Op-Ed: Help elderly lead meaningful Jewish lives

BOSTON (JTA) — The elders of Israel are like the wings of a bird: Just as a bird cannot fly without wings, Israel cannot do anything without their elders (Vayikrah Rabba 11.8, Midrash on Leviticus 9:1).

Last I checked, there was no mitzvah among the 613 telling us to dye our hair to counter the effects of aging. If only people would give charity and observe Shabbat as assiduously as they follow the social commandment to hide their gray. The veneration that our tradition gives to a person with gray hair is undermined by a nip-and-tuck culture. People in large numbers persist in trying to mask the natural effects of aging, which creates a false hierarchy of youth and communicates that those who are older are less valued.

It’s time we got over it. The statistics are quite clear: We are living in a time when the oldest in our society are the fastest-growing portion of the population. And yet it is also clear that people over 85 are frequently marginalized, lonely and alienated from the life of our people. Significant change is needed.

Jewish life is inordinately focused on children, teenagers and young adults. They are presented as our future and our continuity. People observe children in a Jewish preschool or on a Birthright trip and believe that we will succeed in having them live out our values.

There is no sin in nachas, the emotional gratification we take from our children. But these populations should not be granted the exclusive focus of our collective energy and creativity. Ensuring our future — the future of every person reading this article — means guarding life such that each of us can continue to live and join the elders of Israel, living good and meaningful lives up until the day of death.

There are some obvious challenges we must overcome to help seniors remain in the midst of our people. Among them are improved access to health care, accessible communal organizations, supportive housing and support for caregivers. People should not be struggling alone. Jewish life should be easily accessible, and people should be able to choose to live in a community where they can receive supportive services, maintain friendships, have a rich spiritual life and easy access to health care and health maintenance.

As Robert Putnam described in “Bowling Alone,” civic engagement, belonging and active participation in community results in better health outcomes and increases the potential for a longer happy life. Similarly, the reward in the Torah for honoring your parents is that you shall merit a long life. Here we find an essential life circle: We honor our parents, and our children honor us, and we succeed in extending life and life’s enjoyment.

How do we do this as a community? We should be designing and building affordable supportive housing integrated into our neighborhoods, with health services easily accessible and multigenerational communal life bubbling all around. We honor them by integrating them into our lives.

More than 50 years ago my grandfather, Dr. Milton I. Levine, wrote a letter to The New York Times outlining a foster care program for elders. His idea remains relevant today: Adopt an elder. Learn their story. By including elders in the mental map of our neighborhoods, we help create a stronger klal Yisrael. But to truly see the elders in our midst, we also need to stop denying our own aging process. We are in this together.

In a women’s prayer book published in Germany in 1908, there is a two-page prayer for a daughter to recite when her mother is facing illness as well as a prayer to assist in getting along with an elderly stepmother. Such rituals and prayers for the children of older people have largely vanished from the liturgy. Jewish life can support this expansive stage of life much more fully by offering prayers, rituals, generationally integrated social opportunities and relevant educational programming as we accompany our parents and all the elders of our community from decade to decade, even as we ourselves age into our 60s and 70s.

As I looked out this Yom Kippur at the worshipers gathered at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center in Boston, I saw a hundred faces of aging. Many were seated next to their 70-year-old children, an aide or a good friend. I indeed felt our prayers take flight, born on the wings of those worn and creased faces and the voices that carried theirs, joining in song and prayer.

(Rabbi Sara Passche-Orlowe is the director of chaplaincy and religious services for Hebrew SeniorLife in Boston.)