Are Jewish boomers a bust for community?

Are Jewish boomers a bust for community?

As a semi-retired, married, early-stage Jewish boomer who last year sold our family’s house in East Brunswick and moved into a rental property in Long Branch, I find myself asking lots of questions. 

Do we want to stay in New Jersey, close to friends and the doctors we have been using for many years, or cross the border into Pennsylvania to be close to family and enjoy a more advantageous tax system that potentially could save us thousands of dollars? I am currently occupied doing home-based consulting for several clients (and writing Raffel’s Riffs), but when I reach a point of having more flexibility with my schedule, what will I want to do with my excess time? How will I harmonize my retirement aspirations with those of my spouse? Have we accumulated sufficient resources to allow us to enjoy what we pray will be long, healthy lives? And if they’re not healthy, what will happen to our retirement savings? 

For guidance, I contacted my friend Rabbi Richard Address, founder and director of Jewish Sacred Aging, an initiative that seeks to provide the community with resources and texts exploring the implications of longevity for boomers and their families. He said that although we’re always concerned with issues like peace in the Middle East, “your questions are the ones that keep people up at night.” 

They should be keeping leaders of the Jewish community up at night as well. Boomers, an extremely large population group, many of whose members have achieved affluence, are a vital part of Jewish life. Whether or not we remain in our communities after retirement, and whether we are engaged with the organized Jewish community, will have serious implications for the vibrancy of our institutions. 

It’s hard to say if Jewish boomers are leaving New Jersey, so I broached the subject with James Hughes, the prominent Rutgers University professor who has conducted extensive demographic studies. He told me that over the last two decades, the net domestic outmigration from New Jersey — those leaving the state versus those coming in from other states — has been approximately 50,000 per year. However, roughly 50,000 immigrants per year move to New Jersey from other countries. In fact, 22 percent of New Jersey’s residents are foreign-born, the third-highest percentage in the country. Hughes’ studies do not segment for religious or ethnic identification, so we don’t know how many of the one million residents who left in the last 20 years were Jewish, but since New Jersey has a large Jewish population, one could assume, anecdotally at least, that Jews made up a significant percentage of the outmigrants. (Not all are boomers, of course; young people are leaving for a variety of reasons, including economic opportunities.)

I discussed the issue with Stuart Himmelfarb who, along with David Elcott, NYU Wagner professor of public service and leadership, established B3, a platform devoted to helping the Jewish community find effective ways of engaging its boomers. 

Himmelfarb, a former businessman and now senior fellow at NYU Wagner, serves as chair of NJJN’s parent newspaper, The New York Jewish Week. 

“It’s necessary to look at the larger social and cultural trends affecting not just boomers, but the American population generally. We are living in an age of episodic engagement,” he said. In part because of societal changes, he observed, most people have lost interest in joining organizations. “Jews are cobbling together their own identities, often using the internet and social media without the need for institutional intermediaries. If we can crack the engagement code for boomers, find new engagement models, it will enable us to plan appropriately for future generations as well.”

To engage or re-engage these boomers in Jewish life and philanthropy, Himmelfarb said, “the community and its institutions will need to understand their emerging needs and interests — instead of being frozen with an image of aging based on the 50’s when golden age was the descriptor for what happens after you leave your midlife career. 

“For many boomers, activities and activism just start at that moment, and what was once a golden age of retirement is actually a new age of activity.” Giving a personal example, Himmelfarb said that instead of sipping drinks by a pool, he celebrated his college roommate’s 60th birthday atop Mount Kilimanjaro.

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) has started to seriously explore the boomer challenge. Julie Lambert, associate director of URJ’s Communities of Practice, told me that she is working closely with 12 congregations, none in New Jersey. “What we are finding is that there are different kinds of boomers with very different needs,” she said. “There is no one size fits all solution.” A symposium devoted to this population will be held in December following the URJ Biennial in Boston, which Lambert thinks will be the first gathering of a national Jewish organization or religious movement to list boomers as a priority agenda item.

Dov Ben-Shimon, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey, agreed that boomers or early empty-nesters have been an “underserved and previously neglected demographic.” The federation, he maintained, is the appropriate institution to take the lead on this issue because, “it is our job to help build and strengthen the Jewish community’s infrastructure.” He said that a federation staff person is assigned the boomer portfolio, and several relevant events are already on the community calendar for the coming year. 

“We have identified baby boomers as one of our priority audiences,” said Keith Krivitzky, CEO of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey. “Traditional approaches to affiliation or involvement don’t work with this group, so we have expanded our sponsorship of social events and film festivals, and designed travel opportunities to Israel and other locations.” 

One high-level federation source, who did not wish to be identified, told me that this issue has enormous implications for community fund-raising. “We have not yet figured out how to relate to non-donors, many of whom come from the boomer cohort,” the source said. “The culture, the terminology, and expectations have all fundamentally changed, and many of us are operating with a paradigm that is no longer effective.”

Clearly, there are pockets of innovation and energy surrounding the boomer challenge. For example, Rabbi Laura Geller, a former spiritual leader of a large Reform congregation in Beverly Hills, Calif., and her husband Richard Siegel, former director of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, established ChaiVillageLA, the first faith-based community geared toward enabling people to remain in their homes and build a collaborative network of social capital and connections as they age. 

New York-UJA Federation has launched “Engage,” pilot projects to utilize boomers in volunteer positions, and “Synergy,” which focuses on synagogue engagement for empty-nesters. The Jewish Funders Network, according to Himmelfarb, has been open to scheduling discussions about boomers with its members.  

Still, these programs and initiatives aside, my overall impression is that the organized Jewish community places overwhelming emphasis on programming for the young generation and the elderly, but not for those, like me, who are in between. In my opinion, it’s time the Jewish community makes a priority of finding the answers to these questions that keep us boomers up at night.

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