In early March, when the coronavirus suddenly struck New York with a vengeance, my wife and I signed up on our synagogue’s list seeking volunteers to bring groceries to the homebound in our neighborhood.
That evening our rabbi called to thank us — and gently explained that the best way people over 60 could be helpful was to stay home.
So much for volunteering.
“Ok,” I told my wife after we hung up, “then let’s put our names on the other list.” Which we did, and soon became the beneficiaries of a community known for its chesed.
That phone call was the first sign of a new and shocking reality for us. Like so many fellow Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) who think of themselves as engaged, active older men and women, we recognized that we are now perceived, in the time of the pandemic, as The Elderly.
That’s a particularly tough pill for Boomers to swallow. We were the generation of the ’60s and ’70s that thought we could change the world through our music, energy and political activism, much of it focused on opposing the Vietnam War. Now that we’re in our 60s and 70s, we’re being forced to recognize and accept our limitations and more directly, our mortality.
We are now the generation most susceptible to the ravages of the coronavirus, fearful that this time of quarantine could become an extended period of isolation from family, friends and much of society, perhaps for the rest of our lives.
When will we be able to hold and hug our grandchildren? Will we ever get on an airplane to visit distant loved ones? Is 70 the new 90?
Laura Geller, rabbi emerita of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, Calif., and an expert on issues concerning aging, says, “70 is neither the new 50 nor the new 90. Seventy is simply a new 70.” A generation uncomfortable with words like “retired” or “senior” or “elder” has the opportunity “to make the rules for how we want to live these years.”
Rabbi Geller was named an Influencer in Aging by Next Avenue, a digital publication focused on issues for people over 50. She co-wrote with her husband, the late Richard Siegel, an insightful and timely new book aimed at Boomers titled “Getting Good at Getting Older” (Behrman House). It’s a fitting bookend to “The Jewish Catalog: A Do-It-Yourself Kit” (Jewish Publication Society), the classic guide, co-edited by Siegel, to traditional and new rituals, ceremonies and customs. Published in 1973, that book sparked a counter-cultural renaissance in Jewish life among a generation of young people — today’s Boomers.
Siegel died in the summer of 2018, a month short of his 71st birthday. The book the couple worked on together was published last fall, a few months before the pandemic hit, and it is all the more relevant today. Offering a style and energy similar to “The Jewish Catalog,” it mixes wisdom and whimsy (including pen-and-ink cartoon drawings) with sections that include “Getting Good at”: “Gaining Wisdom,” “Getting Along,” “Getting Ready” (for the last journey), and “Giving Away.”
During a recent interview, Rabbi Geller said the pandemic has brought to light five challenging aspects of many Boomers’ lives: a denial of dying; a depth of loneliness and isolation, which she called “a public health crisis”; intergenerational tensions, including the perception that older lives are less important than younger lives; the importance of technology and the need for access training; and the “desire to live lives of purpose” through activities like mentoring and volunteering.
The rabbi chided the organized Jewish community for focusing so much funding and energy on youth and the frail elderly while largely ignoring the significant cohort of those between active midlife and nursing homes — the people “who have time, desire to be engaged, expertise, funds and a level of commitment to Jewish institutions that younger people don’t have.”
She said “‘myopic’ is a generous word” for describing the communal attitude toward Boomers, many of whom find more meaningful volunteer work with secular nonprofits than in the Jewish community. (An exception: B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform, led by David Elcott and Stuart Himmelfarb, is a leading nonprofit that seeks to engage, or re-engage Jewish Boomers in communal life. Himmelfarb is co-chair and former president of the board of The Jewish Week.)
During our interview, I told Rabbi Geller about the phone call that changed our status from would-be volunteers to aid recipients. “For people like us,” she noted, “it’s easy to offer help and hard to ask for help. The pandemic has changed the perception we have of ourselves and what it means to be part of a community.”
Her comments resonated deeply for me.
For four months, I have missed praying with fellow congregants on holidays and Shabbat. Zoom services have been a wonderful substitute for those comfortable with the technology, but they also underscore the yearning we have to sing together, our prayers strengthened and carried along by the voices of those around us.
Now, even as local synagogues have carefully and gradually reopened in stages, older members and those compromised by medical conditions are being warned about the dangers of attending. However unintentional, the result may well be a widening of the age divide within congregations.
Is it possible that we’ll be home for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, when communal prayers are particularly poignant? I can’t imagine the High Holidays without standing in a packed sanctuary to hear the blasts of the shofar. I dread reciting, alone, “Do not forsake us in our older years.”
Rabbi Avi Weiss shares those concerns, too. The founding spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR, also known as The Bayit) said he contemplates “with tears in my eyes” the possibility of not being in shul for the High Holy Days.
Acknowledging “a certain sadness in being hunkered down” these last few months, the rabbi said: “The cornerstone of my life has been about giving to others.” But now, in his mid-70s and with a heart condition, he has to decline when congregants ask for a personal visit. “I’m on the phone all day” with those who seek him out, “but I’m not there face-to-face, and it hurts that I can’t do it.”
Rabbi Weiss said it’s important to remind older people that they “can still make significant contributions to society,” as he wrote in his most recent book, “Journey to Open Orthodoxy.” He noted that “if treated as infirm,” older people can stop believing in themselves, a feeling he has had on occasion as well. “If we pay half fare (as seniors on the subway), we can begin to believe we only half contribute to society.”
But he takes inspiration from a talk on aging that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gave at the White House in 1961: “The years of old age may enable us to attain the high values we have failed to sense, the insights we have missed, the wisdom we have ignored,” said Heschel, who referred to that time of life as “formative years.”
Rabbi Weiss said he is an optimist, hopeful that when a vaccine for Covid-19 is found, “we’ll feel that we are getting back the time we spent in quarantine.”
It’s a comforting thought. In the meantime, Rabbi Geller reminds us that “the gift of the pandemic” is the opportunity to focus our thoughts on how we choose to stay engaged in the world. “We can’t pretend anymore” about the impermanence of life.
She’s right, of course. We must learn to navigate our lives with courage, thoughtfulness and faith, mindful of the words of Psalm 90, which we read each Shabbat morning: “Teach us how to number our days, that we may attain a heart of wisdom.”