Respect (and Make Good Use of) Your Elders

Rabbi Richard F. Address

By Rabbi Richard F. Address

The statistics for Jewish elders should startle you.

According to the 2020 Pew study of the American Jewish community, close to 50% of our community is over 50. In the USA alone, the Census Bureau tells us that by 2035 the number of people over 65 will be greater than the number under 18.

In truth, thanks to advances in public health and medical technology, we are living longer and better than any other Jewish cohort of elders. Yet, in many instances, the institutional Jewish community has been myopic in its approach to us.

We still have a huge and successful communal network for illness, housing and social service support.

Outside of this network, though, in many congregations the cohort of well and active elders is often overlooked, save for being seen as a potential economic resource. The challenge is to harness the huge reservoir of “spiritual capital” that exists in our community of people in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond, most of whom are active, alert and seeking a renewed sense of meaning and purpose.

Thus, as a new year dawns, I suggest a renewed emphasis on our cohort of z’keinim elders: It is time for a year of celebration of Jewish elders.

There is much that can be done to meet the needs of this growing multigenerational cohort. Yes, this is a multigenerational cohort, for the needs of a 55-year-old may be different than those of an 85-year-old. Yet they also face similar issues as family dynamics change and the passage of time becomes more relevant. To this end, here are some thoughts on how a congregation or organization can begin to actualize this often-untapped reservoir of life experience.

There is a ritual to celebrate wisdom and aging within our tradition called simchat chochmah. This is a prayer, often recited in public at a service, that has an individual — often around a significant birthday — acknowledging the gift of life, the acquisition of wisdom and the lessons learned from life experience.

It is a wonderful way of keeping the idea of creative prayer as a living and evolving aspect of Jewish life, as well as a practical way of continuing to engage older members. This is part of an explosion of creative rituals being developed that speak to new life stages and reflect this cohort’s desire for a Judaism that speaks to them in an adult and mature manner.

The spiritual reservoir of life experience represented by this multigenerational cohort needs to be elevated. Why not, as some congregations have done, create mentoring programs that make use of the life experience of elders in teaching their life skills in religious school?
For example: Have that retired engineer help in the lesson on building the Temple, or the doctor discuss the ethics involved in end-of-life or medical rationing or that retired lawyer as part of a conversation on linkages between secular law and parallels in Jewish law?
Likewise, make use of the growing cohort of Jewish grandparents that “grand-parent” in many ways differently than previous generations.

How many congregations have begun to discuss the impact of interfaith marriage and multifaith households on this generation of grandparents?

Social justice issues are also possibilities for programming. Issues such as Jewish views on health care, equity in access, mental and physical health are fertile grounds for discussion as they have Jewish textual foundations.

These discussions all lead to basic conversations that need to be had from a Jewish traditional and textual foundation — conversations that speak to the desire on the part of our cohort for a mature Jewish spirituality and a Judaism that speaks to the new life stages that longevity has granted us.

Rabbi Richard F. Address is the founder and director of


  1. As the new year approaches this is important food for thought. As the rabbi of a congregation where the average age is 80, I see their vitality and engagement on a regular basis. Yes, the children are our future, but our elder congregants and those not yet connected need to be engaged as well.


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