by Samantha Fruchtman, Development Associate
At our Passover Seder this year, I looked around and couldn’t help but reflect on the three generations surrounding the table. It made me think about my Jewish traditions and beliefs as we go through life’s stages. My grandmother lived to be 101 and my father will turn 96 this summer, both of whom remained very active in their latter years. Regardless of your religion or your beliefs, I think Jewish values are universal for seniors and the aging process.
On the website aish.com, the Ask the Rabbi section states, “Humans are made up of two parts, physical and spiritual. The physical body allows the Divine soul to develop and to fulfill its role in the world. By the time a person reaches old age, the body begins to wear down. This enables the spiritual side to exert itself to an even greater degree. Based on this idea, the Talmud (the authoritative body of Jewish tradition) delineates the different stages of life: Age 30 is for peak physical strength, and age 80 is for peak spiritual strength. In the secular world, where physical strength and beauty is emphasized, a person at age 80 is regarded as having little value. In the Torah world, 80 is prime time!” I believe this attitude and belief transcends all faiths.
Aging does not have to be seen as something negative, it can be seen as a time of spiritual growth and giving back to society.
My 95-year-old father is a first-hand example of giving back. A World War II veteran, who after retiring in his 70s from a career in business became a mentor with SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives). For over 15 years, he shared his business acumen and experiences to prospective and established small business owners in the Philadelphia area. He was also very active in many World War II veteran organizations. He traveled throughout the United States to attend various reunions and conferences. Supporting these organizations and knowing he was making an impact was meaningful to my father.
Jewish people are sometimes referred to as “people of the book.” When I started taking classes at Boston University, it wasn’t uncommon for me to run into my Nana on campus. She was in her 90s and was auditing several classes that she found interesting and intellectually stimulating. She loved learning and was a voracious reader. When she wasn’t in class, you could find her cheering on her favorite team at a Red Sox game or spending the day with friends on a golf course. She was an avid golfer who enjoyed the game well into her late 80s.
Traditional Jewish sources reflect this apparent paradox. On the one hand, they realistically depict the impairments and losses during the aging process; while on the other hand, old age is treated as a positive and worthy stage of life. My father and grandmother certainly accomplished a great deal in the latter stages of their lives. And it can be a worthy stage for you too. Find something that is meaningful to you and figure out a way to incorporate it into your life.
Chicago Rabbi Vernon Kurtz mentions in the Joys and Oys of Aging from the Chicago Jewish News, “But even as old age can bring forth infirmities and insecurities, Jewish tradition sees positive aspects of aging.” The Torah tells us, “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old. You shall fear your G-d: I am the Lord.” This statement dictates preferential treatment towards older adults. In fact, on Israeli buses you will find that verse present on seats close to the front door so that those sitting in these seats will be prepared to give them up to those who are of an elderly age.
According to Patricia Gottlieb Shapiro, author of The Privilege of Aging, “Jewish attitude toward aging differs from the general attitude prevalent in 21st century Western society. Jewish views are based on the unique respect for the wisdom that comes with age and a reverence for our own parents and elderly in general. The Torah commands that we respect all elderly, believing that the challenges and experiences they have encountered throughout their lives bring wisdom.”
She offers ten keys to successful aging including staying involved and active; building a support system; taking good care of yourself; continuing to learn; and developing a spiritual life. I believe these attitudes and attributes, she suggests, will bring healthy aging and much blessing not only to you but also to those around you.
Printed in the Daily Local News on Monday, April 30, 2018.