Jewish Baby Boomers Get An Encore
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Jewish Baby Boomers Get An Encore

New study shows that Boomers want engagement, though opportunities are still limited.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

Mimi Lox, 70, is a retired social worker thoroughly enjoying her second career. The active Upper West Sider — who still takes ballet classes and regularly attends services at her synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun — volunteers in an affordable housing facility run by the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, where she has office hours one afternoon a week.

“When I had retired from my first career, I started looking for a new journey,” said Lox, who started working in 1966 and officially retired in 2009. She found her new position through Engage, UJA-Federation of New York’s Jewish service corps for Jewish baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964.

“It didn’t start off as a big deal for me, but today I feel like I’m making a real contribution to Jewish life. My new work gives me a place, and a mission,” she said.

Lox is far from the only Jewish boomer facing the challenge of finding meaningful work after retirement, what many refer to as an “encore career.” According to a new study released last week by B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform, a nonprofit organization dedicated to re-engaging baby boomers in Jewish life, older adults affiliated with Jewish organizations are more interested in making major time commitments to Jewish causes than previously thought. According to the study, performed at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, 20 percent of boomers surveyed expressed interest in long-term, immersive three-month projects.

To collect data, an online questionnaire was circulated to over 12,500 participants using the email lists of more than 50 Jewish organizations across the United States.

“There’s a critical misconception that those who are “in,” meaning active in Jewish life, will stay in and those who are “out” will stay out,” said David Elcott, one of the study’s authors and a professor at Wagner. “That’s not how it works. Those who are engaged in Jewish life are not guaranteed to stay engaged, and those who are not engaged at all might be looking for a second chance to get involved.”

Although his study only looked at people already connected to Jewish communal life, Elcott said it suggests that there is also a contingent of unaffiliated Jewish boomers who would be open to outreach.

Jewish boomers, with more time, mobility and financial stability than previous and subsequent generations, are ideal targets for Jewish engagement, said Elcott. With life expectancy increasing at a rapid rate, 20 extra years have been added onto the average timeline. And, though most think those years are tacked onto life’s end, when people have withdrawn from civic life, the time is really added to life’s “middle,” between the ages of 60 and 80, prime time in most people’s lives for volunteer work.

“We want to encourage a new way of looking at aging,” he said, “Not as an end, but a potential for new beginnings.”

B3’s study underscores and expands upon previous research on Jewish baby boomers. Chaim Waxman’s seminal 2001 study, “Jewish Baby Boomers: A Communal Perspective,” first pointed to a break between boomers and previous generations, that boomers displayed weaker ties to the Jewish community than their predecessors. A previous study by Elcott, in 2009, “Baby Boomers, Public Service and Minority Communities,” suggested that religious communities could benefit greatly from involving boomers in their communal institutions. Finally, Synergy, the synagogue services department of UJA-Federation of New York, is currently doing a study on “empty nesters” that so far has shown that parents with post bar/bat mitzvah aged children are far less likely than the previous generation to remain affiliated with a synagogue.

“Clearly, this demographic is being overlooked,” said Stuart Himmelfarb, co-author of the B3 study and co-founder of B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform. Himmelfarb, who is also president of The Jewish Week’s board, he embarked on the study in the spring of 2013, after being Himmelfarb repeatedly turned down by funders.

“The Jewish community is lavishing funds on one segment of the population — all you hear is ‘NextGen,’” said Himmelfarb, referring to the segment of the population between 18 and 30. When he tried to bring up boomers, “we got nowhere,” he said.

Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department of AJC, says that the overwhelming focus on NextGen makes a lot of sense. While the boomer cry for attention is understandable, the long-term Jewish future depends upon adolescents and young adults, he said.

“Time and again, we’ve discovered that the key area where communal intervention makes a difference is in the adolescent years,” said Bayme.

He quoted the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which uncovered higher rates of intermarriage and assimilation than ever before. “The immediate reaction when the survey came out was ‘how could this have taken place on our watch?’ What can we do to save the next generation,” he said. “Assimilation was discovered as a widespread problem when the Jewish boomers were already adults — the focus, therefore, skipped that generation and moved to Generation X and the millennials.”

While Bayme said that efforts to engage boomers are constructive, he maintained that they shouldn’t be the priority.

“Friendship patterns, dating, marriage, romantic patters—these are all kindled during adolescence,” he said. “Someone is not deciding who they’re going to marry at age 65.”

Himmelfarb, however, made the case that there are many more similarities between boomers and NextGen than at first perceived.

“Boomers are like college graduates, but thirty years later,” he said, noting the higher rate of drug-use and divorce among those on the verge of retiring. “It’s a time of transition, and a time of re-defining who you are and what you care about, Jewishly and otherwise,” he said.

Alex Roth-Kahn, managing director of UJA-Federation of New York’s Caring Commission, says that the Aging Task Force at UJA is well aware of the burgeoning need for boomer engagement. In recent years, funding strategies have shifted in pursuit of these goals, she said.

Still, according to Himmelfarb, who sits on several of the boards at UJA overseeing these efforts, there is a lot of work to be done.

“We are pleased that New York UJA-Federation has invested in boomer engagement, [but] there are, as of now, only a few other initiatives underway outside New York,” he wrote in an email. “The major options thus far, not counting the New York programs mentioned here, are outside the Jewish community, such as AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, encore.org and so on.”

Over the phone, he noted that he is himself a boomer, and looking for meaningful Jewish engagement. “I’m also in my encore career,” he said, referring to his work at B3. “I just had to create it myself.”

hannah@jewishweek.org

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