Big Ideas for the Jewish Future: The Boomerang Effect

Don’t write them off yet. They are in their 40s and 50s. They are affluent, highly educated, and full of energy. They are unaffiliated. And they are suddenly asking big questions.

These days Jewish funders have all but written unaffiliated Boomers off for dead. Of course the focus on Gen-Xers and Ys is critical. The National Jewish Population Survey sounded an alarm about intermarriage and disaffection that no Jewish leader can afford to ignore. On the other hand, a myopic obsession with NextGen Judaism would be a huge mistake to make.

Every seven seconds another Boomer turns 50. Boomers may have walked away from Judaism years ago, but right now we have a rare opportunity to reach them as they begin to ponder midlife and consider the mark they are making on this world. They are unfulfilled at work. The money they’ve earned hasn’t brought them meaning. They have seen people they love become ill or die. They’ve watched marriages crumble. When they look in the mirror they are noticing new wrinkles and gray hairs; when they look in their souls they are noticing a new restlessness and a yearning for connection to something sacred and timeless.

Some may argue that Boomers searching for meaning can simply turn to the structures that already exist — the synagogue, the adult education program, the JCC. But the Boomer I am describing here is no different from the 20-year-old we are now trying so hard to reach through a host of new, hip, creative, cutting-edge programs. These Boomers have not been inspired by the institutions of Jewish life. That’s why they left in the first place. They are bored in temple. A surgeon I know explains the problem this way: “I grew up on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Why should anyone expect me to be inspired by Jewish opera or Chasidic tunes?” This surgeon is not a lazy Jew, and he’s not a shallow Jew either. He is a starving Jew looking to be challenged intellectually and nourished spiritually.

Retailers know that Boomers represent a huge consumer market. That’s why the Gap introduced relaxed-fit jeans. And it’s why the cosmetics industry is making billions on anti-aging products. Matt Thornhill, president of The Boomer Project, a market research and consulting firm offers this advice: “If you have a product or service or company that can help Boomers fulfill (their) quest for vitality in any aspect, you’ll be successful.”

I stumbled on this question accidentally. Five years ago, a colleague of mine, a rabbi in New York, called me to see if I could check out an organization his 25-year-old brother had become involved in. The following Sunday morning I found myself at Agape, a nondenominational church in Culver City led by the charismatic Rev. Michael Beckwith. There were 2,000 people there on their feet pouring out their hearts to God.

I was overwhelmed by a sense of loss as I took in this powerful experience. Why can’t Judaism move thousands like this? Then I read the names of the Agape prayer leaders and was shaken to see so many Jewish names. Agape is attracting Jews who believe deeply in God, who want to pray, but who cannot find God in a synagogue.

After that morning at Agape I began interviewing unaffiliated Jewish seekers. I wanted to know what moved them. I wanted to understand why they would go to a church or a Zen center or to yoga, but not to synagogue. In response to these conversations, a group of eight of us founded Nashuva, an outreach organization that seeks to draw young, disaffected Jews back to a soulful Judaism that is committed to social justice.

Nashuva has struck a chord with 20-somethings. But to our surprise, a new sub-population, one we had not targeted, surfaced in our midst: Boomerangs — unaffiliated Jewish Boomers in their 40s and 50s who were raised as Jews, became disaffected early on, and for the first time in their adult lives are looking for ways to return to Jewish life. Although at Nashuva we continue to inspire and activate Jews in their 20s and 30s, enthusiastic Boomerangs have also become integral to our organization.

People reaching midlife who dive into a new passion usually become groundbreakers. The great scholar Rabbi Akiba was 40 when he began to study Torah. Philanthropist Les Wexner was in his late 40s when he set out to solve the problem of uneducated Jewish leaders. Michael Steinhardt was the same age when he founded the Jewish Life Network. Look what American Jewish World Service president Ruth Messinger has been able to achieve in the Jewish arena after a life of public service in the secular world. So why shouldn’t there be a Wexner fellowship for potential leaders in their 40s and 50s? Why isn’t there a Makor for Boomers? Why can’t there be a Jewish service corps for Boomers?

So many innovations in Jewish programming today are being created by Boomers for the next generation. What would happen if these same Boomers tried to create cutting-edge programs to inspire their own generation of unaffiliated Jews — their own brothers and sisters, their own colleagues at work, their own neighbors down the street. It may not be a sexy pursuit, but it certainly is a worthy one.

Boomerangs are hungry, and they have much to offer the Jewish community if we can inspire them and draw them back in. Alongside all the worthy projects that are now surfacing to capture the imagination of Gen-X and Gen-Y, we need to remember that Boomers are poised now to return to the passion and idealism of their youth. If we want to be a vital community we ought to invest serious time and money into launching creative and innovative programs and services that will welcome Boomers back. A generation that was inspired by JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King Jr., may very well be ready to heed a new call.

Boomerangs will bring with them not only their skills and passion, but billions of dollars. They have accumulated enormous wealth on their own, and they are now about to inherit their parents’ wealth as well. Is it wise to neglect them?

Midlife Calling

For years, Min Kantrowitz resisted the pull. Sure, the books on her nightstand were more likely to be a reference guide to the Talmud rather than the latest best-seller. But a rabbi?

When the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR) opened in Los Angeles in 2000, Kantrowitz resisted no longer. For four years she traveled to Los Angeles three days a week to study to be a rabbi, communting from Albuquerque, where she lives with her husband and teenage daughter. Last spring, at the age of 58, Kantrowitz was ordained as a rabbi.

"When I finally stopped resisting I got a lot more energy, and that was one way I knew it was right," said Kantrowitz, who founded and now heads an Albuquerque Jewish Family Service agency that provides chaplaincy services to the unaffiliated.

Kantrowitz, who went part time at her post as chair of the department of architecture and urban planning at the University of New Mexico in order to be a rabbi, is among a growing number of people who are opting to become rabbis midlife, very often after successful first careers.

Possessing both the life experience and maturity of an older rabbi and the passion and energy of a new ordinee, these second-career rabbis and cantors are leaving their marks on the profession. They bring to their posts not only expertise in fields such as law or business, but remarkable stories of what drove them to the rabbinate in the first place, and the sacrifices they needed to make to get there.

"More and more we’ve come to value personal stories and to see in personal stories insights into the working of God in the world and the working of human beings," said Rabbi Richard Levy, director of the School of Rabbinical Studies at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles. "When someone comes equipped with these stories, it can help people see the Divine design."

The increase in second-career rabbinic students over the last decade seems to be more intense on the West Coast. The vast majority of students at AJR are over 40 years old. HUC-JIR estimates that about 30 percent of its Los Angeles rabbinic students and 20 percent nationally are second-career students. At the University of Judaism’s (UJ) Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, 35 percent to 40 percent of students are second career, a number that rose dramatically when UJ started ordaining rabbis nine years ago and remains higher than the percentage at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, according to Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, associate dean at the Ziegler School. In the Orthodox world, more and more rabbis are coming to the rabbinate after achieving degrees in other fields.

These figures represent significant jumps from 10 years ago, when only a handful of rabbinic students were not in their early 20s.

"We have seen in general a resurgence of interest in Jewish life and Judaism. That spiritual renaissance has been part of what has brought people to the rabbinate as well," said Peretz, who had a successful business career.

The trend among rabbis is an extension of a broader trend in the workforce. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics has not calculated the number — how to precisely define a career change makes data collection difficult — anecdotal evidence and the tremendous growth in resources for those wishing to re-educate themselves for a second career suggest that baby boomers and their children are more open to midlife career changes than previous generations.

"Most often what is missing is that people feel they are not making a difference in people’s lives," said Rachelle Cohn, a career counselor at Jewish Vocational Service, where an estimated 60 percent of people who come in for career counseling have had a previous career. "They are asking themselves, ‘Am I going to feel like I’ve made my place in this world?’"

AJR tapped into the midlifers when it opened with 11 students in 2000. Today, AJR has more than 50 students in its cantorial, rabbinic and chaplaincy programs, and only two or three of them are straight out of college. With a three-day-a-week schedule, AJR designed its program to cater to students with other major commitments, and the school’s transdenominational approach and spiritual bent attracts many older students with a newfound passion for Judaism.

"These students have had great success in their lives on one professional level, and yet feel a new calling and a new direction for their soul to take and have to overcome all the obstacles and barriers and difficulties dealing with that," said Rabbi Stan Levy, a co-founder and board chair at AJR.

For some, going into clerical life is is an unexpected twist in the plot of a life story; for others it is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream put off because of circumstances or social realities.

Rabbi Yocheved Porath Mintz spent more than 40 years as a highly accomplished Jewish educator in Chicago before she was ordained at AJR last spring at the age of 64. She now serves as a rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Las Vegas, the first woman in a continuous line of 16 generations of Porath rabbis.

"It was a lifelong dream since I was 5," said Mintz, a grandmother of 11 who in her flowing white-and-gold tallit and matching oversized kippah swept through the AJR graduation like the Shabbat Queen. "At the time when women were just getting into the rabbinate I was raising my family and that was the wrong time."

The right time came about four years ago, when Mintz and her husband moved to Las Vegas. Mintz took as many classes as she could each semester, a task that became more difficult this year as she battled breast cancer. But neither surgery nor chemo nor radiation kept her from getting ordained as planned.

"It’s been a challenging year … but I couldn’t have picked a better place for this to have happened," Mintz said. "It’s been a tremendous learning experience, and strange as it sounds to say it, I am grateful for this opportunity."

It is just that kind of perspective gained from personal experience that observers say makes second-career rabbis essential resources to other students in rabbinic school and valuable counselors to their constituents.

"By the time I became a rabbi, I had lost both my parents and been through some personal tragedy, and I think the very fact that I have gathered so much strength from my Judaism is an important indicator to my congregation that there is something there," said Rabbi Mike Lotker, 55, who became the first full-time rabbi at Temple Ner Ami in Camarillo after he was ordained at HUC-JIR last year.

Lotker came from a successful first career as a physicist developing alternative energy (the company he headed built the windmills in Palm Springs). He grew up with little religion and turned to Judaism in a serious way in his mid-30s when his wife fell ill with Huntington’s disease. With the financial resources to follow his heart and his three children grown, Lotker entered rabbinic school.

"One of my classmates was younger than two of my children," Lotker laughed. "Having lived a real life and going back to school was an absolute treat — compared to real life, the pressure was very low and I was doing what I loved to do."

Most second-career students make significant sacrifices, leaving successful jobs and steady income, taking time from family.

"They are hungry for knowledge in a way no student I ever taught was," said Rabbi Stephen Robbins, co-founder and president of AJR.

Their singular focus makes them less likely to drop out than younger students, and also balances any disadvantage they might be at in comparison to the younger minds who might be able to learn more easily.

"We watch people in the first year struggling to remember things, and as they move through they get better and better," Robbins said. "Instead of having the energy of kids they have the smarts of a more mature person. It isn’t that they learn quicker; they learn better, they know better how to use their time and manage their brains to get the most out of the material."

Still, returning students acknowledge that they often come in without the background and foundational knowledge possessed by students who knew at the outset of their professional lives that they wanted to be rabbis. Since many later-in-life ordinees have also come to Judaism itself as adults, learning Hebrew can be difficult.

"I was coming from a professional world where I was an expert in what I did and so it was difficult to be starting at square one and knowing nothing," said Rabbi Amy Idit Jacques, 33, who was ordained at HUC-JIR this year after spending six years as a systems analyst in her previous career. "The first few years in school I felt I was learning more about what I didn’t know rather than accumulating knowledge," she said.

But she caught up, and Jacques, who will be working at Ohio State University Hillel, is certain she made the right decision.

"One of the hardest things was to recognize that I had the power to choose however I wanted to envision my life and what that could be. It was very scary breaking out of what my entire life I had imagined it would be," Jacques said.

Chazan Eva Robbins wonders what would have happened if she had found her voice when she was 20 rather than in her 40s.

Robbins, who was ordained as a cantor at AJR this year at the age of 57, began leading services when she and her husband, Rabbi Stephen Robbins, founded Congregation N’vay Shalom in 1993 and there was no money to pay a cantor.

"I never would have suspected that in my late 40s I would have discovered my voice and my life’s work," said Robbins, who mentored privately with Stephen S. Wise’s Cantor Nathan Lam, AJR’s dean of the cantorial program, before the school opened.

Robbins and Judith Greenfield, a cantor at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, made history at AJR’s graduation by becoming the first two cantors ever ordained on the West Coast.

Robbins admitted that at first she "wasted a lot of energy" resenting her parents and teachers for not recognizing and encouraging her musical talent early on.

"But I finally got past it. Things happen when they are supposed to, and I realized that my voice was being saved for the right time," she said. "I really feel like Hashem has been there for me, guiding me and opening these doorways when I never would have expected it."