Reform movement to focus on sacred aging

“For many Reform congregations it is no longer unusual that the majority of their membership is over 50 years of age,” says Rabbi Richard Address, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns in New York City.

“If you walked into any congregation in Berkeley and asked 20 people, ‘How many of you have had experience in caregiving?'” Address says, “15 or 20 people would raise their hands.”

A boomer himself, the rabbi is passionate about “sacred aging” — his term for the trend he believes is impacting Jewish communities around the country. On Saturday, Dec. 10, Address will deliver a keynote talk at a conference by the same name, to take place at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame.

“This new multigenerational cohort represents the longest living, healthiest, most educated, most affluent, and most spiritually challenging generations of older adults that have ever existed,” Address says.

And he’s passionate about his mission: “As my generation ages, the boomers will significantly impact the Jewish community,” he declares ardently. “It’s already beginning to. And sooner or later, the organized Jewish groups are wake up to this and take it seriously!”

This is not a uniquely Jewish problem, Address points out. In a recent telephone conversation from his home in New Jersey, he calls attention to the Nov. 14 issue of Newsweek, a copy of which he’d picked up after teaching a workshop on Sacred Aging. The cover story, “Turning 60,” describes the “generation that vowed to stay forever young.” It is referring to the 3.4 million Americans who were born in 1946. And it’s a given that those born subsequently will follow in their footsteps.

Address’ focus, of course, is aging Jews. He has already written a book on the subject as a resource for congregations across the country. It’s called “To Honor and Respect: A Program and Resource Guide for Congregations on Sacred Aging” (URJ Press, 2005).

Launched at the URJ’s 67th biennial convention in 2003, the Sacred Aging project is an initiative of the Department of Jewish Family Concerns to address this generation within congregations. Address points out that currently one fifth of the American Jewish community is 65 or older, with the fastest growth component being those over 75.

“Just on the horizon, joining them within the decade, is the first wave of the “baby boom” generation,” he adds. “The ‘new Jewish majority’ will change our congregations and Jewish life in dynamic ways.” It is the “longevity revolution, he says. “For synagogues, it will mean that everything from programming to cultural attitudes to allocation of both human and financial resources will need to be reassessed.”

The aging Jewish community is a very big issue, indeed.

That’s why Address will be talking to congregational leaders and others in the Bay Area about what he sees as the most important components to meet the needs of an aging population.

For example, because “our people crave community and relationship,” it is crucial for congregations to provide support for caregivers, who make up a large component of the older generation.

“For years we heard tales of people living in the ‘sandwich generation,'” Address says. “What we have learned … is that today, this is more likely to be a ‘club sandwich.’ In other words, it is no longer unusual for people to be involved in multigenerational caregiving.”

This means that a 60-year-

old woman, for instance, might be caring for her 86-year-old mother, while also keeping tabs on her 30-year-old son — “and, if geography allows, driving car pool for her 8-year-old grandson.”

If the community provides for and learns from the older generations, he believes “we can care for those who provide care.”

Moreover, congregations need to create “new rituals for our extended lifespan,” he says, such as “blessings that celebrate grandchildren, retirement and life transitions into older adulthood.”

Congregations also need to help members make “sacred decisions” when it comes to the impact of medical technology. “Medical technology may very soon make it possible for us to match Moses’ 120 years of life,” Address says. He does add, however, that “just because we are able to do something does not mean that we should.”

In short, he says, the focus of his Bay Area talk will be quite simple.

“It is to raise awareness within congregations to the reality that the world of older adults has changed.” The aging generation “represents the majority of our membership — a vast untapped reservoir of life experience with a seemingly insatiable desire for meaningful Jewish experiences.”