Nearly 25 percent of the Jewish population is over the age of 60, according to Friedman, yet the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote where she now works is one of the few Jewish institutions with seminary-based training in aging — training that it has been building on for the past 15 years.
To help encourage this pedagogic trend, the Retirement Research Foundation in Chicago has given a $189,600 grant to Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism at RRC, which Friedman heads. She is well suited to make good use of the funds since she was for many years the rabbi at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center on North Broad Street, the precursor of the Abramson Center for Jewish Life in North Wales.
According to Friedman, the sizable grant will fund "Embracing Aging," an initiative to help rabbinic students develop the skills needed to serve a rapidly aging population, along with developing a program that can be applied to aging issues in the non-Jewish community as well.
An important facet of "Embracing Aging" will be working with the faculty at RRC to help them understand the needs of older individuals in the Jewish community, and how such needs relate to rabbinic work.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful if, in a class on Talmud," said Friedman, "they're learning about what the Talmud says about the obligations of adult children to their aging parents?" Matching academic knowledge with the practical experience of serving an aging population is a central goal of the initiative.
The grant will also allow for related activities, such as workshops on various gerontological issues; specialized courses on aging, which the RRC has already been developing; and an award for distinguished efforts on behalf of the aged community.
The college is also reintroducing a requirement that first-year students must lead services before an audience of the elderly.
Friedman added that often, the older generation gets "short-shrifted" when congregations stress Jewish continuity, and then focus primarily on younger families. "People in later life are the ones that have the time and the interest and the inclination" to become involved in synagogue life, attested Friedman, but are so often overlooked.
At the end of the three-year program, Hiddur will share its insights with the wider seminary world.
"The spiritual questions are really central," said Friedman, "so who better to address them than clergy?"