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 JewishJournal.com.