Every single baby boomer in the United States is at least 50 years of age. The Census Bureau tells us that every day some 10,000 people are turning 65. The Jewish population in the United States is aging, with some 25 percent of us over the age of 65. Indeed, a Pew study from the summer of 2016 showed us that the median age of our community is now 50. This boomer cohort is carrying our historical and cultural baggage and, in doing so, has helped redefine American Judaism in the last several decades. From the feminist movement to the drive for LGBTQ equality — from the shift from formal affiliation with congregations and accompanying resurgence in a search for spiritual meaning to a growing acceptance of intermarriage —the new Jewish elder has played a major role in restructuring our community. Now, as we boomers enter life’s next chapter, the question is whether we will bring that sense of activism and change into our own aging, or quietly go gently into sedentary retirement. Don’t bet on it!
The spiritual question underlying this next chapter of life rests within a simple, but consuming question. We cannot control the time we have left to live, so the question is what shall we do with the time we have left? If we leave full-time work in our 60s or early 70s, we can, if blessed with health, expect decades of life. Thus, what shall we do with that time? If this is a time for harvesting the fruits of our life, what shall we reap? We can, as many do, choose to turn inward and see this time as personal. As we become acquainted more and more with the reality of our own mortality, so many of us choose to devote more time to family and self. Yet, equally compelling is the call to harness the wealth of life experience that we have to mount a revolution of elders who can, by the sheer impact of our numbers and experience, help transform a community and maybe a world.
James Firman, president and CEO of National Council on Aging voiced this call to action in March. He spoke at a think tank convened by Jewish Sacred Aging, a program I founded. At the session, which brought together some two dozen activists in that field, Firman called on the group to examine the concept of what he called “sacred responsibility.” He challenged the group to consider ways for boomers to actualize the values of Judaism as we age, just as so many did in our youth. Certainly the issues associated with health care, the economics of aging, the ageism of America and the profound need for meaningful social relationships call out for action and involvement.
Many of the issues specific to our aging speak to family and communal concerns. So many of us have been or are or will be caregivers that this issue alone could be the foundation for action. Linked to this, of course, is the very personal desire in each of us to have our life count for something. We become aware, as we age, that material things are temporal. What of us do we wish to leave behind to our children and grandchildren? What legacy shall be ours to endow? Do we not have a sacred responsibility to live what Talmud Sanhedrin spoke of when it said that each of us is responsible for the other? Perhaps it is time for this cohort of Jewish elders to sanctify our time by responding to the call to continue to seek meaning and purpose by engaging in acts of kindness and personal responsibility. In each of our communities there are a myriad of issues that need to be addressed. We can model a new elder activism and by doing so help change the face and perception of what it means to grow older with dignity, meaning and purpose.
What is clear to many of us is that we are living through what can be called an age of transition. Much of the outward presentations of the Judaism that we grew up with have evolved and we are in the process of creating what can be called a “new” American Judaism. Boomers have been an engine that has driven this transition and change. Now, as we begin the third stage of our own lives, the opportunity exists to reshape and perhaps redefine what it means to grow older within a sacred Jewish context. What would this elder revolution look like? That remains to be seen. It will, however, begin with each of us as we examine our own unique place in the universe and hopefully, accept the challenge to ask how I can live my life so that my life and legacy has meaning beyond the moment.