October 19, 2019

At 60 for Zikna

The High Holy Day liturgy includes the poignant plea: “Do not cast me off b’eyt zikna,” which is usually translated as “when I get old.” It is a fear many of us have, but are often afraid to articulate. We live in a youth-intoxicated culture where older people are sometimes invisible.

I am concerned that this is also the case in the Jewish community. When the Jewish community speaks about ensuring the Jewish future, it focuses primarily on young people in their 20s and 30s. But surely, the Jewish future demands the active engagement of older people as well—people with the experience, perspective and resources needed to move our community forward.

Who are these older people? Pirke Avot says: “At 60 for zikna.” I’m 62. That makes me one of them, a baby boomer who has become … what? Old? An elder? A senior? I’m not even sure what to call myself, but I know there are a lot of others like me.

Approximately 29 percent of Jews in the United States are between 50 and 64, according to a recent study. In 2030, baby boomers will be between 66 and 84, representing 20 percent of the U.S. population and an even greater percentage of the Jewish population. The Jewish community can ill afford to cast us off. Rather, it should be facilitating a conversation on how to engage us or, more to the point, keep us engaged.

At Temple Emanuel, we have begun a “listening campaign” on growing older, modeled after the congregationally based community organizing that we have been doing over the years with OneLA. The goal of a listening campaign is not to leap to solutions or to design programs but, rather, simply to listen to what people are saying about matters that concern them. Over many conversations, common issues will emerge that we can work on together. The responses so far have been moving and illuminating.

Here are some of the responses:

  • “I worry about invisibility—sometimes I feel that my viewpoint is ignored at work or that I am simply not seen by a cyclist when I am walking on campus.”
  • “I feel fear. I have a real sense of the time going by; my awareness that it is not endless is profound.”
  • “I appreciate living in the moment. Time is speeding by. I am amazed at how vital I feel.”
  • “I serve on a number of boards. I love what I do. I don’t spend my time now raising kids. I know how to seize the moment.”
  • “How much time do I have left? I don’t want to think about the future and inevitable decline. But still, so much of my time is taken up with overseeing the care of my really old mother. We never imagined she would live this long or that caring for her would take all of her resources and much of ours.”
  • “I could have 40 years ahead of me. It used to be that at 50 you had 10 years of life to look forward to. Now, you need to plan.”
  • “The biggest surprises are the capacity to reinvent, the resiliency. I have aspirations of communicating this knowledge to people.”
  • “I am still working in the trenches, but now with much younger people. I am competing with them. I do the same thing they do. They think I’m just some guy with white hair, but eventually they see that I know more than they do. I’m still who I always was. I don’t suffer from the illusion that young people love us. They don’t.”
  • “What weighs on my mind is that I don’t feel like I’ve left this world a better place than it was when I came into it … that I haven’t done what I need to do to make things better.”
  • “When I was younger, I had mentors who helped me succeed as a professional. I need mentors to teach me about how to grow old.”

What does the Jewish community have to offer these thoughtful people? What gifts of talent, insight and resources can these people bring to the community? How can we create opportunities for mentoring across generations? What resources does Jewish tradition offer for this stage of life? And how might thinking about all of this together help us leave this world a better place than it was when we came into it?

It is time to deepen and expand the conversation. I encourage other congregations and organizations to develop their own listening campaigns. And I invite them to join with us in a network and a larger conversation.

Again, Pirke Avot: “At 60 for zikna.” A commentary on this text reads “zikna” as an acronym for ze s’koneh chochma, “one who has acquired wisdom.”

Let’s listen to what this wisdom is telling us and embrace it as a community. Then none of us need be afraid of being cast out in our old age.

Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (tebh.org).