One of the things that I encounter most is when folks of a certain age choose to disengage from a synagogue community and say, “my kids are grown and I don’t need it anymore.”
On the other end of the spectrum are the comments of our long-time congregants who continue to support and sustain our Jewish community, but believe helping out and volunteering are for “the new – the younger generation.”
How is it that the synagogue in America has been seen as so narrowly focused? Is it our emphasis on the Bar Mitzvah?
It is clear that the majority of American Jews connect to synagogues when it is time to enroll a child. The overwhelming majority of America’s Jews are members of synagogues at some point in their lives, but only about a third of us are synagogue members at any one time.
I think that there are many factors that have contributed to this idea. Regardless of what they are, it isn’t healthy – not for our People and not for ourselves. The synagogue is the central address for Jewish life, other than one’s home. If it is left to the young parents to lead, then an entire segment (and a growing population of older adults) of our community will feel left out. The same is true if it is only run by our more senior members – the voices of our younger members and families will not be present.
Yet, what I believe is even more important than a voice at the leadership table is the fact that we are all spiritual beings. We all have been given a soul that needs to be nourished in order for us to stay healthy. You have often heard me share how I believe that it is so easy to become distracted and focus on things that might not necessarily be so essential. Focusing on our spiritual sides, looking towards the holy can keep us grounded, generous and grateful.
Sacred Aging is something all of us can encounter. Thorughout our lives, we do have different needs – physical, financial, emotional and spiritual. We are all getting older and we all face questions about meaning in our lives. We can’t only think the Jewish community or synagogues are only about the kids in our schools (and you know how devoted I am to our youth!). If that was the case, then we foster a pediatric Judaism. A sacred community involves people of all ages who offer their gifts – learning in community, prayer, spiritual growth, volunteering to help one another, volunteering to help those outside of our community. We all have gifts to give and they all matter.
Remember the purpose of a synagogue – to be a house of prayer / beit t’filah, a house of learning / beit midrash, and a house of gathering / beit Knesset. According to Harry Moody in Five Stages of the Soul, spiritual journeys of mature adults can be compelling because we have achieved some life experience and are able to understanding our personal histories; we get a panoramic view – we see where we have been and have a clearer picture of what is in store for us; we are able to discern a pattern to our past and perhaps identify a meaningful goal; we need to be grounded when disability or illness strikes; and we are more prepared to engage in practical and existential questions about life and death.
Yes, synagogue communities must be responsive and welcoming to our families with young children and teens. It is critical. But we cannot – ever – cast away our seniors or our empty nesters. They, too have gifts to give, perhaps different than our families with young children. They have wisdom to share. Their needs matter. And a true sacred community is a community for all – not just the kids.
So the next time you hear that “it is the next generation’s turn” or “we don’t need a temple any more…” consider these words. Make the case for a shared endeavor in covenant with a community, our people and with God. We never cease being a Jew and a being engaged in a Jewish community is about much more than membership. It is about covenant. It is about doing our part. It is about pursuing the holy.