About two years ago, Rabbi Gerald Weider began to witness his friends, fellow Jewish baby boomers, disengage from Jewish life, their Jewish affiliations slipping away like so many discarded garments.
For one, it was synagogue membership. For a second it was the annual check to the Jewish federation. For still others it was their Jewish community center or Hadassah memberships.
To Rabbi Weider, who spent nearly three decades as spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn, before retiring in 2006, the trend was disturbing.
“I can’t find meaning in these places,” his peers would tell him, complaining that many synagogues gear their programming to families with young children or frail senior citizens. “My needs are not important to them. Why should I continue to be a part of this if they don’t care about me?”
This refrain, oft repeated by those in mid-life, is sounding an ominous chord for leaders of Jewish communal life. While the previous generation may have shrugged and continued paying dues and defining themselves, at least in part, by their Jewish affiliations, baby boomers are by and large willing to look elsewhere for meaning.
And if the Jewish community does not make boomers a top item on its agenda, it could end up losing out on a cadre of skilled volunteers — as well as significant forms of money in the form of charitable bequests — people like Rabbi Weider warn.
“The whole cohort was being ignored in the push in organized Jewish communal life — be it synagogues, federations, JCCs — for engagement with the Next Gen and ‘millennials’ … which I don’t disagree with; they’re critical,” says Rabbi Weider. “But it’s to the exclusion and ignoring the needs of Jewish baby boomers.”
To try to combat the problem and help keep members of his generation within the fold, Rabbi Weider has recently co-launched JBoomers, an organization that uses Facebook to connect Jewish baby boomers nationwide with opportunities for hands-on tikkun olam service, Jewish learning, spiritual fulfillment and Jewish travel.
He is one of several entrepreneurial boomers who are starting organizations aimed at filling the gap they perceive in programming to engage healthy, active baby boomers, many of whom are empty nesters searching for meaningful ways to spend their extra time.
Another startup focused on Jewish boomers is Skilled Volunteers for Israel (http://skillvolunteerisrael.org), a nonprofit organization that connects skilled baby boomers with customized volunteer opportunities in Israel that make use of their professional skills.
Skilled Volunteers for Israel is the brainchild of Marla Gamoran, a 53-year-old native of Madison, Wis. When she and her husband bought an apartment in Jerusalem four years ago, she sought to help an Israeli nonprofit using the skills she had gained during a 15-year career in workforce development and corporate training.
To her chagrin, a Google search resulted only in volunteer opportunities with the Israel Defense Forces and local nursing homes, as well as service learning programs for recent college graduates. Yet when she approached Jewish communal leaders and federation officials about the need for a program that matched skilled boomers with public service opportunities in Israel, the meetings all ended the same way: “It’s a great idea,” they told her, “but we’re really focused on younger Jews.”
“If the Jewish community doesn’t actively provide engagement for boomers in a Jewish context, we’re very integrated in our local, secular communities and those communities are reaching out,” she says. “It’s important for the Jewish world not to just assume that we will stay connected.”
As the Jewish communal world continues to pour energy and funds into efforts meant to engage the 20- and 30-something crowd, are baby boomers — and their unique needs, as well as their wealth of expertise and talent — being neglected?
Yes, and at the community’s peril, warned David Elcott, a professor of practice in public service and leadership at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, at a talk recently at the Puck Building. Elcott is the author of “Baby Boomers, Public Service, and Minority Communities,” a recent report that surveyed more than 6,500 boomers in 34 Jewish communities nationwide about their attitudes and plans for life after the traditional retirement age.
Baby Boomers — adults born between 1946 and 1964 — represent nearly 50 percent of the population of affiliated Jews. They are “the wealthiest, best-educated, best-trained cadre of Jews in world history,” Elcott noted. Like their peers in the secular world, nearly 80 percent of Jewish boomers will consider what’s known as an “encore career,” a mid-career switch to a job that achieves some level of public service or social impact, whether it is a volunteer position or paid work.
“You don’t get the sense that their intention is to retire to Florida,” Elcott said. (This is in keeping with the trends in the broader world of baby boomers; between 5.3 and 8.4 million Americans have already embarked on encore careers, according to a 2008 MetLife Foundation/Civic Ventures survey. Among workers between the ages of 44 and 70, nearly 50 percent are interested in pursuing a meaningful second act.)
The Jewish community, as of now, is woefully unprepared for an influx of boomers seeking both volunteer and paid positions at Jewish organizations, according to the report’s findings. While the UJA-Federation of New York has been developing programs aimed at the boomer cohort for nearly a decade, “a lot more needs to be done to capture the assets and attentions of baby boomers as they age,” admits Roberta Leiner, managing director of the federation’s Caring Commission.
In 2007, UJA-Federation’s vital-aging initiative gave out grants to seven of its agencies to fund boomer-focused programs, encouraging organizations like FEGS to set up employment initiative for this age cohort. Jewish Funds for Justice received a grant to fund boomer service-learning initiatives and the Samuel Field Y in Little Neck, Queens, set up its Adult Transition Center.
Engaging baby boomers in terms of civic engagement, however, is a much more difficult task that the Jewish community hasn’t yet figure out how to do well.
The stakes are high. While nearly 90 percent of boomers would want to engage in public service in or through the Jewish community, two-thirds are prepared to pursue meaningful Encore careers outside of the Jewish community if that’s where opportunities exist, according to Elcott’s research. In addition to losing out on boomers’ experience and skills, failure to put their needs on the Jewish communal agenda could result in a substantial loss of philanthropic funds, as boomers may bequest their fortunes to the secular causes to which they devote their encore years.
Many Jewish baby boomers have been disenfranchised from Jewish communal life since their last child’s bar mitzvah, says Paula Winnig, a retired congregational rabbi living on Long Island who is also a co-founder of JBoomers. “People change addresses and lifestyles as their children age; we downsize housing, we change communities. Its very hard in a person’s 50s and 60s to move into communities and engage as actively as you did when you had kids in common with other people.”
JBoomers aims to foster connections among Jewish baby boomers through the opening of local chapters offering a wide variety of activities. The organization will host its first event, a klezmer brunch at City Winery in Manhattan, on Nov. 21. Future activities may include a one-day bike ride with the Jewish environmental group Hazon and a spiritual wilderness weekend with the “Adventure Rabbi” Jamie Korngold. “These are people who are not, if I can borrow a phrase from Dylan Thomas, going to go ‘gentle into the night,’” Weider says. “Jewish baby boomers are active, intellectual and are accustomed and have a history of doing things. We’re going to harness that power.”
For UJA-Federation of New York and other communal organizations, the recession has only exacerbated the tension that exists between investing in “next gen” and the elderly versus focusing on boomers.
“As Jews, we’re always investing in the next generation; a focus on “next gen” is critical in terms of our unfolding story as a people,” says Leiner. That said, the aging of the donors “is a critical issue we ought to be looking at. Focusing on creative ways to ensure that boomers are part of the fold is essential. Federations are open to finding that right balance.”
Baby Boomers have also been hardest hit by the economic downturn. Many will never reap the rewards of retirement, and will need to continue working well past age 65. It remains to be seen how many will have the luxury of pursuing an encore career. Yet the desire to do so remains intact for many.
“Those of us who were active in the 1960s, we put our ideals on hold,” said Stuart Himmelfarb, a marketing executive (and Jewish Week board member) who in mid-life transitioned into work within the Jewish federation system. “We trimmed our hair, got a job, got a mortgage, had kids. This is the opportunity to come back to our ideals and realize them.”