Rabbi Dayle Friedman, author and director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism, has served as a pioneer in the Jewish community’s work with the elderly. She was founding director of chaplaincy services at the Philadelphia Geriatric
Center, and a founding member of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains and the Forum on Aging, Religion and Spirituality.
She will be part of a panel — along with Rabbi Simkha Weintraub of the New York Jewish Healing Center, and Rabbi Stephanie Dickstein of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services Shira Ruskay Center—– at a conference on Nov. 19, “Addressing the Spiritual Journey of Jews Beyond Midlife.” The conference is sponsored by Hiddur and UJA-Federation of New York, which over the last few years has made issues of aging and spiritual care here and in Israel an increasing focus.
For information on the conference: (212) 836-1473 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jewish Week: Your conference focuses on the “spiritual journey” of the aging population. How do you define the spiritual needs of people older than 60? How is their spirituality different than younger people’s?
Rabbi Dayle Friedman: It’s my experience that the journey beyond midlife deepens our spirituality. Whether or not you consider yourself a “spiritual person,” the realities of later life will bring you face to face with questions of meaning. You will be called to wrestle with your own purpose and identity, even as you contend with loss and limits. You will have opportunities to grow, even as you may resist growth.
What are seniors’ most pressing spiritual need?
The unprecedented longevity we now enjoy means that many, if not most of us, will have several decades of living and learning to do beyond the age of 60. In that time, we’ll seek meaning — whether we are a baby boomer looking for an “encore career” once our previous work has ended, or if we are a frail elder, limited by chronic illness and still wanting to believe there is a purpose to be found in this new day. We need connection — to community, and to God, however we conceive of that which transcends the narrow bounds of the self.
The aging population is the fastest-growing part of the U.S. population. Do we pay enough attention to that group’s spiritual needs?
Robert Butler, the renowned geriatrician, wrote a book years ago called “Why Survive?” I would suggest that our community should be helping those in later life to have a why, a sense of beauty and significance. Of course, I am not in any way minimizing the importance of the services and care our community provides for elders. I am suggesting, though, that they are necessary, but not sufficient. I would love to see more effort in our community in tapping those beyond midlife as volunteers and mentors, in engaging elders in Jewish learning and celebration, and in fostering truly multi-generational communities.
How does Jewish tradition — from the Torah to contemporary thinkers — address the lives of seniors?
Thank God, our tradition is less averse to aging than our secular culture. We have models from the Torah of elders finding profound callings and fruitfulness in later life—think about Abraham, who set off on an entirely new path at age 75; or Sarah, whose life’s dream was fulfilled with the birth of Isaac at a point even she doubted was possible; or Moses, who began his role as prophet, redeemer and teacher at the age of 80.
In modern Jewish thought, I take guidance from Abraham Joshua Heschel. In a profound address to the 1961 White House Conference on Aging, Heschel chastised Americans for trivializing later life into “a pickled existence.” He urged his listeners to foster “a sense of significant being,” to transform aging into a time of learning and contribution. He suggested that we think of old age as, “the age of opportunities for inner growth.”