For the recently retired, fear and possibility in the transition stage

NEW YORK (JTA) — When Rabbi Neal Borovitz retired from Temple Avodat Shalom of River Edge, N.J., in August, his congregation donated a Torah in his honor to a Reform Jewish summer camp. At the dedication service, Borovitz sat in the audience as his successor offered a sermon about the Torah’s history.

“And that’s when I realized that after two decades at this synagogue, I’m not the rabbi anymore,” said Borovitz, 65.

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After 37 years as a rabbi, Borovitz was candid about the mix of feelings inspired by retirement — relief, excitement, uncertainty.

His situation is shared by a growing proportion of Americans — and an even larger proportion of Jews.

Nearly 20 percent of the American Jewish population is 65 or older, according to the Jewish Federations of North America, compared to 13 percent of the general population. And as growing numbers of Jewish Americans face retirement, a number of Jewish leaders are thinking about the spiritual aspects of the transition and how they can provide Jewishly inspired guidance to them.

“I want to bring the resources of Jewish life to bear on the experiences of growing older,” said Rabbi Dayle Friedman, a pioneer in spiritual guidance for the elderly.

Last fall, Friedman launched a program of discussions exploring “the rich and complex phase beyond midlife.” Known as Provisions for the Journey: A Wisdom Circle, the project aims to help Jews between 60 and 75 navigate the aging process through a combination of discussion, text study and meditation.

For Laura Jacobs, 62, Friedman’s Wisdom Circle was just one part of a spiritual transformation that began at retirement. For 22 years she headed a company recruiting professionals for health care firms. After 39 years in the workforce, Jacobs was terrified at the prospect of retirement.

“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my whole life,” she said. “I had no notion of what life would be like if I wasn’t working. It made me feel as if there would be nothing for me anymore.”

Befitting a woman who had built a company from the ground floor and led it for decades, Jacobs approached the problem proactively. She began by hiring a life coach, and with his help spent the next months “researching her life,” exploring new paths and possibilities, from the synagogue to the photography studio.

She now has a daily spiritual practice in which she writes down all the things for which she is grateful. And Jacobs has become a life coach in her own right, helping clients of all ages.

“I have genuinely gotten to know myself and how I think, and what’s wonderful about life,” she said.

Joyce Norden had similar concerns when she retired several years ago. After spending her working life in education — first as a professor of medieval history at Carnegie Mellon University and later at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College — retirement showed Norden how much she still had to learn.

“I was an art historian who had never drawn a line,” Norden said. “But I was scared. I think it’s important to be passionate in this life, and I had been passionate about my work, and now what? What was I going to do?”

Norden turned to Rabbi Jacob Staub, a professor at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College who specializes in spirituality. She studied mussar, a body of Jewish texts dealing with ethics and moral instruction, and learned ways to connect with the divine in everyday life. Now Norden, 74, is an abstract painter, producing vibrant acrylic paintings in the styles of Kandinsky and Matisse.

“I want to live the last part of my life with the same sense of purpose I had at the beginning,” Norden said.

Helping older Jews find that kind of purpose is the objective of Rabbi Rachel Cowan’s Wise Aging Project, run under the auspices of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality in New York. Cowan says programs related to aging often bring to mind issues associated with end-of-life care, but for the recently retired, issues of purpose, gratitude and understanding can be more pressing.

Cowan, 74, teaches courses in the New York area aimed at imbuing retirement with spiritual meaning and a daily sense of purpose. Many of her classes consist of discussions inspired by secular and religious texts that address issues of identity, loss and existential crisis.

“Judaism has a whole rich tradition of cultivating spiritual qualities,” Cowan says. “Some of them are things that are really important in growing and aging well. We work to cultivate capacities for patience, gratitude and humility.”

For Borovitz, spirituality remains as central as ever in his transition from the rabbinate into retirement. He has become an active participant in a minyan and fills his days with volunteering, activism and reflection. And while he was grateful to have been freed in August after 37 years of frantic High Holidays preparations, he didn’t mind the request made of him by his prayer group.

“It’s nice not to have the pressure of preparing five Holy Day sermons this year,” he said. “But it’s nice that in this minyan that I’m involved in, they’ve asked me to give just one.”