December 8, 2019

Is 65 the new 40?

Two years ago on Yom Kippur, Rabbi Laura Geller began her sermon at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills with a musical clip from The Beatles. “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?” Paul McCartney famously sang.

Then Rabbi Geller, the congregation’s senior rabbi, noted that she was 62 at the time and thinking about aging. Not too many years away, she said, she would change from “senior rabbi to Laura, from a pulpit rabbi to a Jew in the pews.”  

And with those words, Geller challenged her congregation to join her in a journey to discover what an encore period in one’s life might look like in the 21st century. What are reasonable expectations and possible outlets for Jews when midlife turns to later life, when one’s identity is not so much defined by what we do as who we are, at a time when we’re nevertheless still young enough to engage in tikkun olam, healing the world?

That journey has led to a daylong public conversation on Nov. 9 at Temple Emanuel, titled “The Next Stage: Looking Forward, Looking Back.” The conference is co-sponsored by the synagogue with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, as well as The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Angell Foundation and nine additional congregations of various denominations. 

The day will feature breakout groups and panels sessions, as well as a talk by Marc Freedman, CEO and founder of, a site for those seeking meaning later in life. He also is the author of “The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife.”

Geller believes her age cohort has been underserved by our traditions, in part because in biblical times people lived much shorter lives (Abraham and Sarah notwithstanding). She pointed to the life markers outlined in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): At 5, we begin to study Torah; at 10, Mishnah; at 13, we become responsible for doing the mitzvot; at 15, we begin learning Talmud; and at 18, we get married. At 20, we’re ready for a career; at 30, for strength; at 40, understanding; and 50, advice. And at 60, zikna — which some of the commentaries translate as “wisdom.”

Are the boomers of today steeped in wisdom, or are they still seekers? What about the fit, trim 70-year-olds, the aging boomers who are not ready to throw in the towel? 

In recent years, Judaism has focused on funding schools, camps, youth trips to Israel, college campus life and building every possible kind of connection among youth. Meanwhile, Geller believes, the elders have been largely forgotten, and there is great potential for new programming for “boomers and those slightly beyond.” These include, in particular, empty-nesters whose families often live far away and who are looking for a new kind of family-like engagement or community, and for help in aging well in their own faith community. 

As a rabbi, and even before, Geller always has  been an activist and a community organizer. She was the third woman in the Reform movement to be ordained as a rabbi, and throughout her life she has worked for equal rights for women and for social causes — as a Hillel rabbi, at the American Jewish Congress and at Temple Emanuel, where she became the first woman to serve as senior rabbi of a major metropolitan congregation when she was hired there in 1994.

“All theology is autobiography,” Geller said in a recent interview in her office. “One of the things I learned early on in the women’s movement is that my experience is the Jewish experience.” 

Whereas she once helped to create new Jewish traditions inclusive of women — at seders and on the bimah — now Geller wants to create new traditions for older men and women, to answer the question: “Where is divinity present at this stage of my life?” She said there are not enough “proper blessings for older people” who are not ill but are still in need.

“The point is, it’s a stage of life that has been invisible,” Geller said. It is a new stage whose official name has yet to be fully coined.

“We’re calling it ‘Boomers and Beyond,’ ” Geller said; however, others have named it differently. The Conservative congregation at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino calls it “Next Avenue”; there are also some who call it “The Third Chapter,” and still others call it “The Encore Generation.” 

Following Geller’s Yom Kippur sermon, Temple Emanuel members met on multiple occasions at Geller’s home and in the homes of congregants to talk about how to approach the topic. Now, some are seeking information about existing senior accommodations — for themselves or aging parents. Others are considering inventing new forms of communal living in place of retirement homes and avoiding the wait list for the Los Angeles Jewish Home. These might include shared spaces, traded services and perhaps even co-owned property. Some members of the group are looking for new opportunities to travel with their community, or to find new outlets for volunteering and social service. 

Geller says she came to this conversation with questions, not answers, and even after two years of seeking, the answers are not yet apparent. But the conversation is real.

“If I want something different than what exists, I have to start thinking about it now,” said Geller, now 64. “The choices I make now will have a big impact on the 80-year-old I will someday be. Do I imagine aging in place? What do I need to do to bring the types of services into my community in order for me to be able to stay in my home and still be engaged in an intergenerational, interdependent community?”

Sunday’s event offers the public a place to exchange ideas for best practices, to learn from members of each of the participating congregations what might resonate for the others. Temple Emanuel is also in the midst of developing a new website that will offer ideas on spirituality, service, travel, community living accommodations and more — “the kind of thing you might see on a Jewish AARP.” Geller said. It will also address the question of creating end-of-life directives, allowing a person to express his or her desires about death long before becoming unable to convey them. 

To achieve some of these ideas, there also will be a political element, which would require the larger community buy-in — to allow, for example, zoning for new kinds of communities in cities like Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Culver City. This kind of conversation is already going on nationally — from New York to Los Angeles — so this year’s theme for the High Holy Days at Temple Emanuel was “If Not Now, When?”

Geller said she sees her role as a rabbi — be it as a feminist, a senior rabbi or a rabbi who will become a senior — to include everyone in the conversation about what Judaism is about. 

“What happened because of the feminist movement,” she said, “is we noticed all of the other marginalized communities within the larger Jewish community, and as a result the whole Jewish world today is more inclusive — gays, lesbians, older people, Jews with disabilities, Jews of color.”

What excites her most about this latest project, she said, are all the possibilities. “I don’t know where it’s going to end up. It’s a movement, a partnership with lots of other people … we’re figuring it out together.”

“The Next Stage: Looking Forward, Giving Back” takes place Nov. 9 from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. Registration is $54 online, $60 at the door. To register, visit