Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: The Elderly are the Future

March 10, 2015

The Elderly are the Future

torah scribe

A conventional wisdom that has been repeated to me during my work is that “the youth are our future.” Some advised me to focus my time and efforts on the young members of the community. There was no hope for the elderly. They are too set in their ways to introduce a greater appreciation for Jewish tradition into their lives. You get more mileage out of teaching a fifteen year-old than a seventy year-old.

This philosophy is not uncommon to Jewish organizations worldwide. Almost all the Jewish organizations I ever worked with had a ponderous preoccupation with inculcating the young. There is a logic to it. I understand well the selectivity in the use of limited communal resources. However, I found myself instinctively and strongly (though quietly and respectfully) very much against and even upset by this wholesale discrimination against the elderly. And though it may be counter-intuitive and goes against the common wisdom of major Jewish organizations around the globe, I think that by ignoring or dismissing the elderly we are missing out on a huge resource and power for the continuation of the Jewish people.

In Uruguay, the most often quoted estimation of the Jewish population is of 15,000 souls. I would estimate that less than 1% are observant of the spectrum of Jewish laws. The Jewish population is highly integrated, assimilated and intermarried into the secular world. Despite the existence of Jewish schools and Zionist youth movements, the people who have the greatest nostalgia for their Jewish roots are the elderly. Keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of the elderly of this community did not grow up observant or in observant homes. Their grandparents were generally the last observant generation.

Now it is true that there are some people who are so set in their ways that even if Moses himself showed up and gave them direct guidance, it wouldn’t change one iota in their Jewish awareness or behavior. However, what I keep discovering, that for some of the older generation, some exposure to Jewish sources and traditions awakens something long dormant in their psyches, and once the sleeping giant is awakened it stirs in wonderful and powerful ways.

I was given fresh evidence of this tonight. At a meeting with an elderly group I spoke about Pesach. One of the members was so moved that she stated that though she had never kept Pesach her entire life, now she would start. What I have seen on multiple occasions is that when an elder member of a family connects or reconnects with our tradition, it has a multiplying and perhaps even an exponential effect – and that is the great power that institutions are missing.

When a grandmother decides she wishes to observe more Jewish laws, she either directly or indirectly brings the rest of the family along. Another factor that organizations may be forgetting (except for those caring for the elderly) is that the lifespan of the elderly is significantly longer than in the past. These grandmothers and grandfathers are around for much longer and their influence can be measured in decades and generations. They have greater access and influence to their grandchildren who are ignoring their teachers and lessons in the Jewish schools. They are an untapped resource.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (4:25) compares teaching a young child to writing on a clean piece of parchment, while teaching the elderly is like writing on a used erased one. But a scary realization is that the children of our generation are not parchment any more. They are smartphones, already pre-installed with factory-equipped software, accessorized, entertained, distracted and addicted. But such an existence is untenable and will eventually run out of battery. It will become obsolete and they will be seeking the next new shiny bauble only to be disappointment again by the superficial mirage of plastic and silicon that has nothing beneath it but cold bytes and heartless electrons. In the end they will reach to the old, rewritten parchment for guidance and hope.

We need to prepare a generation of elderly to assure our future.

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