Engaging Jews in the Third Chapter
Rabbi Marion Lev-Cohen is a Wexner Heritage Alumni from NYC. She is currently the Director of Adult Education at Central Synagogue. Marion was the former chair of the Commission on Jewish Identity at UJA Federation and on its Executive Committee. She served on the boards of the JDC, the Jewish Agency and the Foundation for Jewish Camp. She currently serves on the boards of American Jewish World Service, Synagogue 3000, and the Institute of Jewish Spirituality. Marion can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It was 6:30 on a Wednesday evening at Central Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Twelve women sat around a classroom table drinking tea from Styrofoam cups, eyeing each other warily. At my invitation, they had come to a class entitled, “Making Meaning at Mid-Life.” All over the age of fifty, they clearly were not the parents of the religious school students who had occupied these chairs a couple of hours earlier. They were empty nesters, baby boomers and retirees. All were living in what Harvard sociologist Sara Lawrence Lightfoot has termed, “The Third Chapter,” 1 a phrase referring to people over the age of fifty who are searching for meaning and purpose, finding new passions, and seeking new career and volunteer opportunities. Many are at a stage of life where they want to give back to the community, but want to do so in a way that is both personally meaningful and time flexible.
The open and affluent society in which we live presents a myriad of choices as to where and how they can find meaningful activity and community. In his recently published paper, David Elcott articulates the critical challenge to the Jewish institutions, to harness and direct this energy and desire to contribute to society, for the benefit of the Jewish community. “If (Jewish) Baby Boomers are to establish relationships with Jewish institutions, presenting those institutions in effective and compelling ways that also enhance Jewish identity will be a critical feature of volunteer recruitment.” 2 Indeed many Jews in this age cohort are receptive to seeking meaning and purpose in a Jewish context, be it through studying classic and modern Jewish texts, or by engaging with other Jews and Jewish entities.
I myself am a poster child for Lightfoot’s book, and offer one example of how the Jewish community can appeal to the members of this age cohort. After a long hiatus from major Jewish engagement, followed by nearly a decade of service as a Jewish communal lay leader, I entered rabbinical school at the tender age of 58. And now, four years later, having been recently ordained, I am starting my position at Central Synagogue as its Director of Education and Engagement. My personal passion and goal is to demonstrate that the synagogue can become the locus of community and wellspring of meaning for people over the age of fifty. The fifty plus age span is actually quite wide. It encompasses a diverse group of people, embracing both those who are still working in high-powered careers, as well as those who are retired with some time on their hands. Common to many in this age group, is a search for work and volunteer experiences that are both meaningful and purpose driven. They are open to learning what Judaism has to teach them that can be relevant in their lives, and they have a heightened need for a community of their peers. Many experience an increased need for pastoral care, particularly around issues of illness, care giving and loss.
So what does it mean for a synagogue to take the needs of its “Third Chapter” population seriously? It means offering classes that engage congregants in learning selected texts that are personally resonant, in which they can situate and contextualize their personal narratives. It means creating social justice projects that draw upon their professional talents and individual gifts. It means creating functioning and caring social networks in which congregants are drawn to come forward to help each other in times of need. And it means engaging the older generation in mentoring the younger generation.
In essence, this all means creating a sacred community of shared concerns and responsibilities, a truly caring community. It is one in which we pay close attention to the needs and concerns of the older population, and harness their wisdom and energy to enrich their lives and the lives of those around them.
It is written in Proverbs. “My son, hear the instruction of your father, and forsake not the Torah of your mother; for they shall be an ornament of grace to your head, and chains around your neck.” Our tradition teaches us to value and to transmit the wisdom of the older generation. Let us make our synagogues and Jewish institutions places where the wisdom of those in their "Third Chapter" informs and inspires the next generation, and where their lives are bestowed with the honor and dignity they merit. This is the true promise of a Kehila Kedosha, a sacred Jewish community in action.