By now it’s old news: Baby boomers are redefining aging, Jewish boomers are disengaging from community life, and the Jewish community is not well-prepared.
The salient question: Is the Jewish community ready to define our future by creating a just society that reflects Jewish values and respects the aging boomer population? Or will we simply allow the December 2010 Pew Research report, “Boomers Approach Age 65 Glumly,” to become a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Despite sporadic programming initiatives in response to NYU Professor David Elcott’s 2010 report, “Baby Boomers, Public Service, and Minority Communities,” the Jewish community has largely ignored the needs of boomers — estimated at approximately 25 percent of the American Jewish population. Meanwhile, allocations for outreach to young families and the unaffiliated have increased substantially across the U.S. While it’s indisputable that the community must invest in the next generation, addressing boomer needs should not be an either/or proposition.
In the wake of the Elcott findings presented at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America this past November, it only stands to reason that the Jewish community will make boomers a higher priority during the coming year.
As a baby boomer, here’s my 2011 wish list to the organized Jewish community.
Don’t rely on strategic planning commissions. There’s no time for heel dragging or dilly-dallying with planning committees when it comes to 65-year-old boomers. Save this approach for the youngest boomers who will not reach age 65 until 2029. Craft compelling programs and volunteer opportunities to attract retiring boomers now.
Don’t jump to conclusions. When we disengage from community life or quit our synagogues, don’t assume that we’re simply not interested or have financial constraints. Delve deeper to understand what motivates boomers or run the risk of losing us forever.
Don’t stereotype. Retired, empty-nester boomers have vastly different needs from those who are still working and have children at home. Target and segment boomer audiences with appropriate marketing strategies. A “one-size-fits-all approach” never works, e.g. Israel-related programming does not necessarily appeal to all boomers. Based on identified audience needs, offer the right mix of education, social justice, spirituality, social, and meaningful volunteer activities.
Don’t relay the aging message. Boomers pride themselves on their active lifestyles and do not consider themselves “old,” even though middle age can be stressful. When JCCs and synagogues advertise programs such as “healthy aging,” or “tips for growing old gracefully,” boomers may automatically tune out such messaging. Forty years ago, my 60-year-old grandmother belonged to a synagogue “Golden Age Club.” No self-respecting boomer wants to be associated with an elderly group, by whatever euphemism it is called.
On the other hand, it is the boomer generation that created new Jewish rituals. Help boomers connect to community through rituals and ceremonies that mark lifecycle occasions such as milestone birthdays or the conclusion of a mourning period.
Don’t segregate us. With decades of volunteer and professional experience behind us, boomers can serve as valuable mentors to young people. The two generations also have much to offer each other as I learned several years ago when I worked side by side on an archaeological dig with college-age volunteers.
Do listen. Boomers are highly educated, are committed to professional success, and want to be taken seriously. A customer-centric approach is a critical success factor. By carefully listening to an empty-nester audience, I was able to create a highly successful adult education program that exactly fit its needs.
Do foster two-way communication. The key is to develop interactive relationships with your boomer audience. Create opportunities for open communications and exchange of ideas. Incorporate various methods of communication such as one-on-one meetings, focus groups, blogs, and social networking. View negative feedback as constructive criticism and a way to effect positive change.
Do follow up. Avoid making promises you cannot keep. A customer-centric approach must deliver true value. Don’t ask boomers how your organization can serve their needs or what types of volunteer opportunities to provide unless you are truly committed to meeting these needs. Otherwise, risk alienating boomers for good, losing valuable resources and a potential donor base.
Do engage. Boomers seek to derive spiritual meaning from their lives and contribute positively to society. Tap into this energy, creativity, and passion by providing appropriate volunteer assignments. The year-to-year retention rate for baby boomer volunteers who perform more challenging assignments, such as professional or management activities is the highest, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service research report, “Keeping Baby Boomers Volunteering.”
Boomers want to make their mark on the world in their own way. Jewish boomers fought for civil rights, led the feminist movement, stood at the forefront of Vietnam War protests, and created new forms of spiritual expression.
Organizations must understand this mindset and work collaboratively with baby boomers so they feel empowered. Otherwise, Jewish boomers will volunteer and seek meaning outside of the Jewish community. For instance, the Elcott report found that only 37 percent of survey respondents preferred to work for the Jewish community.
Do innovate. Reimagine and reinvent your outreach approach. One model: JBoomers, launched this fall by Rabbi Gerald Weider, connects Jewish boomers nationwide via social networking, with a variety of activities [Jewish Week, Oct. 8, 2010].
Engaging Jewish baby boomers and renewing their commitment to Jewish life requires a shift in communal priorities and conventional approaches. It’s a once-in-a-life-time opportunity for the Jewish community to exercise creativity, effect change, and teach Jewish values by example to future generations.
Paula Jacobs is a Massachusetts-based writer, teacher and consultant.