As Baby Boomer Population Grows, Chabad Reaches Out

Soup in the Sukka 013 (640x480)by Menachem Posner

71 year-old David Whitebook was “a non-observant, secular Jew” when he attended a class by the new Chabad rabbi in his community of active adults some 10 years ago.

The retired high school teacher and assistant principal said he “was skeptical of many things, but the classes were engaging and I liked the rabbi, so I continued to attend. The rabbi encourages us to voice our opinions and is very respectful of everyone’s views.”

Young enough to be the grandchild of many of his congregants, Rabbi Eliezer Zaklikovsky, director with his wife Chanie, of Chabad Jewish Center of Monroe, NJ, are among a growing number of Chabad representatives who are serving an older demographic.

According to the AARP, in 2011, there were 78 million people age 65, and over the course of the next 15 years, boomers will be turning 65 at a rate of 8,000 a day. Responding to this phenomenon, Chabad has opened centers in active-adult communities around the country.

“Most conventional outreach is geared towards children, teenagers or young adults,” says the rabbi. “In our situation, we feel we’re answering a real need that has gone unmet for too long.” For that reason and others, he says, the work is deeply fulfilling and rewarding.

Working with active adults, he says, has taught him patience. “The people here are very open to learn and to grow. But you need to make a strong case and know that most changes will not take place overnight.

“When they learn about a new observance, they thoughtfully consider it with the wisdom they gained over the years. While it might be challenging to expect life changes in attitude and observance at that stage in life, and the commitment is more difficult, once they commit, you can rely on them. It’s for real.”

But this, he adds, “is precisely what makes it that much more meaningful and long-lasting.”

A case in point would be Whitebook who took it upon himself to add one mitzvah to his life every year. Slowly but surely, he has been doing that. One year he committed to wearing tefillin every day. Another year he made the decision to attend synagogue every Shabbat. “I am not going to become a tzaddik overnight, but I am always progressing,” he says.

Home to some 18,000 retirees, the majority of Monroe Township’s active adults are Jews. On a recent Sunday morning several hundred turned out to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Chabad Jewish Center here.

Since settling here 2003, the Zaklikovsys have introduced a variety of educational and culturally dynamic programs offering greater intellectual and spiritual Jewish engagement. With day trips to area Jewish strongholds such as Lakewood, New Jersey, famous as a center of Torah scholarship, and Crown Heights, New York, seat of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, the Zaklikovskys bring their people up close and personal with day-to-day life and people in these entrenched Jewish communities.

Careful Reflection Brings Change, Commitment

Tiby Lapkin, 74, told that the Zaklikovskys have proven to be a transformative presence for many of the Jewish residents, who, unburdened by work or family, are exploring Judaism for the first time in their lives.

“Many of us grew up Jewish, but we never truly studied and learnt the rich depth of the Torah,” says Lapkin who moved to the 55-plus community in her late fifties. “Now I can say that I have experienced Judaism in a way that I never had before.”

In their own caring, compassionate way, the Zaklikovskys have made themselves personally relevant to adults who’ve weathered their own life crisis. When his youngest son passed away, a broken Joseph Tolino took the advice of a friend and called Rabbi Zaklikovsky. “I never thought that a rabbi would drop everything and be there for us,” he says. “But that’s exactly what the rabbi did. He got us through that time.”

Although her children do not have peers their own age in the community, Chanie Zaklikovsky is pleased that they “feel that they have many grandparents here as they look forward to the many birthday cards, the Chanukah gifts and the attention showered on them by the locals.”

Children Benefit, Learn To Relate

More importantly, she adds, “Being in this community, my children have learned to become friends with people who could be their grandparents, and have learned compassion and respect for their elders. They also get early insight into life from people with this level of maturity and experience.”

With a growing family of six, the rabbi and his wife had to learn to adjust to the patterns of the active adult demographic when they discovered that every fall, a substantial segment of their community heads south to warmer climates. “So we hold a reunion every winter in a restaurant in South Florida,” says the rabbi.

It’s the reverse for Rabbi Yossi Hecht, director of Chabad of Marion County, Florida – which includes The Villages, a 55-plus community that is home to roughly 2,000 Jewish active adults. His community grows every fall and shrinks in the spring.

In contrast to the stereotype of an aging population of takers, Hecht says that he has seen a high level of volunteering spirit in his congregation. Through the Golden Connections program, Hecht matches active adult volunteers with elderly retirees. “They bring over a bowl of chicken soup, share a smile or take them to the doctor,” says Hecht, “The main thing is that they are there for them. They want to do good and reach out to others. We just connect them.”

In Ballantyne, North Carolina, Rabbi Yisroel Levin makes regular trips to the Sun Cities developments in Carolina Lakes, over the border in South Carolina, home to approximately 250 Jewish active adults, mostly transplants from the Northeast and the Midwest.

“Since many of them have no family of their own, we really become one large communal family,” he said. In addition, through their connection to Levin’s community in Ballantyne, “almost all of them have been adopted by local families here as surrogate grandparents. They share holiday meals together and genuinely love each other. It is very nice to see.”

Limited Fundraising Opportunities

The rabbis admit that fundraising is a unique challenge in a retiree community where many live off savings and have limited budgets. “So when I get a check of eighteen dollars, I recognize that it is as big a sacrifice as 18,000 dollars would be in another setting,” says Zaklikovsky.

That’s one of the reasons, he says, that the recent 10th-anniversary gala tribute, feting a decade since the Zaklikovskys’ arrival, was unique. The $72-a-plate brunch was followed by a new Torah scroll dedicated to Chabad of Monroe Township, by Mayer and Marian Brandwein.

“There are no big fundraising dinners here, so to have a tribute of this kind is rare. The fact that 200 people came out to celebrate and support our Chabad really says something about the community that our Chabad has developed.”

According to Lapkin, the high turnout at the gala is reflective of the many lives the Zaklikovskys have enriched. “They are just so endearing and winning, I speak to my friends for hours about how much they mean to us.”

Lapkin grew up in an Orthodox household on the still-Jewish Lower East Side of New York but all but abandoned Judaism when she married a non-Jew. After her divorce, she and her now-grown children reclaimed their heritage. Now she says her favorite activity is listening to the rabbi’s sermons and classes.

“He is a published author and he has so much to share. We think he is adorable,” she gushed in a matronly tone. “He takes the time to get to know everyone and remembers everyone’s names. There are people who look at him like a son and at his children like grandchildren.”