Ageism in Jewish Professional Life

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

Anyone who has been following the cultural news this past week, and who wanted to take a break from the media’s Anthony Weiner-thon, knows that Stones’ lead singer, Mick Jagger, just celebrated his seventieth birthday.

It calls to mind Eleazar ben Azariah’s quip in the Talmud which makes an appearance in the Pesach Haggadah: “Behold, I am like a man of seventy years old, and I have never been worthy to find a reason why the Exodus from Egypt should be mentioned at nighttime until Ben Zoma expounded it.”

Eleazar, here’s the good news: While seventy years old was beyond ancient in your day, by today’s standards you will have plenty of time to figure out why the Exodus should be mentioned at nighttime. Seventy, my dear Eleazar, is still young.

Here’s the AARP (Association of Aging Rock Performers) list:

Sting – 62. Bruce Springsteen – 64. Bonnie Raitt – 64. James Taylor – 65. Eric Clapton – 68. Joni Mitchell – 70. Paul McCartney – 71. Paul Simon – 72. Bob Dylan – 72. And, let the record note, Leonard Cohen – 79 – the wise alte zeyde of rock music.

As Neil Young, 67, sang: “Rock and roll will never die.” And as the Stones themselves sang, these aging rockers will “not fade away.” After all, why should they? Their fans are living longer and retiring later as well.

So now comes the disconnect.

I ran into a colleague of mine – an experienced, joyful, fun, witty, creative, tech-savvy Jewish educator, beloved by colleagues, parents and children alike.

The synagogue where he was working has had to cut back on staff. But, at 59, he cannot find a new position as a Jewish educator.

This is what he is hearing: “We want an educator who will be with us for twenty years.” That would put him at 79, and he realizes that this is not going to happen. Because “an educator who will be with us for twenty years” is code for “we want someone who is not much older than 45.”

“I don’t get it,” he said to me. “I’m very good at what I do. Anyone can tell you that. But also, all these years, I have been going to synagogue and hearing about how we are supposed to ‘rise up before the aged.’ Isn’t that a major Jewish value? And I’m not exactly aged, either.”

This would be the right time to talk about beards. Jewish tradition mandated beards for men. In The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, Leon Kass teaches that the ancient Egyptians were clean-shaven – to emphasize youth. The Jewish insistence on beards for men was, therefore a counter-cultural statement. We have no cult of eternal youth.

Rock music is a physically demanding profession. The touring. The late nights. The sheer physical output at a concert. If you’re a lead guitarist, wouldn’t you be worrying about whether your fingers could pull off that solo? If you’re Mick Jagger, what about those classic moves all over the stage? And the longer you’re in the business, the more songs you write, the more lyrics and guitar chords to remember (yes, there are teleprompters, but still…)

Compare this, please, to the physical demands on the typical Jewish educator – or any Jewish professional, for that matter.

You get the picture.

Despite the obvious illegality of age discrimination, as well as discrimination based on gender, sexuality, marital status, etc., the organized Jewish community has not yet had the necessary conversation about this issue. It’s not only illegal, as difficult as it might be to prove. It is unethical. It is wasteful of good minds, great skills, and time-tested wisdom.

And it is un-Jewish.

I am thinking about one of my rabbinic heroes, Rabbi Herman Schaalman of Chicago. Rabbi Schaalman is the last surviving rabbi to have been rescued by the Reform movement from the liberal seminary in Berlin (included in that group was the late Rabbi Alfred Wolf of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles). He was one of the founders of the Reform movement’s flagship summer camp, Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.

For many years, Rabbi Schaalman has been spending parts of his summers at the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute. He teaches, tells stories, and charms staff and kids alike.

Rabbi Schaalman was born in 1916. 97 years old.

We live in a time of rapid obsolescence – or, worse, imagined obsolescence, in which having a year-old iPad is the digital equivalent of the quaintness of a Model T. We imagine that young people can only relate to professionals who are the ages of slightly-older cousins. It turns out that our kids are much smarter than that. They recognize and love wisdom, even if it comes from someone who is avuncular.

But Judaism is supposed to be counter-cultural. Isn’t it?

Besides, who would you rather hang out with? Leonard Cohen or Justin Bieber?

I rest my case.

Jeffrey Salkin is a noted rabbi, popular lecturer and writer. His books about Jewish religious thought have been published by Jewish Lights and the Jewish Publication Society.

This article originally appeared on

Print Friendly
Pin It
Send to Kindle
Click here to to friends or colleagues!


  1. says

    Rabbi Salkin:

    Having just returned from the NewCAJE conference last night your insightful thoughts resonate with a number of conversations I participated in during the last week. Worth noting – I am 35, so this is not yet my challenge but it is one that makes me angry.

    To make any assumptions based on age is, to be frank, silly and self defeating.

    In my first year as an Education Director (3 years ago) I was blessed to receive advice and constructive criticism, in longhand, from a woman nearing 90 named Mollie Berch (ZL) and who was one of my predecessors in the position I hold. By the way, she was one of the best teachers I have ever seen in action with teens.

    The oldest member of my faculty is in her 70s. Her ability to connect with and inspire middle schoolers is a big part of why the 6th grade year in our congregational school is now one of the strongest experiences we offer.

    I would not have survived in my current job without my assistant who is about the same age as my mother. I hope one day to have the deep understanding of the day to day needs of teachers in a congregational school the way she does.

    Lastly, it is so much fun to have my parents as colleagues. We are on the phone all the time bouncing ideas back and forth. Both are voracious consumers of information and have retained much from their decades in the field. It is pretty cool to have my mother teaching ME about online tools that I have never heard of!

    Thank you for writing such an important piece.

    PS – RE: the last statement – you even had to ask?

  2. Rabbi Cheryl Weiner says

    Follow the money… How many programs in the E-Jewish Philanthropy stories and the current funding champions are funding any programming for empty nesters, baby boomers or elders? These older adults would appreciate older faculty and the wisdom that comes with age. They would also open up their estate money and legacy funds if they were so inspired by Jewish programming and attention.

    Many rabbis who are older have found an extension to their calling by serving as Chaplains. Who is funding Jewish chaplains and the rabbis who want to serve the population who are in retirement communities, assisted living and nursing homes who are looking for Jewish programming? Who is funding Jewish chaplains to serve children and families in hospital settings?

    Ageism is alive and well in every aspect of Jewish life. Speak to an underemployed, unemployed, or part-time Jewish professional who is over 55, the Jewish people are losing their human capital and the Jewish body politic is losing its humanity due to its hiring practices.

  3. says

    Great article. The compliment comes from a 58 year old Jewish educator and rabbi who was fortunate enough to launch a coaching and consulting venture during more than two years of unsuccessful job hunting. And who was also fortunate enough to find a great organization that was more interested in new thinking than in chronological years.

    Another dimension that must be looked at is that of the innovation incubators. Too many of these incubators ask for “young innovators” or “young entrepreneurs” without recognizing that there are middle age (and older) innovators and entrepreneurs just waiting to take new ideas and launch them. As a somewhat older, innovative educational leader, I don’t want to stand in the way of younger folks who want to move into the field and take it in some new directions. I simply want to right to work with them on an even playing field, and perhaps even share some insights that will help them to become more successful, even as I learn from them.

    Rabbi Arnie Samlan

  4. DIYD says

    Without a doubt, this is an issue. However, for myself, a 29 year old Jewish professional with multiple degrees from a highly respected institution of higher Jewish education, I get ageism from the other side as well. That is, despite my degrees and years of experience in part time jobs, summer jobs, and internships, I have not been able to get my first job as a religious school director. When I am given a reason, the board usually cites my lack of experience – although they love my “youthful” vigor! As far as I can tell, the boards want someone who is 25 years old, with 25 years of experience.

  5. richard skeen says

    Rabbi, finding ways to fully tap the experience is a worthy cause, and yes we do have a fixation on youth. But using your music analogy, with much of the “top billing” Jewish landscape log-jammed with CEO’s who have been in their top posts 2 or 3 decades – years beyond the average Fortune 500 CEO tenure – it often feels like the innovation and vision critical to creating good music is suffocated. If your 59 year-old example if Mick Jagger, then Abe Foxman, Steve Nasatir et. al are Led Belly and Robert Johnson…

  6. Rabbi Jeffrey Marker says

    Great article, speaking as a 65 year old chaplain who is having a hell of a time finding work (and who cannot afford to retire, even if I wanted to).

    BUT Eleazar was not 70 years old. He was quite young but the consensus choice to lead the community after the (temporary) overthrow of Rabban Gamliel from the patriarchate, so there was concern that he was not old enough for the part, so God performed a miracle and turned his hair and beard white . (see Talmud Brachot 27b, and several sources in the Jerusalem Talmud). He remained as Av Bet Din after Gamliel was restored to his post.

  7. Dan Ab says

    Reading this article, I’m thinking back to another article here from a few days ago where a day school was praised for saving money by seeking out staff who wouldn’t need benefits because they were already drawing on pensions from public school jobs:

    As a lay leader who has participated in a couple of leader searches, I can’t speak to your specific friend without knowing more details, but technical skills are important. We didn’t need someone who was up on the latest social network trends, but being able to handle email and things like collaborative google docs was a must. As a lay leader, I have been involved in hiring people of different ages, but needing these skills meant that older (& younger) candidates who didn’t have these skills were at a disadvantage.

  8. Rabbi David J. Meyer says

    Fine article, Jeffrey! You mention Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah’s teaching in the Passover seder. It’s also worth noting that the Talmud (both Yerushalmi and Bavli) recall him as the youngest ever appointed to lead the Sanhedrin, but because he didn’t look the part, a miracle occurred and his hair turned gray overnight. Funny to see how many of our colleagues today color away their rightfully earned gray! Me – I’m flaunting it, even if it makes me look, as Eleazar says, “like a man of 70”.