Are baby boomers feeling overlooked by congregations?

Top row from left: Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh, Rabbi Lane Steinger, Maharat Rori Picker Neiss and Rabbi Amy Feder.Bottom row from left: Debbie Bram, Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose, Rabbi Noah Arnow

By Carol Wolf Solomon, Special to the Jewish Light

With so much focus in the American Jewish community on engaging twentysomethings and families with young children, some wonder whether we are alienating another key demographic: baby boomers. These are Jews born between 1946 and 1964, and who every year since 2011 are turning 65 at the rate of roughly 10,000 a day.

Rabbi Richard F. Address, founder and director of, “a forum for the Jewish community  . . . that features discussions on the implications of the revolution in longevity for baby boomers and their families,” believes an increasing number of Jews ages 50 and older feel the institutional Jewish community has written them off.  In a recent article entitled, “If You Forget Them, They Will Not Come,” he writes, “The focus on engaging youth seems to be sending a not so subtle message of the marginalization of older adults.”

The rabbi believes that this “is a tragic mistake” in light of the fact that Jews ages 65 and older constitute about 25 percent of the Jewish population in the United States — and that percentage is likely to grow as baby boomers continue to age. “This is a generation that is seeking meaningful Jewish answers to new life stages. To disengage from this generation is foolish and courts irrelevancy. There is untapped spiritual capital here.”

Address finds that many baby boomers are leaving congregations because there is “precious little” there for them.” According to a recent demographic study by Jewish Federation of St. Louis, only 37 percent of baby boomers feel very connected to the Jewish community, compared to 48 percent of seniors, age 65 and older. 

Address believes that boomers are seeking out “smaller relationship-oriented cohorts, becoming more comfortable with variations of their Judaism, and seeking adult educational experiences that provide Jewish answers to issues we are all facing.” 


The trend at several smaller congregations in the St. Louis area appears to support his finding. Temple Emanuel is one of the few congregations experiencing a growth in membership, according to Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh.  “Most of these new members are empty nesters,” she notes. “People ages 50 and older are seeking community, a sense of belonging. They want to know the rabbi and be known by the rabbi.” 

Hersh believes a key to her congregation’s success in attracting and retaining members of all ages is a policy of inclusiveness. “Our mindset is that our tent flaps are wide open to all Jewish households,” she says. “I want everyone to feel like this is their home. We celebrate everyone with open arms.”

Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community also has experienced significant membership growth since its inception here 10 years ago. Rabbi Lane Steinger says the congregation can be best described as “adult-focused,” though he is quick to add that by no means precludes membership and participation by younger members. In fact, he adds, the community recently celebrated its first b’nai mitzvah. 

 “As a Reconstructionist community, we focus a lot on what it means to be Jewish in 21st century America,” says Steiner. “This also naturally translates into what it means to be Jewish at every stage in our lives – and particularly as adults, and in many instances, as baby boomers and empty nesters.”  

Steinger believes that Shir Hadash’s emphasis on learning, Torah, and creating a sacred community appeals to adult seekers.  He also finds that being smaller makes it easier to create a welcoming community and build relationships.  

Bais Abraham enjoys broad appeal among Jews of all generations. “We are focused and cognizant of meeting the needs of empty nesters and don’t feel that this demographic is being missed or marginalized in our shul,” says Maharat Rori Picker Neiss, director of programming, education and community engagement. “We have found that programs that target specific populations aren’t as successful as those that are inclusive (and) planned in ways that make them convenient and accessible to all.” 

She adds that Bais Abe has a longstanding culture of welcoming to all ages. “When you come to a lunch or a program you are likely to see 20-year-olds sitting with 60-year-olds.” The congregation places a strong value on intergenerational connections. “No one is viewed as an outsider here,” she says.

 Talk to spiritual leaders from larger congregations here about their connections with boomers and older congregants and they seem just as sensitive to the issues as do those from their smaller counterparts. Rabbi Amy Feder at Congregation Temple Israel places a strong focus on intergenerational families, which represent a core leadership group in the congregation. 

“Many of our empty nesters are becoming grandparents for the first time, and they are often the ones bringing their children and grandchildren to Tot Shabbats and school programs,” she explains. “They see the inherent value in Judaism and congregational life where their grown children might not.”

Debbie Bram, director of Jewish Life and Learning at Shaare Emeth, the largest Reform congregation in St. Louis, notes the importance — and challenge — of embracing all generations. “Our focus needs to be everywhere, which can be challenging,” she says.

“(We) put a lot of emphasis on learning, spiritual travel and recreational opportunities for the 50-and-over population,” says Bram. She points out a new program being offered, “Wise Aging: Beginning Your Encore Chapter,” which comes from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. “We want to make sure that our learning opportunities for this age group allow for people to engage in whatever level they choose,” Bram adds.

Spiritual leaders at Kol Rinah and Congregation B’nai Amoona say retaining baby boomers has not been a problem. “Conservative Jews have historically been a shul-going people,” says Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose of B’nai Amoona. “It is part of our ethos, especially among the over-50 crowd. This generation is engaged and find value in synagogue life, so they stay.”  

Rose is actually more concerned with the next generation, which he doesn’t see as entrenched in synagogue life. “It will be interesting to see what the future holds,” he observed.  A good sign, he notes, is that many of his synagogue’s current leaders are in their 40s and 50s. 

Rabbi Noah Arnow of Kol Rinah believes that congregations should be adept at connecting with all generations.  “The tools and the programs may need to be different, perhaps, but the bottom line is that it’s really not about programs, it’s about people,” he said.  “We have lots of programs for people of all ages, but it is people and relationships that are the key.  People attend programs because of the relationships they have with other people. The more we can create community and networks of people, the more people will stay.” 

Arnow emphasizes that maintaining a welcoming culture takes a lot of ongoing hard work. “We have procedures in place to ensure that we always have greeters at our services and programs. They do such a great job of meeting and interacting with newcomers that I sometimes joke our newest people often stay the longest at kiddush following services.”

A common thread expressed by Address and local rabbis is the role synagogues and Jewish organizations play in connecting generations and building meaningful relationships among people of all ages.  “Longevity has given baby boomers the gift of time, and, for the most part, we do not intend to squander that gift,” writes Address. “What powerful lessons on life and love and learning are contained within this generation? Think of the gifts of those experiences that can be passed down to the next generations. . . The possibilities for relationship building and learning are endless.”

 Steinger, whose resume includes work with congregations large and small as the Midwest Regional Director of the Union for Reform Judaism, says ultimately, we need to be defined more by relationships than by demographics.

 “Our focus as a Jewish community needs to be on connecting people to each other and to God,” he maintains. “It’s my belief that in the long run, congregations that address these needs will do better going forward.”