"We have this gift of decades more of life. We also have the possibility of decades of frailty and dependency," explained Rabbi Dayle Friedman, director of Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote. "People ask themselves, 'How can I feel whole if I'm physically broken and even cognitively broken?' "
Now in its third year, Hiddur is training rabbis to better relate to the experiences of the elderly population. Its newest addition is a course at the rabbinical college titled "Shades of Gray: Exploring the Spiritual Dimension of Aging through Jewish Literature." According to Friedman, it offers students, chaplains and clergy working in the field some insight into the aging process through the works of writers such as Philip Roth, Ethan Canin and Grace Paley.
The model for the class was developed by Carol Hausman, a Washington, D.C.-based psychologist who specializes in counseling the elderly and heads the Washington Jewish Healing Network. Hausman, who's co-teaching the course with Friedman, has for the past 12 years run a monthly study group for therapists working with the aged as well.
"Literature can be a lot more compelling, and have a lot more nuances than a case study," said Hausman, 72, adding that despite her many years of counseling, she learned a great deal about what it must be like to watch a loved one die by reading Gerda Lerner's 1978 memoir, A Death of One's Own.
Fifteen students are registered for the eight-session class, roughly half of whom attend the rabbinical college. Rounding out the roster is a congregational rabbi, and several Jewish and non-Jewish chaplains.
"I believe that rabbis can be powerful transformers of aging," stated the 49-year-old Friedman. "In order to do that, we need to deepen our understanding of the experience."
The course complements the existing Hiddur cycle of classes known as the Rabbinic Education on Aging Program, or REAP. Rabbinical students wishing to specialize in dealing with the elderly can takes classes such as "Crown of Glory: Classical Jewish Perspectives on Aging" and "Serving a Graying Jewish Community."
Students taking part in the program must also complete two years of clinical internship.
One of them is 33-year-old David Katz, who is starting his second semester as a chaplaincy intern at the Madlyn and Leonard Abramson Center for Jewish Life in Horsham.
"Our focus is really on caring for someone's soul, and I find that very nourishing to my own soul," said Katz, who is enrolled in the "Shades of Gray" course.
"Someone in a nursing home, they're trying to fill up their days with activities. But what are they doing when they're sitting in their room by themselves?" he asked rhetorically. "A lot of time they're thinking about death and the meaning of life."