Future preparations

A new stage in Jewish life

In Short

The map of a person’s life is changing. Demography is changing. Attitudes and assumptions are changing too

We are living more than 30 years longer than our grandparents, 30 years not tagged on to the end of our life but inserted actively in the middle, between midlife, when we build our families and careers, and, for some of us, the onset of dementia or frailty.

It is a time of change, of resets and of exploration. And now the Jewish community is beginning to see this life stage of active aging and step up to the challenge of meeting active older adults where they are to engage them in Jewish and civic life.

Last month, The Active Aging Network (formerly B3 The Jewish Boomer Platform) convened an extraordinary virtual gathering entitled “The Challenges and Opportunities of Longevity — A  Jewish Communal Response.” It was noteworthy for both its impactful content on aging issues and, as important, as a reflection of heightened interest in active aging among a cross section of North American organizations. Twenty-five organizations served as partners in presenting the convening, ranging from Jewish Federations of North America and Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan’s Wechsler Center for Modern Aging to rabbinical and congregational groups, the Jewish Community Centers Association, the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies and an array of aging-oriented groups. (A full list is available here.) Support was also provided by The Natan Fund and the Sephardic Foundation on Aging.

The keynote address was presented by two of the most important experts in the world on longevity and growing older: Ken Dychtwald and Jay Olshansky. Olshansky, a professor of public health at the University of Chicago, is one of the foremost researchers and authors on the science and possibilities of longevity. Dychtwald, author and public speaker, is the founder and CEO of Age Wave, an acclaimed think tank and consultancy focused on the social and business implications and opportunities of global aging and rising longevity.

Their conversation was illuminating, challenging and sobering. They challenged our audience with how little the Jewish community (beyond some at the local level) has been doing to understand and address the desire of active older adults to be seen, valued and engaged in their Jewish community. And they pushed even further, arguing that because of the Jewish mandate to repair the world there should be a national strategy to respond to these changing demographics both within the Jewish community and beyond, reminding the audience that 49% of Jews are over 50 compared to 34% of all North Americans. 

The goal they articulated is not to live longer but to live better; the question is not how long we can live but what we live for and how can we fill this life stage with meaning and purpose. They challenged us to think about the language we use to talk about growing older, about stereotyping, ageism and internalized ageism, and the need to begin to understand longevity when we are young. It set a perfect context for the rest of the convening which focused on how we should reimagine aging — and what Jewish organizations should do to find new ways to engage adults in this life stage.

Sarah Eisenman, chief community and Jewish life officer at the Jewish Federations of North America, offered the results of their recent survey among Jewish adults between 55-74. While half of those surveyed are not involved in Jewish life, 71% of them are open to becoming engaged. They need new models, as do those who remain active into their 80s and 90s. In a panel called Active Aging Hubs, other presenters shared programs and planning procedures which might become models for creating community-wide and national active aging efforts. Enhancing life’s meaning wedded to Jewish life remains a significant search as we age. A powerful session explored how Judaism adds depth and purpose as we age — and suggested ways to achieve this.

In the final plenary, “CoGenerate!: Breaking Through Silos and Connecting Active Aging with Purpose, Meaning and Joy”, Janet Oh, director of innovation at CoGenerate (formerly Encore.org), noted that while this is the first time in human history when five (or maybe six) generations are alive at the same time, the United States is the most age-segregated society in the world. But the narrative of generations in competition with each other can give way to a different story of cooperation and co-generation. The recent Surgeon General’s Report demonstrated that isolation and loneliness are an epidemic not only among older adults but also among millennials. It turns out that people of all ages want to work across generations to help others and improve the world; there are successful programs around the country that could become models in the Jewish community.

We sing in “Lecha Dodi”: Sof maaseh b’machshava tehillah – to make something real you have to start with imagination. At the end of the day, the convening challenged Jewish organizations and leaders by asking, “Do we have the imagination and the support to make this happen?”

What, then, are the next steps?

Reach out to one of the many partners in this effort. Let them know that, yes, the map of a person’s life is changing and that the priorities of our Jewish community need to recognize that the Jewish future demands that all of us, at every age of the life cycle, are counted and connected.

Stuart Himmelfarb is the CEO and co-founder of the Active Aging Network. Prof. David Elcott is the co-founder of the Active Aging Network. Rabbi Laura Geller is on the board of directors of the Active Aging Network.