When long-time Temple Ahavat Achim member William Greenbaum, 74, heard that a group was being organized at the synagogue to discuss the challenges of aging, he hoped three or four male members would be interested enough to join. He was both surprised and delighted when enough men showed up at the first meeting in December to make a minyan.
About 30 congregants, ranging in age from 55-90, have come together in a program the Temple calls “Wise Aging,” based on the book of the same name by Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Dr. Linda Thal. The idea to bring a program on aging to the temple was the inspiration of Rabbi Steven Lewis and was organized by TAA members Fern Miller, a social worker and family and trauma therapist who lives in Cambridge and Gloucester, and Dale Rosen. For two years, Miller had led monthly care groups at the temple for people dealing with ill family members. Miller, 73, was familiar with the book, and noticed the changing population at the synagogue.
“There is a substantial group of members who are 60 or older,” Miller said, adding that it is only in recent times that people have significant time – even 20 extra years – after retirement. “How do we use this new gift of time? How do we move through this period with vitality and without giving in to society’s declinist view?”
She hoped for a guide to aging. “I always knew I would get older, I never thought I would get old,” Miller said.
Miller learned more about the “Wise Aging” training offered through Jewish Family and Children’s Service (JF&CS), and invited Margie Sokol, JF&CS Director of Spiritualty and Aging, to speak to the congregation in December. A study group with a focus on the book was formed, and plans were made for a series of sessions to explore the topics of each chapter. Each session would consist of a large group discussion, which would then split into smaller support-style groups. The program generated enough interest immediately that a long waiting list formed for an additional discussion group.
“We are covering several really important topics – the meaning of this time in our lives, our bodies, relationships, conscious dying, legacy and stewardship. We are asking people to keep journals, we are teaching mindfulness and exploring the rich literature on aging,” said Miller. “Looking at one’s life is an opportunity for a spiritual quest. It has a universal appeal and transcends politics and religious views. This is in all of our hearts.”
According to Rabbi Lewis, the temple is the perfect place to begin to consider these topics. “Every year, we come into the high holidays, in Elul and Tishrei, and there is the exercise of specifically thinking about the end of life – what happens if this is the last year I am going to be alive? What did I do wrong? How can I make it right? It is built into our calendar. This is one of the most difficult things for human beings to do, and Judaism has built in a structure for how to be clear-eyed about this,” said Rabbi Lewis. “This program is helping us to think about the reality of our lives – how do we live fully and realistically, and how do we connect to community, to tradition and to God, with all of the challenges of growing older?”
Miller believes this is a great model for synagogues and other institutions (she has already been contacted by two churches to replicate the program), and said that research shows that the single most important factor in staving off the ill effects of aging is staying connected and being part of community. “Connection is the antidote to loneliness,” she said. “We are redefining aging for us, and we don’t have to do this alone. We can do it together as a community.”
That feeling of community – in the group overall and the smaller group of men specifically – is what Greenbaum, an art dealer from Gloucester, most appreciates, particularly for the men, who may not always have the opportunity to share their feelings about deeper personal experiences with other men.
“This has given us a chance to connect on a different level,” he said. “People are sharing very openly and there is a beautiful quality to it … it is a very rich experience.”
This year, he expects the High Holiday handshakes among this group “will have deeper meaning.”