Guest Post, Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit: Sacred Aging

Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit
Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit

Editor’s Note: This guest post from Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit originally appeared March 27, 2015 on the website of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, CA. It is reposted here with his permission.

The Monday after Passover Seder – Erin, Ezra and I are off to Argentina for my cousin Julia’s wedding.  She’s getting married at an estancia outside of Buenos Aires – and the entire family is excited about the trip.  Erin has her tango shoes, Ezra has his passport – it’s half the size and totally adorable – and I have my appetite.  Other than the flight – we can’t wait.   We’ve rented an apartment in the palermo neighborhood and I’m excited to visit the city I studied abroad in as a junior in college.

The sad part is my grandmother will not be joining us.  Certainly, she’ll be at the New York celebration later on in the year – but a trip to South America is just too much.  Physically the travel is too difficult- too many ailments and medications to risk the 13 hour flight to Argentina.  No doubt this must be devastating to her – she was at my wedding in Santa Rosa in 2011 and my brother’s in Connecticut in 2012.  She’s rarely missed a dance recital or little league game much less a graduation, bar mitzvah or wedding.  In fact she was in California and at Beth Am last August for Ezra’s Brit Milah and naming.  She skied up until a few years ago – driving the Taconic Parkway from Manhattan to Vermont most friday afternoons.  She just stopped volunteering in a pre-college program at High School in the South Bronx.

Her beautiful Upper East Side apartment – decorated as though it could be in an early Mad Men episode – complete with bar and balcony, now has a life-line telephone, a gripping brace next to her bed, and various walkers and canes.   Doormen have been called to pick her up after falls, there have been hospital visits and she recently stopped driving.

Now don’t get me wrong, my grandmother is sharp.  She skypes with Ezra weekly, she takes various classes, reads the New York Times, attends services and lectures at Central Synagogue.  Last year she was appalled that my youngest brother’s 24 year old girlfriend had never heard of Adlai Stevenson.  I have no doubt in my mind that she would be furious at my featuring her so prominently in a Shabbat Sermon.   But at her age – I’ll respect her by at least not sharing that – she’s staying in New York and will not physically be able to attend the wedding.

The best article I’ve read recently about aging was written by Roger Angell – and truly there is no one better than Roger Angel – who last year wrote an amazing piece in the New Yorker called “This Old Man: Life in the Nineties.”  The piece starts:

“Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B. No, it’s more as if I’d been a catcher for the Hall of Fame pitcher Candy Cummings, the inventor of the curveball, who retired from the game in 1877. To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.

Now, still facing you, if I cover my left, or better, eye with one hand, what I see is a blurry encircling version of the ceiling and floor and walls or windows to our right and left but no sign of your face or head: nothing in the middle. But cheer up: if I reverse things and cover my right eye, there you are, back again. If I take my hand away and look at you with both eyes, the empty hole disappears and you’re in 3-D, and actually looking pretty terrific today. Macular degeneration.

I’m ninety-three, and I’m feeling great. Well, pretty great, unless I’ve forgotten to take a couple of Tylenols in the past four or five hours, in which case I’ve begun to feel some jagged little pains shooting down my left forearm and into the base of the thumb. Shingles, in 1996, with resultant nerve damage.”

Angel goes on to weave a must-read essay on aging.  He tells about what life is like for him in his 90s.  It’s funny and poignant.  Sad and brave.   He talks about loss and dying, he discusses the joys of his life and his physical condition.  He tells jokes and and talks about sex.  The writing is sublime and the piece though tackling serious subjects is not depressing.   Check out this section:

Decline and disaster impend, but my thoughts don’t linger there. It shouldn’t surprise me if at this time next week I’m surrounded by family, gathered on short notice—they’re sad and shocked but also a little pissed off to be here—to help decide, after what’s happened, what’s to be done with me now. It must be this hovering knowledge, that two-ton safe swaying on a frayed rope just over my head, that makes everyone so glad to see me again. “How great you’re looking! Wow, tell me your secret!” they kindly cry when they happen upon me crossing the street or exiting a dinghy or departing an X-ray room, while the little balloon over their heads reads, “Holy shit—he’s still vertical!”

Judaism has a lot to say about getting old as well.  Not just the old age stories of Abraham, Sarah and Moses – but real insights on how to age and treat our elders.  The midrash teaches that one who greets an elder is as if he’s greeted the face of the Shechinah – God’s divine presence.  (Genesis Rabbah – 63:6)  The holiness code  – the core teachings of the Torah that instructs us how to behave, tells us: “You shall rise before the gray headed and show deference to elderly…”

Dr. William Thomas of the Eden Alternative,an international, non-profit dedicated to creating quality of life for Elders and their care partners, teaches that the reason Adam and Eve had so many problems in the Garden of Eden was because they had no elders to guide them.  Dr. Thomas maintains that Adam, who lived until 930, could not die until there was a society filled with elders around to mentor future generations.

At Beth Am, I spend a lot of time with the younger members of our synagogue.  Bar Mitzvah Students and Families.  Our 20/30 year olds and High School Students.  But I’m also keenly aware of of the generational shift with America’s Jewish Community and Beth Am as well. According to the Jewish Federations of North America, nearly 20 percent of the American Jewish population is 65 and older, compared to 13 percent of the general population.   At Beth Am almost 17% of our family units are over the age of 75.

There are many questions Beth Am is asking and needs to continue to ask and answer surrounding aging.   Is access to our buildings easy enough?  Our are wonderful greeters trained in welcoming an older population?  Do we have enough hearing devices and large-print prayer books?   Have we built the appropriate relationships with local assisted living centers?  Are we using our political clout to ensure that there is affordable senior housing in the area?  Significant no doubt!

But, I think that more important than these questions is do we, as a synagogue, understand the spiritual needs of our aging population?   Do we have pathways for meaning in the lives of our older community?   Rabbi Richard Address, the leader of the URJ’s Sacred Aging Initiative, writes of our movements aging population:  “The emerging generations of older adults want and need their synagogues to be places where their dreams are welcomed and their lives are validated.  They deserve our synagogues to be open, welcoming, and affirming of their lives, no matter what age they may be or what stage of life they find-themselves.  To be any less, to forget our legacies will reduce the contemporary synagogue to irrelevancy, a mere service institution that process people through various life-cycle events without a sense of transcendent meaning or historical linkage.”

We are working on this – and I’d argue we do a pretty good job.  On April 18th, Rabbis Janet and Shelly Marder will co-lead with our member Lori Luft, a Shabbat Salon called Spiritual and Psychological Perspectives of Caring for Our Elders.  Our yad-l-yad and gesharim programs are national models for caring for and discussing the issues that surrounding aging.  I had a wonderful moment a few weeks ago, where, as part of our filming for Beth Am’s 60th anniversary, I had lunch with five of Beth Am’s charter members.  We gathered at the home of Barbara Emerich for lunch and conversation and discussed the early days of Beth Am in 1955.  The consensus, they all loved and admired Rabbi Akselrad, but when his sermons ended, he’d keep talking for 5 more minutes.

It was a great afternoon,  yet, I know I haven’t always done the best job of reaching out to Beth Am’s older population — too often leaving those phone calls and visits to Rabbi Marder.  My grandmother often encourages me to “make sure I’m taking to the older members” noting that even at her richly dynamic synagogue – when she shows up on Friday evenings she sometimes feels anonymous.

Towards the end of his essay Angel writes:  “Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love.  We oldies yearn daily and hourly for conversation and a renewed domesticity, for company at the movie or while visiting a museum, for someone close by in the car when coming home at night.”

I know that for some the most intimate touch of the week is the swaying at the end of services.  I know that for many Beth Am is the place where they feel more dignity and warmth than any other place in their life.   I love the teaching of the Talmud where Rabbi Judah instructs the community to “Show respect to an old person who has lost his learning through no fault of his own, for we are taught that the fragments of the first set of tablets of the Ten commandments were kept alongside the new tablets in the Ark of Covenant.  (Ber 8b)  The old tablets intermingling with the new ones – teaching that holiness comes not from one or another but of a merger of both.

Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam She-chiyanu V’kimanu Lazman Hazeh – Blessed are you eternal our god, who has kept us in life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this day.

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