As Boomers Age, They Make Spiritual Demands


Over the last two decades, the Jewish community has poured tremendous resources into attracting and engaging young people, looking to cement a new generation's ties to Judaism as early as possible.

Yet as the baby-boomers continue to turn 60 and beyond, the generation that shaped the past 40 years of American culture shows few sign of slowing down, and many suggest that synagogues will have to rethink their outreach strategies in the coming years in order to engage (or re-engage) those people.

That was one of the major points made at a recent WHYY panel discussion moderated by Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman, director of Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote. The panel featured a quartet of Jewish boomers: Temple University professor Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, attorney Mark Aronchick, musician Ken Ulansey and architect Harris Steinberg.

While previous generations have often become more engaged religiously as they've grown older, this generation may be different, and may need the synagogue to come to them instead.

"This generation challenges more, wants more and is hungrier," explained psychologist Dan Gottlieb, host of WHYY's "Voices in the Family" in a separate interview. "The complaint I hear from people my age, who are more or less affiliated with synagogues, is that the synagogue does not meet their spiritual needs. We didn't hear that in previous generations."

He noted that if the organized Jewish community does not grow and change along with the boomers, they may go elsewhere for their spiritual fix.

When asked what nourishes them spiritually, only one of the four panelists answered "synagogue"; the rest noted that they get sustenance from family, creativity, love and work.

For Alpert, aging has represented a move away from Jewish life and the move towards Judaism as an intellectual pursuit.

"If you're trained to be a professional Jew or a Jewish professional, what do you do when you're not anymore?" she mused.

In another vein, while those entering their 60s may have had retirement at some distant point on their horizon, today's economic challenges have forced many to re-examine when — and if — that time might come.

Friedman noted that because the recession has affected Jewish institutions, boomers may be poised to step up to the plate and help recreate them.

"We need to be thinking very expansively about where … the sources of energy and vision and passion [are] that can fuel what we rebuild as we come out of this crisis, and as we build a Jewish community that's apt for the coming era."

The onus lies on the synagogues, continued Friedman, to think inclusively instead of exclusively, and to come up with lifelong Jewish opportunities — spiritual and otherwise.

In the same way that this generation defined so much of the culture, so too, said Friedman, will they redefine what it means to enter one's 60s, 70s and beyond: "Jewish boomers will be wanting to make a difference in the world, and they could be doing that through the Jewish community, which is why the forms of Jewish connection may need to be opened up and recast."  


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