What If We Actually Had The Chance?

An old rabbinic quip recounts the fellow marooned on a desert island who pledges to God to undertake a life exclusively dedicated to servicing the poor, if only he were to be found. When a ship shortly thereafter passes by and finds him, the fellow looks heavenward and remarks, “Forget it God, it’s taken care of.”

As Orthodox Jews, we are committed to a life dedicated to religious growth and Torah study. And while many of us express this commitment in our focus on raising children and earning a living, we frequently lament the insufficient time available to increase our Torah study, strengthen our connection to prayer, and assume greater responsibilities in community service and other good works. In our hearts, we pledge that we would do so much more, if only we had the time. Well, for many of us the proverbial ship has arrived, or will do so soon, and the challenge is whether we will honor our pledge.

Over the last several years, the “baby boomer” generation has begun to reach retirement age. For many reaching retirement age, the time demands of children and work begin to ease up. For others, these demands fade entirely. For the first time in decades, we once again have the time to focus on Torah study, avodah (prayer) and chesed (communal activism and individual benevolence).

Moreover, today’s generation of retirees is blessed with increased longevity rates coupled with a reasonable expectation of extended years of good health. For many, retirement or semi-retirement has thus been converted from an end-of-life way station into an opportunity for a joyous and meaningful second stage of adulthood. Far more than earlier generations, today’s retirement-age Orthodox community enjoys unprecedented opportunities for new or intensified religious exploration, as well as new avenues for chesed and communal contributions. Community leadership, however, has not yet designed and introduced sufficient context and innovative tools tailored to assist those entering and experiencing this stage of life to take advantage of this extraordinary opportunity. That is a mistake, because the religious opportunity is not only personal, it is also communal.

There is also a pragmatic reason for the organized community to engage older adults. We confront ever-growing communal needs that must be addressed with finite resources. Older adults, with increased time availability and an abundance of skill, knowledge and experience, are an increasing, rich resource to be involved in addressing these needs. It would be foolish, if not irresponsible, to squander this precious communal resource.

Torah Study
Torah is being studied in retirement-age “senior kollels” throughout the world. Most attendees, however, have at least some yeshivah background, and tend to be male. There are also women’s study groups and other learning sessions for older adults, but these opportunities are often informal and are few and far between. Torah study should be intriguing, available and accessible to all of the community’s older adults, regardless of gender, background or degree of academic sophistication. For it to be so, however, a deliberate undertaking must establish Torah programs for older adults throughout North America, and the curriculum, content and teaching methodology employed must be engaging and enjoyable. Torah study should be sweet, even when challenging.

By participating in Torah study groups, those reaching retirement age will also be addressing another important need. Though usually not acknowledged, a significant portion of our social interaction occurs at work. In addition, our identity and “sense of self” is frequently the product of our occupation. Consequently, a reduction or elimination of time spent in a work environment often creates a serious and dangerous vacuum. Joining others in the pursuit of Torah knowledge is perhaps the most sublime manner of filling that social and emotional vacuum. Torah study may also assist in retaining mental alacrity, essential to both religious growth and emotional satisfaction.

A key role for the community: Most significant to a meaningful involvement of mature adults in Torah study is the design of Torah content appropriate to those with advanced life experience, wisdom and insight. Educators recognize that Torah taught to a twelve-year-old must be fundamentally different than that taught to a sixteen-year-old or to a twenty-one-year-old, even if each possesses the same skills and knowledge base. This is because educational methodology and content must not only be informed by the student’s academic and intellectual status, but also by his emotional and experiential maturity.

Unfortunately, adults of all ages tend to be presented with Torah lessons fashioned for the education of an eighteen-year-old. Torah, however, is premised on nuanced and sophisticated ideas in many areas. From complex emotions, such as loyalty, love, regret and repentance, to principles of commerce and a judicial system, Torah study is informed by ideas understood on many different levels. If we hope to engage those of retirement age in expansive Torah study, Torah content and teaching methodologies must be developed which are appropriate for those with the wisdom and insight resulting from extended life experience.

Prayer
As we age, we may find it easier to connect to God through prayer. Reduced daily schedule demands allow more time for meaningful contemplation of the words and themes of the siddur (prayer book). Replacing our rushed, thoughtless mumbling with thoughtful, heartfelt poetry not only introduces a sense of authenticity into our prayer experience, but also may reinvigorate all aspects of our spiritual journey.

The mindset introduced by aging also provides new opportunities in prayer. We shed the juvenile sense of invincibility and develop an appreciation for our personal limitations and vulnerabilities. We confront the frightening decline of our physical faculties, and silently mourn fading dreams and aspirations. Dissipation of youthful arrogance allows prayer to assume renewed relevance and potency. Since we begin to acknowledge that we are needy and reliant, we find it easier to admit our dependency on God, which is the foundation of prayer. Perhaps it is the recognition of our own mortality that makes room for God.

A key role for the community: Encouraging elevated prayer for older adults requires thoughtful planning and requisite tools. Experimentation is necessary. For example, should minyanim be introduced, at least on occasion, to explore alternatives that might be more engaging to those not running to catch a train or a meeting? Perhaps retirement-age individuals would benefit from davening at a different pace than a typical weekday minyan, or combining prayer with the study of the siddur—its meaning and significance. Are there approaches to the mindset of prayer that are more impactful as one grows older? Would increased singing (and perhaps even dancing) be inspiring or alienating? Would it be helpful to introduce meditative tools or training in personalizing prayer?

Volunteerism
One of the most effective ways for any of us to preserve our focus, vigor and sense of purpose is by performing acts of chesed, helping others. Chesed may take many forms and can be pursued in numerous fashions. For example, shuls, schools and kiruv or chesed organizations all thirst for individuals available to assist in administrative tasks or fundraising efforts. Volunteers are always needed to learn Torah telephonically with those who have weaker Torah backgrounds (www.partnersintorah.org), to provide business mentoring to early-stage entrepreneurs (www.tjenetwork.com), to visit the ill or homebound, or to deliver food to the needy.

Chesedmay also be performed privately, on one’s own. People in need surround us. Down the road you may find a mother struggling with a special needs child, or a family overwhelmed by an illness, or an individual suffering from bereavement or loneliness. Occasionally an offer to take care of grocery shopping may be desperately needed, or to pick up the kids from the home of a friend or from a Sunday morning Little League game. And for all, a sympathetic smile and an encouraging word are more than welcome. A keen observer recently noted that more than we lack leaders with the wisdom to provide advice, we lack friends with the time to listen.

In addition to chesed opportunities available to us all, older adults are uniquely qualified for certain roles generally inappropriate for others. Those reaching retirement age and beyond often have accumulated decades of skill, knowledge and wisdom. Many also have greater insight into core life experiences, such as love, jealousy, pain and alienation. Possessing these treasures, and having newly available time, older adults can provide non-professional services utilizing their expertise. For example, retired businesspersons and accountants could provide financial and budgeting guidance to people whose deceased spouse had handled all financial issues. Retired medical professionals could help explain often unfamiliar and confusing medical options presented by doctors to those confronting unfamiliar illnesses. Retired teachers and others could offer free or nominally priced tutoring for children whose families would otherwise be unable to afford the needed help. And the list goes on.

A key role for the community: The community should create the context and provide guidance for older adults to employ their skills and time to assist others. Programs utilizing differing fields of expertise should be introduced to gather and screen potential volunteers who are prepared to use their years of experience to help others. Individuals should be trained to assist retirees in identifying meaningful communal roles they can play, considering their personalities, interests and background. And retirement-age volunteers should be invited to meetings and social events, perhaps evolving into a fraternity of older adults, all engaged in meaningful and satisfying volunteerism.

I greatly appreciate the thoughts and suggestions emailed to me with regard to my last essay, discussing measuring spirituality. I encourage suggestions and reactions to the proposals set forth in this essay as well. I can be reached at banem@ou.org.

Mark (Moishe) Bane is president of the OU and a senior partner and chairman of the Business Restructuring Department at the international law firm, Ropes & Gray LLP.

 

Ask the President
The Orthodox Union is first and foremost a communal services organization. Your feedback and input about how the OU is doing in that role is critical to our success as a community.  As president I want to hear from you.

https://www.ou.org/oupresident/

Your input and views will certainly be studied, and will be considered in the context of the views of others.
If you pose questions that are appropriate for a public response, I will do so if you provide permission.

I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say.

Moishe Bane
President, Orthodox Union

0 0 votes
Article Rating
This article was featured in the Winter 2017 issue of Jewish Action.
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x