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It Takes a Hevra

By Debra L. Eder | Issue Date: July 2012

If it takes a village to raise a awareness about the stereotypes we associate with aging? Over 110 people gathered on Thursday, March 22, 2012 to participate in the first in a series of workshops, titled “Aging Jewishly—The ‘A’ Word: Unpacking our Stereotypes, Fears & Hopes,” hosted by Panim el Panim’s Hevra on Aging in New York City.

Legal Doc re Elder Care PlanningParticipants crowded around tables, and the 88th St. Sanctuary was abuzz with expectancy when Sylvia Vogelman, hevra co-chair, opened the workshop: “The Community Cafés last year provided a forum through which we were able to listen to the concerns of BJ members. We listened and we learned that BJ members needed practical information on Medicare, eldercare, legal documents, and much more. But the practical challenges around aging weren’t the only thing important to us. It is also important to prepare ourselves spiritually for the process of aging. We begin with Aging Jewishly to ground this educational series as the work of a Jewish community.”

Rabbi Bronstein followed these opening remarks with a niggun, which awakened our receptiveness to the small-group discussion and text learning that followed. He shared a story about his recent sabbatical month in Nepal where he was present at a ceremony honoring elder Buddhist monks—noting that this experience stands in stark contrast to the way that Western culture treats the aging. Rabbi Rachel Cowan, the presenter for the evening, continued by introducing the concept of the “A” word. Her remarks invited us to consider the process of aging in terms of the inevitable losses as well as the resources that we have that enable us to bring wisdom and awareness to the journey—what do we gain or lose when we consider old age as decline versus a potentially rich stage of life? She encouraged us to examine some of our deeply held presumptions as we went forward with the evening.

Participants then assembled in small groups to explore “What do we/our society associate with aging?” and to study Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel texts excerpted from his address to the 1960 White House conference on Aging. Among the questions considered as part of the discussion was: How would our life look different if you viewed it as a journey to attain wisdom?

A wide range of attitudes and comments were captured in the discussions and reported back to the room, including the following:

  • People don’t listen to old people. I’m becoming invisible.
  • Don’t retire: rewire.
  • Maintaining links across generations contributes to my vitality.
  • As I transition to being the senior person on my team in my work life, others look to me for guidance and advice, which is a source of pride.
  • The divide across generations seems unsurpassable. What does it take to cross over?
  • Aging is like a being on a train: It’s important to get off at each stop and look around.

A sustained hush filled the sanctuary as a long line of facilitators, who were also members of the Aging in NYC Hevra, shared insights from their groups. A member of the hevra noted afterward that the small-group sharing was really open-hearted and authentic. She felt almost a sense of relief to be talking about these issues. Another participant said that she felt more comfortable sharing her feelings about her own aging with the other small group participants than talking about it with her friends.

At the end of the evening, Rabbi Bronstein led another niggun, and Rochelle Friedlich, hevra co-chair, delivered closing remarks. After the event, she added: “Seeing the support of the BJ community in the numbers of people who turned out tonight validates the fact that issues related to aging are widely felt by the congregation and reinforces our motivation to continue the efforts of the hevra.”

BJ member Asya Berger noted: “This was an important event for BJ, and thanks to the Aging in NYC Hevra for organizing it. It was good to hear multiple perspectives and to share ideas on the process of aging and ‘saging.’ I applaud Panim el Panim for its leadership in addressing the many issues of aging which we all face.” Ruth Jarmul, BJ member, summed up her experience: “The evening made me even more aware about how precious the gift of time is. None of us can control our future, but we can control how we confront it. How fortunate I am to share life’s journey as part of the BJ community.”

The Aging in NYC Hevra’s educational series, which began with the workshop on March 22, will continue throughout the year with presentations and discussions on topics including Medicare, eldercare home care, long-term planning, and caregiving challenges. Check upcoming issues of the KJ for information about the relevant dates and times. In addition, the hevra is taking on an advocacy campaign related to improving access to quality and affordable eldercare home care. Through a partnership with Domestic Workers United (DWU) and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), the hevra plans to initiate a dialogue between eldercare workers and care recipients, families and concerned BJ members. Through this dialogue we will uncover our shared values and aspirations for what eldercare and eldercare work should be, grapple with the challenges that we all face, and take steps toward reimagining together what best practices should be. Members of all ages are encouraged to join our efforts, supported by Channa Camins and Larissa Wohl, staff of the BJ Social Action/Social Justice department.

Note: By the time this article comes out, the hevra will have sponsored two additional workshops, one on May 17, Planning for long-Term care, the second on June 18 dealing with Medicare and Medicaid.

Debra L. Eder and Stephane Guez have been members of BJ since 2009. She is also involved with the Hevra Kadisha and the Rosh Hodesh Women’s Group.