Authenticity. Ethics. Relevance. Social action.
Rabbi Shelly Barnathan has gone on more than 100 coffee dates with members of the “baby boomer, empty nester” generation to find out what they are looking for in a Jewish community.
Through what she called “holy conversations,” she asked them questions like: “What are the pressing questions of deep pertinent meaning for you in this phase of your life?” “Tell me about your Jewish journey?” “What are your hopes and dreams for continuing to make deep authentic meaning in this time of your life?”
These keywords popped up again and again, and Barnathan noticed the pattern.
It helped lead to the creation of Or Zarua, a co-constructed spiritual community that aims to meet the spiritual needs of baby boomers and empty nesters at this stage in their lives.
Its name, which means “light is sown,” taken from a psalm, contains a crucial element for Barnathan, herself now an empty nester who graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2015.
To her, the notion of or, or light, is key.
“I knew from the start that the name — whatever name we did end up choosing — that light, or, would be part of it because for me it’s always about finding the light in the world and bringing light to the world,” she said.“By lifting up each other’s light, we see the righteousness in each person and then by expressing the gifts that are in us, we lift up each other’s light. It’s also not just for the purpose of lifting up each other’s light and learning or studying together, but it’s to bring tzedek, bring justice to the world.”
Barnathan was recently named the recipient of the RRC and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities’ Auerbach Innovation Launch Grant to further the development of Or Zarua.
The $20,000 yearlong grant will help her get the community — not a synagogue — off the ground. It will help the less glamorous tasks, like buying siddurim and hiring administrative help.
She did a spring pilot of Or Zarua and is looking forward to the first High Holidays with the community, which will be at Haverford Friends Meeting. They have been otherwise meeting in people’s homes.
Creating a community attractive to baby boomers and empty nesters came from a need that Barnathan found in that generation.
With three grown children of her own as well as grandchildren, Barnathan could relate.
“In vein with people who are in a similar stage of life and being friends with and learning with people and praying with people, davening with people of the same age group, I realized that we’re at a stage where we’re really yearning to make the deepest meaning possible out of our lives,” she explained.
“As people get older, there’s more of a yearning to pass on legacy and to really use time well to live a full life, to live an authentic life, a life where we’re living our truth,” she continued. “And for all of us for whom Judaism is really important, the question is, where can Judaism meet our deepest yearning to make meaning in our lives and to pass that meaning on to future generations? … Where is Judaism making meaning for us?”
Many people expressed that they were feeling “sidelined” by their synagogues, to which they have belonged for many, many years.
“People in the baby boomer, empty nester age group … were among the most active at their synagogues when their kids were younger and devoted hours and hours of volunteer time to the synagogue and really were the ones upon whom the synagogue relied and depended for volunteer time,” she noted. “But also these are people who … at our age can afford to pay full membership dues, which are very high, and that is helping to support the synagogues but a lot of the people said they feel sidelined at their synagogues — they feel unnoticed, they feel not known.”
Or Zarua, which Barnathan emphasized is not here to create competition, offers people a place to pray and build a deeper spiritual connection in a more intimate atmosphere.
There are about 45 families signed up for Rosh Hashanah so far, Barnathan said.
“It’s small and intimate with intention,” she said. “It’s not aimed at being a big organization.
“It’s aimed at having people be known for who they are and what their skills and talents are so people feel like they’re being lifted up.”
It allows this demographic to feel valued, which was why Barnathan was so excited to receive a grant that recognized this specific generation.
“Where most grants are going to millennials, to have grant support for empty nesters and baby boomers is just really exciting and encouraging and it really reinforces the value and the wisdom that this age group has,” she said.
Finding meaning can be difficult at that age as she said there are so many roles they still play.
“We’re juggling our elderly parents, if they’re alive, and our adult children and our grandchildren and we’re trying to play all these roles and still make the deepest meaning possible in our lives, so it’s challenging,” she said.
The co-constructed element is crucial to Barnathan, as it means more people can lead and guide the community using their own specific talents and skillsets — from guitarists to yoga leaders to social action organizers.
She will focus on getting to know each member of the community and connecting them with others whose talents and skills complement their own.
“I hope that we just keep our vision of being based in holy relationship with one another, that we stay true to being co-constructed … and that we stay true to the vision,” she said. “We’ll be successful if it continues to always be a ‘we’ and a ‘we’ in which people know they have a role and a voice and really holy contributions that are noticed and valued.”
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