December 9, 2018

It Takes a ChaiVillageLA to Create a Community

From left: Temple Isaiah Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles, ChaiVillageLA Co-Vice Chair Ellen Isaacs, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills Rabbi Emerita Laura Geller and ChaiVillageLA Co-Chair Terry Pullan. Photo by Barry Levine

Two years ago, when Ira and Helen Laufer were in their 80s and had moved back to the Los Angeles area after living 20 years in Rancho Mirage, they found themselves alone.

Friends they had known before relocating to the desert, including the members of a San Fernando Valley chavurah they had been active in, were not around anymore.

“We had basically outlived and lost our community,” said Ira, now 91. “It was much more drastic than I had thought.”

Then in June 2017, Helen (who is now 88) saw a notice online about a “Wise Aging” Shabbat at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. She and Ira weren’t members of the synagogue, but it was close to their condo and they decided to go. 

At the service, several people spoke about their participation in ChaiVillageLA, which wasn’t a place but rather a community of older adults. It was organized in 2016 through a joint effort by Temple Emanuel and Temple Isaiah in West L.A., based on a model established in Boston in 2002 that emphasized neighborly values of helping one another and socializing together. 

“I just knew this was exactly what we were looking for,” said Ira, a former media executive who still plays tennis twice a week and works out at the gym. “We immediately joined, and within 30 to 60 days, all the problems we had in searching for community and feeling a little bit lost had all disappeared.”

Today, there are 210 members of ChaiVillageLA, ranging in age from 57 to 91 (Ira is the oldest), with roughly equal numbers from each temple. Like the Laufers, many joined their respective temple for the primary purpose of also joining ChaiVillageLA. Annual dues for the community, on top of temple membership, are $150 for individuals and $225 for couples.

The calendar of activities for village members is rich and varied. 

“Our temples have a very strong focus on children. … What would it look like to invest the same kind of energy and brain power into mature adults?”
— Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles

“All of our programs come about because members want to do something,” said Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills Rabbi Emerita Laura Geller. Unlike synagogue programming, which she characterized as generally being organized from the top down. “This is bottom up.”

There are activities one might expect, such as a weekly drop-in bridge game and a morning “Walk With the Rabbi,” which is less a religious event than a chance to get some exercise. And there is a monthly short-story discussion group, trips to the movies, and a film interest group that often fills up within minutes of the sign-up period’s opening. There have been field trips to museums and presentations and workshops led by experts such as Brookings Institution fellow and village member Jonathan Pollack, who led an evening program titled, “Everything You Want to Know About North Korea but Don’t Know Who to Ask.” Village member Ruth Weisberg, a professor of fine arts and a former dean at the USC Roski School of Art and Design, taught a basic drawing class.

There is even a monthly salon for members older than 80. “We discuss mainly issues dealing with our country, and make decisions as to whether we should support a concept or support a movement,” said one of its participants, Sandra Bernstein, 89, of Westwood.

Contributing to the welfare of fellow members is a key part of the village model. Members are asked to do four hours of volunteering each month. They can do so in a variety of ways, such as driving other members to and from events, making phone calls to members who might be under the weather or feel isolated, helping out in the ChaiVillageLA office, leading or assisting at events such as the group’s annual seder, or hosting events in their homes, even if they aren’t the organizer.

Members in need of assistance can call the ChaiVillageLA office and speak with Executive Director Devorah Servi, who knows which members are willing and able to provide “caring services.”

Some of the requests Servi has been able to fulfill have included meal delivery, assembling Ikea furniture, minor household repairs, computer help, dog walking or bringing in the trash cans for a member who wasn’t able to navigate a steep driveway. As long as members live roughly within the geographic area of the village — Sunset Boulevard to the north, Culver City to the south, the 405 Freeway to the west, and Fairfax Avenue to the east — and the request is reasonable, Servi can usually make a match. If a job is too big, as was the case with a recent moving request, Servi maintains a list of member-recommended businesses.

For Rabbi Geller, who is now 68, ChaiVillageLA is a deeply personal endeavor. A few years before her retirement in 2016, she started to consider her own advancing years.

“I began to be very curious about the next stage,” Geller said. “It turns out that life cycles are socially constructed, and there is a new life stage between maturity and frail old age that didn’t exist 100 years ago.”

At the same time, Geller became aware that more than a few of her baby boomer contemporaries were leaving the congregation. “But they were also the people coming to things,” she said. “There was kind of an interesting tension. They didn’t feel that the synagogue spoke to them. On the other hand, they had time and interest in things.” A listening campaign was launched that focused on members in their 60s and 70s. “It’s interesting how invisible this cohort was to the organized Jewish community — the myopia of thinking about the Jewish future only in terms of young people,” she said.

At Temple Isaiah, Rabbi Zoe Klein Miles was having a similar internal dialogue.

“Our temples have a very strong focus on children,” Klein Miles said. “So we have put a lot of investment into our preschool and our religious school. I had been playing with the idea: What would it look like to invest the same kind of energy and brain power into mature adults?

“The chavurah movement is amazing,” she added, “but one of the things that happens with chavurahs, as [their members] age, a lot of people would leave the synagogue but stay in their chavurah. It wasn’t so healthy for the synagogue itself. And as they age, there are not enough people [in a chavurah] to help in a real ongoing way. I actually had the idea … what would it be like to have a chavurah of 100 households?”

At a “Wise Aging” conference at Temple Isaiah, Klein Miles mentioned her idea to Geller’s husband, Richard Siegel (who died in July). Siegel, who would later help pen a grant request that helped ChaiVillageLA get started, told her that Temple Emanuel was looking into doing something very much like what she was envisioning. 

 

“I began to be very curious about the next stage. It turns out that life cycles are socially constructed, and there is a new life stage between maturity and frail old age that didn’t exist 100 years ago.” — Rabbi Laura Geller

Shortly thereafter, Geller and Klein Miles got together and decided to pursue the idea of a joint, synagogue-based village. Now two years in, ChaiVillageLA is facing new challenges. While participation in activities is high, getting people to take on leadership roles has been difficult. “How do we create a pipeline for leadership, so the original leaders can step aside and pass the mantle to new leaders?” Klein Miles said.

Terry Pullan, 68, a part-time real estate agent who also serves as one of the ChaiVillageLA co-chairs, said he hopes to get more men to be active members. Although about one-third of the members are men, many events attract a large group of women and just a smattering of men. One reason might be that more men are still in the workforce and therefore can’t attend daytime events on weekdays. Also, there is the fact that, on average, women live longer than men.

Pullan is committed to making ChaiVillageLA more relevant to men. He recently hosted about 10 men at his home to gauge their interest in special men’s programming. Based on their enthusiastic response, he expects some men-only events and activities to debut this fall.

Inevitable growing pains aside, ChaiVillageLA has proven to be a success.

“It’s been like an anchor for us,” said West Hollywood resident Susan Levine, a Florida transplant who joined with her retired rabbi husband. Levine is the other chair, along with Pullan.

And ChaiVillageLA has been good for both temples in terms of growing the number of older members and keeping them engaged. Not surprisingly, other congregations are paying attention.

“We have been inundated with calls from around the country,” Geller said. “People want to understand more about this model and how they might explore doing that in their community.”

In fact, ChaiVillageLA recently received a grant from the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund to meet with rabbis and lay leaders from other Los Angeles area synagogues who are interested in exploring doing something similar. The meetings are expected to take place later this year.

Geller and Klein Miles hope that as ChaiVillageLA grows, it will attract a broader membership.

“In my fantasies going forward, I imagine this becoming more intergenerational,” Geller said. “A young mother would want to join because she would have these grandmothers who would baby-sit.”

“Ideally,” Klein Miles said, “every congregant of every age would be a member.”