Recently, I asked a friend, who had been brought up in a totally secular home, and who knew nothing about Judaism, what brought her “into the fold.” She told me that her musician daughter had gotten a job playing “Kol Nidre” at a synagogue, and needed to be driven there for rehearsals. Upon hearing the strains of the prayer, she was incredibly moved and, a musician herself, wanted to understand more about this prayer. This eventually led her to taking classes at the same synagogue and, at the age of 60, she had her Bat Mitzvah. She has since sought more and more environments where she can explore her heritage and deepen her spirituality.
This is not an uncommon story for many Jewish seniors, who were either turned off by Jewish education of the past, or ignorant of their heritage because their parents chose to ignore it. But things have changed not only in Jewish education for children, but in the education of Jewish adults over 50 as well.
Adults without children, those whose children are grown, and other adults interested in a Jewish education for themselves, are not excluded from the educational picture. Adult education that emphasizes building a “community of learners” is on the rise in synagogues across denominations.
From Jewish book clubs to Torah study “Lunch and Learns” at synagogues and JCCs for professionals with limited time, educators are finding creative ways to bring Jewish learning to their constituents. JCCs are also starting to attract unaffiliated Jews through the creation of sophisticated film and book festivals.
A recent publication, “Re-designing Jewish Education for the 21st Century” by the Jim Joseph Foundation states that, “In recent decades especially, American Jewish education has begun to broaden its reach. …After many decades of decline, serious adult Jewish learning appears to be expanding again in America today, and not only among traditional Jews. The growth of Jewish studies in the university has also exposed large numbers of young adults to sophisticated study of Jewish material and themes.”
The Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning has been the fastest growing, pluralistic Jewish learning program for adults in the world. Their program promotes Jewish learning as a lifelong process—“the more you know, the more you realize you have yet to learn.” As the Melton website asserts, “As you delve into Jewish history, thought and ethics, you’re bound to be intrigued by concepts and insights that lead you farther down the path of discovery. Along the way, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of your personal connection to Judaism, as well as an appreciation for Judaism’s sagacious perceptions about the human condition.”
And so with the large generation of baby boomers beginning to retire, older adult programs are seen as vital to help keep seniors participating in society, as well as mentally and physically fit. This is important because, according to the California Department of Aging, it is estimated that by 2030 almost one in five Californians will be over age 65.
Today, there is a new, cutting edge approach being explored by communities around the country. The concept is The Village-to-Village, a non-profit membership organization that provides direct support, social activities, volunteer opportunities and coordination of services such as transportation, health and wellness programs, and home repairs. What is new, is that this concept is being applied to the Jewish community—which adds education to the mix of services.
Three congregations in Los Angeles have joined together to further develop this model. “Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills along with Temple Isaiah, and Congregation Kol Ami, received a major, multi-year Cutting Edge Grant from The Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. The Cutting Edge Grant has been awarded to create and establish ‘The Synagogue Village’… a participatory, intentional community that directs resources, talents, services and energies to enable members to age-in-place,” (www.tebh.org/nextstage/housing-alternatives/aging-in-place).
Rabbi Laura Geller leads “Next Stage: Boomers & Beyond Initiative” a program that addresses the needs of community members who are fifty and above. “Through Next Stage, we are creating a model of meaningful engagement, spirituality, and practical support to address the unique challenges and opportunities of this stage of life. This includes engaging in community-wide conversations about the role this cohort can play in ensuring the Jewish future.”
“The Synagogue Village” may be viewed as the “next step.” It “will be the first inter-congregational neighborhood-based village designed to create a strong intergenerational community built on a foundation of Jewish values where neighbors are interdependent, support each other, have fun together, and deepen their Jewish connections within the neighborhood. While there are more than 100 villages around the country that are part of the Village-to-Village Network, ours will be the first created by faith communities.”
For this to succeed, congregations must be willing to work together to provide meaningful experiences for, and enrich the lives of, their senior populations.
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.