his temple’s programming tends not to make distinctions about age. “Our model is here is that people like being integrated. Seniors are human beings. They like to eat, they like to schmooze, and they like going to services.”

Central Synagogue’s Lev-Cohen agrees that Orthodox synagogues are already adept at dealing with aging members: “In general, Orthodox synagogues are just, by virtue of the fact of having to live within a certain geographical radius of synagogues and by virtue of the structure of families and congregational life, more naturally equipped to at least have an awareness that the elderly are in their midst, and how they are faring,” she said. The synagogues facing the biggest hurdles in adjusting to their aging congregants, she noted, are non-Orthodox.

Lev-Cohen characterized the nascent focus in non-Orthodox congregations on older members as “a sea change,” noting that communities are just beginning to grapple with the issue. To help temples alter their programming to match the demographic shifts, Lev-Cohen has partnered with Rabbi Rachel Cowan, a Reform rabbi affiliated with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, to build “Wise Aging,” a blueprint for synagogues to provide programming for older members. For over a year and a half, a pilot group of congregants at Central Synagogue has been meeting to discuss issues relating to Judaism and the transition into older adulthood. Wise Aging pilot sessions have also been held at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Calif., and at the JCC in Manhattan.

“Here is a population with tremendous experience and ability,” said Cowan. “You don’t have to bait them to have a Jewish experience, they have much to offer and are basically feeling pretty much ignored in their synagogues.”

Cowan says that Wise Aging provides courses that address the “spiritual agenda” of Jews in their 60s and early 70s, many of whom are battling with questions of identity as they retire, live with loss, and adjust their priorities. Cowan says she finds herself speaking more and more on the topic of Jewish aging and hopes to use her curriculum to train others to create similar groups elsewhere: “There are a lot of people at this stage of life, as they are getting that the reality of illness and death is something they can no longer hide from. They want to know if there’s something in Judaism that will be helpful.”

A similar message is gaining traction halfway across the country. In Houston, Temple Brith Shalom is one of over 100 Conservative shuls to host a chapter of Hazak, a 14-year-old organization for congregants over the age of 55. Hazak is the initiative of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, providing supplementary programming in the community and within the synagogue in places like Oklahoma, New Jersey, or Virginia. It’s even offered trips to Israel.

“People here don’t have an organic community the way they have in New York or L.A.,” said Rabbi Ranon Teller of Brith Shalom. “So they really rely on the synagogues and the JCC to create the programs, to create the structure for the skeleton for the community. Here the responsibility shifts to the institutions to create the community rather than be an organic community.”

Brith Shalom had attempted in fits and starts to have dedicated programming for its older congregants. But, according to Teller, the efforts finally galvanized when it plugged into Hazak’s national program. So far, the focus for Brith Shalom’s Hazak chapter has been on the arts: film and music programs and an emphasis on cultural Jewish identity. The content hasn’t expanded to the religious yet, but there are plans in the works to diversify. “Right now, it’s maintained its status as a social group,” Teller said. “But hopefully we’ll find ways of connecting the community to a larger system.”

Shaare Tefila Congregation in Olney, Md., may have about 250 membership units on its roster, but Rabbi Jonah Layman explains that a large percentage of its worshipers are part of another community entirely. “I’d say a good quarter to a third of them live in a retirement community near us called Leisure World,” Layman said.

The paradigm at Shaare Tefila differs from the others in that its older congregants are typically longtime members who have simply aged together, in contrast to shuls that have reached out specifically to find a new set of older congregants. To adapt, the 60-year-old Conservative congregation has been doing a number of things, including an adult education class taught by Layman on a weekday evening, which is streamed live and made available on the Internet so congregants who don’t like to travel at night can partake. “We’re using technology to help accommodate,” Layman said.

Physical changes have been introduced to the synagogue as well. After the congregation moved from nearby Silver Spring two years ago, the new facility deviated from the more traditional layout of an American shul. “The seats are not permanent seats bolted into the floor, so our aisles are wide enough for walkers and wheelchairs. On a typical Shabbat morning, there are probably four or five walkers either in the aisle or folded up with a caregiver who is with somebody in the back of the room,” Layman said. “These are just a couple of little things that we’ve done. We have a very active Chesed committee, a care-giving committee that drives people to doctor’s appointments and will also arrange for carpooling to synagogue events. So, we work behind the scenes and also upfront in trying to make our congregation senior-friendly.”

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.”

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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.

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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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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