Some older Jews turn to religion for spiritual sustenance

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Mitzi Cahn was 50, her husband Micha'el 60, and their three sons already in their late teens and early 20s when, eight years ago, Mitzi and Micha'el decided to kosher their kitchen.

"The kids thought this was an absolutely nutty thing to do," said Mitzi Cahn, a Berkeley resident who is affiliated with Chabad.

But the rabbi came and boiled everything in sight, and they set up two sets of dishes for meat and dairy. The first time Mitzi Cahn corrected her son for slicing meat on the dairy cutting board, he ran out of the house in a huff.

While Gary Tobin, director of the S.F.-based Brandeis University Institute for Community and Religion, says there are no statistics about Jews over 50 becoming observant, area religious leaders say the Cahns are far from alone.

Their reasons for turning to halachah (Jewish law) vary.

Rabbi Howard Zack, who has a fairly large, older constituency at Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, said most of those who first enter his congregation between the ages of 45 to 70 do so because of the death of a parent.

The new congregants come for Kaddish or the week of shiva (mourning) and "get hooked" on the services and daily community, Zack said.

A number of others find they have the time and the desire to explore religion after their children have grown up.

Some, having practiced Judaism by rote — a "don't-ask-any-questions-Judaism" — become curious about religion and want to probe deeper, Zack said.

Still others, after finding what fulfillment they could from career and family, long for a spiritual component in their lives.

But Rabbi Yehuda Ferris of Chabad House of Berkeley said the leap from nonobservance or some observance to halachah is not that dramatic. The seeds of observance have already been planted in the Jewish soul.

"It's always in there," Ferris said. "I don't think people make radical changes."

Mitzi Cahn said her transformation didn't happen all at once. First she stopped driving, shopping or carrying money on Shabbat. Making the kitchen kosher came next. Then she covered her head, wore sleeves that went below the elbows and skirts that went below the knees, and put up kosher mezzuzot on every door in her house.

Religion now comforts her in difficult times, gives her a sense that all things happen for a reason, and infuses her smallest acts with resonance, she said.

The same is true for Simcha (not her real name), who lives in San Francisco and attends Chabad. Now 54, she became religious only after emigrating from Eastern Europe 4-1/2 years ago. Although she knew and celebrated the holidays while growing up, her family's observances weren't strict.

"Nobody would teach me. Nobody would tell me. I didn't know about the history," she said.

Now she keeps her head covered, observes Shabbat, and never eats a meat dish and a milk dish within six hours of each other.

"It was step by step, very slowly," Simcha said.

Cahn's step-by-step transformation began about 10 years ago, when she first researched Judaism to find out how to bury her mother. Like those who observed the "don't-ask-any-questions Judaism" described by Zack, Cahn said she practiced Judaism when she was growing up without always understanding it.

Simcha's mother died at about the time Simcha became more religious as well — four months after the family arrived in the United States.

But Simcha added another reason for becoming religious late in life. This is the first time she's lived in a country where she had the option or resources for a deeply religious lifestyle.

"I always kept God in my heart," Simcha said of her life before she turned to religion. "But I didn't know many things."

Certain religious materials were hard to come by in her country, and her family didn't always know how to use them properly. Sometimes the shops in her country didn't carry matzah for Passover. Other times, her family had matzah on the table for the seder but also had bread.

Now she's learning Judaism even while she's learning English and settling into life in a new country.

"I do what I can. I do my best," Simcha said.