A Rabbi Helps Lead Boomers to Their Next Stage

By Rabbi Laura Geller

It was a shehechiyanu moment, a moment that evoked the Jewish blessing for beginning something new. On Sunday, Nov. 9, almost 200 people came together in Los Angeles for a groundbreaking, all-day conference called “NextStage: Looking Forward, Giving Back: A Jewish Community Conversation for Boomers and Beyond.”

NextStage was described as a gathering for people who “know that there is less time ahead than there was behind, and are open to exploring making meaning and purpose out of the time we have left.” Among its workshop topics: The Connection Between Healthy Aging and Purpose; Parenting Our Parents, New Rituals for a New Stage and Next Steps for the Next Stage: Public and Political Engagement.

Reflecting on Later Life’s Big Questions

The conference was the natural follow-up to The Next Step Boomer and Beyond Initiative that my Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills congregation had started.

With that initiative, 200 of our members age 50 to 75 engaged in meetings to reflect on things like: What does this stage of life mean to you? What keeps you up at night? What gets you up in the morning? What do we need to do in our community to help you with this stage?” For many, this was the first time they had shared their feelings about these topics.

The NextStage event brought together nine other Los Angeles synagogues from across the Jewish spectrum to begin to change the narrative about growing older in the Jewish community.

We heard Rabbi Ed Feinstein describe the contemporary American synagogue as a product of the postwar period of the late 40’s and 50’s. Back then, veterans came home, married their childhood sweethearts and moved to the suburbs to raise their children. They left the urban synagogues where they had grown up and created new ones focused on young families. Early childhood centers and Bar and Bat Mitzvah became the reason to join a synagogue.

The Missing Group: Boomers

The Jewish community still does a great job serving young families and now, also, the frail elderly. And after last year’s Pew Study (where 32 percent of Millennial Jews described themselves as having “no religion”) it has become obsessed with attracting twentysomethings and thirtysomethings. The missing group are the boomers and those slightly beyond, those in this new stage of life that didn’t exist for our parents or our grandparents. It is the stage between when people raise their families and build their careers and frail old age – a time when the accumulated wisdom of one’s life can be refocused toward making a difference in the world.

At NextStage, Marc Freedman, the CEO and founder of Encore.org, delivered a powerful keynote address with the message: “60 is not the new 40; 60 is the new 60.”

He reminded the audience that stages of life are social constructs. “Adolescence” was invented in the 1920s and reinforced later by Seventeen magazine. At this moment, there seems to be another new stage that includes many in their 20s and 30s is called “emerging adulthood.” And while it is hard to find the right nomenclature (Encore generation, Next Avenue, senescence), those between 50 and 70 who are healthy active adults unready to retire to Sun City are also a new stage.

Freedman pointed out that the national indicator for “old age” (receiving Social Security benefits at age 65) was determined by the Social Security Administration in 1935, influenced by a 19th century Prussian precedent. It was already outdated in 1935!

America’s 50+ population will continue to grow and because their life span is also growing, we need to reimagine the period between retirement and death as one of “generativity,” when an individual is capable of producing or contributing more. Freedman’s challenge to our audience was not to just leave a legacy but to live a legacy.

What Attendees Wanted for Their Next Stage

When we asked participants what would make the conference a success, their responses included:

  • If I learn new perspectives about how to take action beyond what I thought my capacity was
  • If we talk about how to deal with ageism
  • If I find the courage to redefine myself in response to mandatory retirement – what am I if I am no longer a successful law partner?
  • If the Jewish community stops seeing me as invisible because I no longer have kids living at home
  • If I see that I am not struggling with this issue alone

An important takeaway from the conference was that we are not just talking about the boomer generation, large and influential as it is. We are really talking about redefining a vision of a life for all of us. One day those Millennials will be between 50 and 70. How will America’s workplaces, universities, cities, public policy and religious institutions have changed to harness their energy and talent?

Instead of projecting a looming conflict between young and old, a war pitting “kids versus canes,” we need to reframe a vision where intergenerational collaboration is not only possible but essential. The huge reservoirs of human capital in the older population can be utilized to strengthen the education of younger generations and make a difference in the world.

Much Work Is Left to Do

The NextStage participants’ reflections on the boomer experience in the Los Angeles Jewish community demonstrated how much work there is to do. Clear messages emerged that synagogues are in the lifecycle business and must become places where boomers and those slightly beyond feel comfortable questioning and exploring purpose and meaning in life.

Judaism has much wisdom and spiritual practice to offer about what we need to do to become the 80- and 90-year-olds we would like to become. Synagogues are the right places to engage in the sacred conversations about planning for the end of life and how to use our accumulated wisdom for tikkun olam, repairing the world.

What is true in the Jewish community is true for other faith-based communities, too, who can help forge a national movement not unlike the civil rights or the women’s movement. Just as faith-based communities led the charge then, we need to lead the charge today.

If not now, when?

Rabbi Laura Geller is a Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Calif. She was the third woman in the Reform Movement to be ordained a rabbi and among the first to be selected to lead a major metropolitan synagogue. She has been named one of Newsweek’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America twice.