Editor’s Note: Jewish Sacred Aging welcomes Catherine S. Fischer as an occasional contributor to our pages.
After 20 years working to engage people in Jewish communal life, particularly synagogues, I had many opportunities to engage with baby boomers (people born between 1946-1964). I was honored to be able to listen to their life stories and learn of the meaning they yearned for. Each person offered an important and unique life perspective often based on, among many things, years invested in family, education, careers, community, and/or thoughtfulness around the role of Judaism in their lives. Being able to listen carefully to their stories and then work with them to recognize and assist in harnessing that wisdom and their yearnings into meaningful future endeavors was central as they contemplated their inquiry into Jewish life and synagogue affiliation. In addition, gleanings from these rich and deep conversations fueled new thinking into ways Jewish organizations can meet the spiritual goals of Baby Boomers as a whole.
As diverse as baby boomers are in terms of family constellation, background, economic circumstances, sexual orientation and gender identification, many are asking similar existential questions. They come ready to explore evolving relationships, their changing bodies and health, the legacy they want to leave, dormant/unrealized life aspirations, deep learning, and ways they can make a difference in the world and in other people’s lives.
There are many historically underserved populations of baby boomers. Among those whom I was grateful to learn from were singles, people who identify as LGBTQ, and Jews of color. People in these groups have historically been unwelcome or, through ignorance, made to feel invisible and uncomfortable in synagogues and therefore left or never joined at all. While our synagogues have come a long way in becoming inclusive, the past experience of Baby Boomers lingers yet their dreams of what Jewish life can offer burns brightly. Baby boomers have much to teach us about making our communities vibrant and inclusive.
Acknowledging and learning from this vast and varied life experience was essential in determining a person’s next steps into Jewish life. To facilitate this process, I invited everyone for an in-person visit so that we could become acquainted.
The information gleaned from those meetings dictated the follow-up. Rarely were any two family’s next steps the same! And even among couples, the follow-up for each individual might be different from the other, reflecting each member’s different interests and time constraints. Some transplanted Baby Boomers seeking a synagogue connection came with many years of previous synagogue affiliation, service as leaders in their congregations, and/or had enduring personal relationships with their clergy and fellow congregants.
Finding ways to enable baby boomers to develop relationships with clergy was critical. People at other stages of life often do not express this interest as strongly because they know that an imminent life cycle event will provide that opportunity for interaction. A young adult couple, for example, will work with clergy toward any number of life cycle events or moments to mark a significant moment such as hanging a mezuzzah on the door of their new home, preparation for a wedding, baby naming, and conversion to name a few. A family with school age children will encounter the clergy through religious school and more intensely during b’nai mitzvah preparation. Some baby boomers recognize that, while hopefully far off, their next life cycle event could potentially be their own funeral, and they want to make sure that the clergy member officiating knows them. In exploring this more, I invited Baby Boomers to help me think about what that could look like. I utilized the deep well of wisdom they had to aid in the creation of these opportunities.
While the needs and interests of baby boomers were similar and unique, infusing the sacred purpose of our institution into all aspects of the engagement process was critical. From the very first encounter, the intrinsic Jewish value of each human being, b’tzelem Elohim, was intentionally applied. Taking wisdom from Abraham and Sarah upon greeting the three strangers in the Torah portion, Vayera, it was imperative to respond to each person quickly, and invite each inquirer to a one-on-one meeting to become acquainted. I was privileged to hear each person’s story, what they cared about, and their hopes and dreams for the future. Within that conversation I could organically weave in the vision of the synagogue, the sanctity of community, and how overarching sacred purpose is practiced daily. From these sacred encounters, relationships reflecting Judaism’s special brand of community began to emerge and I was able to ensure personalized and meaningful follow-up. My blog article published by the Union for Reform Judaism demonstrates this process.
As alluded to earlier, inspiration for engaging baby boomers comes from our tradition. In Genesis 18 Abraham, sitting at the entrance of his tent, looks up and sees the three angels after which his and Sarah’s lives are permanently altered. Later, Isaac goes out for a walk in the field upon the death of his mother, looks up, sees Rebekah and his life is transformed. Each time a baby boomer is before us, we are given an opportunity to look up and avail ourselves of the many gifts of the person before us. In turn, our synagogues and Jewish organizations will constantly evolve so as to remain relevant enabling Jewish life to thrive.
Catherine S. Fischer is the creator of Sacred Practice: Reimagining Synagogue Engagement. For the past two decades, Catherine has worked to strengthen Jewish communities. Before becoming a Jewish professional, Catherine was an educator for two decades working at the elementary, middle school, and college levels.
Catherine began her Jewish professional career in 2001 working for the Union for Reform Judaism as the Pennsylvania Regional Director of Outreach and Synagogue Community where she served Reform congregations throughout Pennsylvania and in parts of southern New Jersey, West Virginia and New York. Later, in 2004, through Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Catherine became the Coordinator for the Center City Kehillah (community) working cross-denominationally to strengthen Jewish life in Philadelphia.
In 2008, Catherine became the Director of Membership, Programming, and Philanthropy at Congregation Rodeph Shalom where she served for 12 years until 2020.
Through Sacred Practice, Catherine aspires to bring the transformational power of Judaism into all aspects of Jewish communal work. From the seemingly most mundane task to the most extraordinary, it is essential to find the sacred and lift it up so that our Jewish organizations radiate purpose and thus thrive.
Catherine graduated from Bard college (with honors) and received her M.Ed from Lesley University.
Catherine lives in Cherry Hill New Jersey with her husband, Richard. She has two adult children, David and Sarah.