Older generation holding Jewish community together

Amid all the kvetching (including my own) about the fear of losing disengaged young Jews, so many of whom show little concern for Israel and affiliating with American Jewish organizations, let us offer a word of praise for their parents and grandparents, who make up the majority of attendees at so many mainstream Jewish events.

This came to mind after attending a recent all-day conference in Brooklyn, N.Y. The majority of attendees were senior citizens, and while they were slow to navigate the stairs, they were quick with their questions and comments. At the session I addressed, which was about Jewish journalism, they were engaged with the issues, and their concern about future generations was palpable.

When I asked how many read a Jewish newspaper, nearly every hand went up.

Where are their grandchildren? They shrug and acknowledge that young

people today have other interests, especially on a lovely Sunday morning.

A few nights later I spoke at a synagogue in Manhattan. More than 100 people were there, and virtually all appeared to be longtime members of AARP. Again, well read, interested, articulate, accomplished. And elderly.

There’s this dirty little secret among those on the mainstream Jewish speaking circuit. Whether it’s a Sunday morning talk at the synagogue or an evening adult education program at the JCC or a large-scale book fair, you’ll find that the audiences are made up primarily of folks middle aged and up — and up.

It used to bother me, seeing these crowds, but not anymore — no doubt in part because I haven’t gotten any younger myself. But it also doesn’t bother me because there is a special connection I feel with men and women who can tell you stories about their experiences during World War II and of their support for the creation of the state of Israel. They’ve lived through so much and still care deeply about the Jewish future as well as Jewish history.

Sociologically, one understands why young people are largely invisible when it comes to such communal events. They are occupied with work and family, especially during the week. They lead increasingly busy lives with little time for relaxation, much less Jewish involvement. And those in their 20s are looking to connect with their peers — and if their peers are disengaged, so are they.

The older folks, though, are proof that we are living longer, more productive lives. Brains don’t stop working after retirement. Passion for Jewish life doesn’t end at 65.

Lectures, classes and book fairs are an opportunity to get out and see friends while learning more about topics of deep interest.

These people are well read and they care about Jewish affairs. These are the men and women who give to the federations, buy Israel Bonds and support so many worthy Jewish organizations and causes. They make books into best-sellers, buying and reading the novels and nonfiction books with Jewish themes. They are the subscribers to Jewish newspapers and magazines. They are the synagogue-goers, and the officers and lay leaders of the sisterhoods, brotherhoods and men’s clubs. They are Zionists to the core, and visit Israel when they can.

In short, they are the backbone of the active Jewish community, and because of that, and the unique blend of sweetness and feistiness they possess, they are my heroes.

Yes, Jewish groups are right to focus on attracting younger people, but my recent speaking engagements reminded me that the heart of the active and organized community is a generation that experienced great hardship and accomplished much good, for their families and community, building up our institutions.

We owe them our gratitude and thanks. And while our challenge continues to be to find new and positive reasons for younger Jews to engage in Jewish life, let us not forget the debt we owe those who got us here.

In that way we can give a new and more positive meaning to the phrase “the Elders of Zion.”

Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of New York Jewish Week, where this column previously appeared.