In her latest “Bay Boomer Bubbe” column for jewishsacredaging.com, Sandy wrote about suicide. The news about the rise in suicide has been in the press a lot between the concerns over the opioid crises and another round of celebrity deaths. Much has been written about a lack of meaning in one’s life coupled with mental health issues. In the Review section of Sunday June 24 New York Times, another thought piece was published that looked at the issue that again took stock of the challenge of finding meaning in life. Clay Routledge write this piece entitled “Suicides Are Up. Is This an Existential Crises?” It seems the answer is a resounding yes.
Routledge wrote: “In order to keep existential anxiety at bay, we must find and maintain perceptions of our lives as meaningful. We are a species that strives not just for survival, but also significance. We want lives that matter. It is when people are not able to maintain meaning that they are most psychologically vulnerable.” Routledge goes on to remind us of the power of social inter-action and relationships. That reminded me of an issue that keeps coming up in talks that I give and in many of the podcasts that we produce for our weekly “Seekers of Meaning” podcasts. Isolation. It is possible to feel this sense of isolation at any time of life. This sense of being cut off from society and one’s self seems to be a major contributing factor in the rise of suicides and we see this especially relevant with elders. The mental health challenges brought on by isolation have been well documented and this will be a continuing challenge for society. Indeed, there are also studies that support the benefit of being a member of a religious community as a means of countering the sense of isolation. Again, we seem to see that in community, social inter-action and on-going relationships we can find a means through which we can find a sense of belonging and meaning. Frank, in his classic “Man’s Search for Meaning” anticipated some of the discussion when he noted that the question of “what is the meaning of life” is the wrong question. Rather, he maintained that the right approach is to ask how can I “live” my life so it has meaning.
That search is on-going. We know many Boomers who, as we age, seek out new avenues of living. They remain “seekers”. Dr, Marc Agronin, in his recent book “The End of Old Age”* sees this search for meaning as a direct result of having a purpose in life. He writes that: “having a sense of purpose has a direct positive impact on health and longevity”. He feels that purpose yields meaning and, as the aging of our community continues, we need to have these discussions of how to engage all people in that search for each individual purpose. Behind all of this is the need to continue these discussions on aspects and causes of suicide and to make it more public so as to reduce stigma and inform a community that, in many ways, greets this issue with denial. This will remain a continuing challenge.
Rabbi Richard F Address
*: DeCapo Press. Hachette Book Group,. New York. 2018..
Fathers Day is tough. I must admit this. I mean, Mother’s Day gets a ton of attention with flowers and brunches and it always seemed, to me, that dads get a sort of, “oh yes, here is a tie and a day for you, thanks”. I usually had to deal with this day long distance. My parents divorced when I was 5 years of age, with my dad settling in a city about a 1/1/2 hour drive away. So, from the time I was little, I was riding the PA Railroad (remember that?) every other weekend until I was old enough to drive. My dad ran a business, so our weekends were often punctuated with me going along with him on calls or waiting for him to return. Even after he re-married, time was always at a premium. Still, despite this, I regard those times, and many experiences we shared, as precious. Even with not living with him for most of my life, it is amazing to see, as I get older, how much of him is within me. That is one of those realities of our own aging that remain fascinating.
This father-son stuff is powerful. Just look at the Bible and the father-son issues there, from Adam, Eve and Cain and Abel, to Abraham and the rest of our “founding fathers” and their sons. There is no shortage of motifs that suggest the complexity of this bond; from classic mythology, to Vader and Luke. Just revisit Arthur Miller’s classic “Death of a Salesman”! Or, if you are so inclined, consider the projection of the mythical powerful father that, according to some, emerges in civilization as God. Yes, this motif is quite powerful.
For some reason, this Fathers Day has gotten me thinking more about time. Yes, it is a result of my own aging, seeing my children as independent adults, and the loss of more friends. But, to be truthful, and I know others who are experiencing this, I am entering the age neighborhood of when my dad died. Now that is a real wake up call. That age is no longer far away, but, on the horizon and the horizon is getting closer. He died way too young, in 1990, and, instead of a movie of memories, I have snapshots. Maybe that is a result of the circumstances of our life, but I keep looking at some of those snapshots in my mind. It seems so long ago and yes, there is a lot of “what if” that gets asked.
We will get together with family on Fathers Day and it will be crazy, but nice. I will probably spend most of my time hanging with the grandchildren. I cannot help but wonder what memories they will carry of me. I wonder too what my own children will remember. Memory is a funny thing. Time reshapes it, molds it to fit, in many ways, a desired picture. These relationships are powerful and, as any of us now understand, they become more powerful and meaningful as we get older.
Here’s to the dads. Thanks to mine, Martin Address, of blessed memory…missing him and the times we never had.
Rabbi Richard F Address
Dr. Marc Agronin has written a trendy and challenging book, recently published by Life Long Press, entitled “The End of Old Age”. In his opening, he writes that “Aging is an inevitable one-way journey and we fret along the way and plot all sorts of manners to stave off or cushion the bumps and blows…aging i sthe solution and not the problem.” (p.7) Agronin, who is a certified geriatric psychologist, is one of a growing number of people writing, it seems for we Boomers, as we realize that we are all getting older and that those sands of time really are drifting slowly down.
He offers a path that is defined by a desire to see in our own aging a time for growth and a time to thrive.”To thrive as one ages means to actively grow as a person and develop new pathways and pursuits. To thrive is to reach forth and discover , and achieve or create something above and beyond what came before”. (133). Agronin stresses the need to see in our aging an opportunity for personal growth. “When we denigrate aging and only see it primarily as a time of decline and weakness, we rob ourselves of one of the most influential and powerful forces in our life”. (147)
Yes, Agronin does look at issues that surface which test our ability to grow and thrive. He looks at what he calls “age points” that are moments that force a recalculation of how we see life. He looks as well at the response of resilience in aging, a topic which is getting much more respect as our generation confronts our own “age points”. He also looks at a point in life when we seem to transition into “old age”, when the creative “juices” may wane and we lose a sense of life’s purpose. He coins the term “geropause” which is not the end of aging, but “the end of aging that is dynamic, meaning that it is a force for change, and the end of aging that is creative, meaning that it is generating new things.” (117)
In the end, Agronin, like our tradition, tells us that it is up to each of us as to how we approach this life stage. “The bottom line””, he writes, “is that you have to determine your own meaningful path, built upon your own unique age-given strengths of wisdom, purpose and creativity…The ultimate goal is not only to live longer, but to live a better, mor purposeful life.” (159)
As our generation marches ahead, expect to see books like Agronin’s and the recent Barbara Ehrenreich book (“Natural Causes”) that begin to offer realistic views of our own aging. One of the themes that seems to be emerging is that no matter what we do, if we are lucky, we will be given the gift of longevity and it is up to us as to how we navigate that journey, knowing that we cannot control it, or its end. It seems that resting in these books may be the message that we need not be afraid to go out and live life to its fullest, making choices that bring to us and our world blessings.
Rabbi Richard F Address
Shalom. I am in the middle of reading the new Jon Meacham book, “The Soul of America”. A major theme of the book, as it traces American history and some of its climactic struggles, is hope. For some reason, this theme struck me as Shavuot arrives. This holiday, the third of the traditional “pilgrimage festivals”, celebrates the first harvests. We are asked to bring the best of the first fruits to the Temple for sacrifice. Over the course of Jewish history, and after the destruction of the Temple, historical references were added to the major festivals and so, to Shavuot, was added the celebration of the giving of Torah. The 10 Commandments are read in synagogue and, for many congregations, the ceremony of “Confirmation” is observed.The festival, in many cases, brings to an end the formal program year for many congregations as the holiday comes around Memorial Day, the end of school and thus, the time when, in our part of the world, things may slow down. Thus, you can make the argument that the holiday ushers in a time of quiet and provides an opportunity to reflect and recharge one’s self and soul.
It occurred to me that this time can be useful to think about what we bring to the Temple of the “now”. What of our self do we offer to the world? The festival speaks to us that we bring something of value to offer as sacrifice to God, but we do not have such a system now. But, every day, we offer our self to the world, our families and, in some way, to the mystery that many refer to as God. But what is it that we bring? What is it of our self and soul that represents the best that is in us and how do we “offer” it to the world?
As we get older and life transitions and challenges become more present, how do we choose to respond? Do we become self oriented, fearful and withdrawn? Or do we meet each day with a sense of blessing, gratitude and hope? Do we offer to the world the “best” of who we are? I think this holiday can speak to these questions. It is possibly about what “law” of living we choose to live by and this question of who we are becomes, I think, more important in stage of life. Many of us are tested by circumstances of life, many of which we do or did not choose. Again, we return to a common Jewish theme; how and what we choose determines the type of person we become. My prayer for all of us is that we can see in Shavuot a deeper meaning which sends us the message that we are asked to face life with hope, hope in our self, our soul and in our ability to translate that hope to the world at large.
Meecham, in his chapter that discusses FDR, ends with a quite from a draft of a speech that Roosevelt was to give. He died before he gave it, but the words ring true: “Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive we must cultivate the science of human relationships–the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together, in the same world, at peace… The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be out doubts of today. Let us move forward with string and active faith.”
Rabbi Richard F Address
At present, the New Jersey legislature is examining a piece of legislation that will allow for terminally ill patients to choose the time of their death. This “Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill” act, a version of which has been passed in several states and the District of Columbia, places the power of choice in the hands of the individual and their family. There are serious restrictions on who may obtain a prescription for this medication. The legislation, A1504 and S1072, allows for a terminally ill adult who is mentally capable, and who has a prognosis of six months or less to live, to ask for and get medication which would allow their life to end if the circumstances that surround their illness, become unbearable. It is not for everyone, nor is it meant to be. It is meant to be a means to provide another option to people and the option is recognized to be one of great importance, meaning, as well as spiritually and emotion- ally challenging. It is a piece of legislation that demands an encounter with the most powerful circumstances of one’s own life. I write in favor of this bill.
The reason for this position is based upon several factors. I am well aware of the positions of several religious groups, many of which are from our own Jewish community. I respect these positions, as they are based, for the most part, on a theological foundation rooted in traditional interpretations of Jewish texts. These hold that our bodies and life come as a gift from God and that the ultimate decisions about our body and life must evolve from God. My rabbinate, however, has been shaped by a different approach. All rabbis, regardless of their training, will affirm that the Torah, and all that this concept represents, is an evolving and changing concept. The differences between denominations rest on the issue of the ultimate authority for our actions as human beings. There are those who affirm, based on the belief in Divine Revelation, that the authority rests with God. Others, myself included, believe that the authority for our actions as human beings and Jews rests within the context of the community. Judaism, I believe, is very much a contextual religious civilization and its power and beauty, in many ways, rests within the belief that we are able to adapt and, at times, innovate new forms of Jewish practice, belief and life.
The choice in dying discussion is an example of how the different approaches exist. As part of my work with Jewish Sacred Aging, we regularly engage in discussions with congregations and organizations on how Judaism informs us on how to make a sacred decision as life ebbs. The mood of contemporary Judaism accepts the use of medication to relieve pain and suffering, even at the cost of shortening a life when that life is ending. That mood favors Hospice Care and Comfort Care. We are encouraged to allow a life to end in dignity and in sanctity. The challenge to us now is how far do we extend that “fence of Torah” given the continually emerging realities of medical technology. How much “choice” in extreme situations can the Jewish community accept? Is it my choice or God’s choice? Indeed, given the changes in medical technology and issues associated with the realities of long term illness and care, it may be time for our community to revisit traditional terms and categories that have been used to speak to the years, months and moments that lead to life’s end. Again, these are not easy questions and, I suggest, there needs to be an understanding that each case may be different, each context unique.
The reality of personal choice within the limitations of the current bill will create enormous challenges for our community. These are good and necessary challenges and we must not be afraid to meet them. This bill will require us to educate our people on what the tradition has to say about end of life decision making. We will need to teach our community the varieties of texts and the theological foundations for those texts.
At present, the vast majority of American Jews do not know the richness of the tradition on this subject. They deserve to know what the texts say and to make their decisions based on that foundation. These discussions will hopefully lead to greater conversations within families regarding one’s wishes at life’s end.
There are a plethora of documents and on-line resources to aid in these conversations, yet too few people actually engage in them. Again, the denominational moods accept the concept of an Advanced Directive, a health care power of attorney and the growing use of POLST (Physicians Order for Life Sustaining Treatment) forms.
As medical technology continues to push the envelope of sustaining “life,” does it not make sense to provide the Jewish basis for decision making to our people?
Yes, there will be differences of approach between different rabbis and denominations and all of that is good. There is no “one answer” and by teaching what we have to say we empower people to make the decisions that feel comfortable with them.
The “slippery slope” that so many fear is the “slippery slope” of not knowing one’s options, rather than empowering people with information and, we hope, knowledge.
Shalom. After several months of experimenting with different formats, we have decided to focus our podcast efforts on our weekly podcasts now re-branded under the title of Seekers of Meaning. In our conversation with our media advisor from Lubetkin Global Media, we will return the weekly posting of our podcasts on Friday mornings. This revised plan allows us greater flexibility in speaking to guests, as we will not be locked in to a specific time as we were with the Internet show. We will focus these podcasts around the title “Seekers of Meaning” as this phrase, in many ways, speaks to Boomers, and the issues that surround us and our families.
The upcoming podcasts will feature a wide variety of guests. Our May 4 and 11 podcasts will look at Israel’s 70th anniversary and the issue of the shift in support for Israel from Boomers to the next generations. Are Boomers the last generation to fully support Israel? The guests will be on May 4 Gil Troy who will discuss his new book “The Zionist Ideas”. He will be followed on May 11 by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former president of Union for Reform Judaism and leading spokesperson for Israel issues. And a Boomer.
Upcoming in the following weeks will be:
Rosemary Lloyd of the Conversation Project on how congregations can develop end of life discussion programs
Rabbi Arthur Waskow of Shalom Center and Aleph/Renewal Judaism
Rabbi Cary Kozberg, chaplain on hos program dealing with Alzheimer’s and dementia
Dr Shoshanna Ungerleider of End Well on issues related to end of life issues
Harriet Rosen and Rabbi Elana Kanter on evolving national program to empower women
We invite your participation in these podcasts, all of which will continue to be archived on jewishsacredaging.com. If you know of someone who you feel would be a good guest, let us know. Again, these podcasts will post Friday mornings on jewishsacredaging.com and be cross posted on the Jewish Sacred Aging Facebook page. You can send comments and suggestions to us here, on the voice mail tab located on this page, leave a comment on our Facebook pages (Jewish Sacred Aging and Jewish Sacred Aging Podcasts) or RabbiAddress@JewishSacredAging.com
Shalom and thank you. Oh yes, if you or your organization would like to sponsor a podcast, let us know so we can contact you.
Rabbi Richard F Address
There are, as many of you know, a constant flow of books and articles now on issues related to wellness and health. Often they are tied to nutrition, working out, positiveness and the like. The themes circle around the desire to confound the reality of our own mortality. On the road a lot allows me, at times, to get into some of these books. A recent road trip allowed me to look at the new book by Barbara Ehrenreich called “Natural Causes” whose sub-title reads “An epidemic of wellness, the certainty of dying, and killing ourselves to live longer”. This is not a beach read. It is a book designed to provoke thought and discussion.
Simply put, Ehrenreich gives voice to the theory that there may be point when we need to understand that the “medicalization” of life (more tests, more fads, etc) mean very little. She writes : “I hope this book will encourage you to rethink the project of personal control over your body and mind. We would all like to live longer and healthier lives; the question is how much of our lives should be devoted to this project, when we all, or at least most of us, have other, often more consequential things to do”. Does the obsession by many to delay death at any cost, actually allow us to limit enjoying life?
The book takes a focused look on the “invasions of privacy” that Ehrenreich writes about, often in the context of the expansion of medical tests which she often portrays in terms of well orchestrated and societal accepted medical rituals. Her scalpel cuts deeply!
Ehrenreich has a PhD in cellular biology and spends a lot of the book in examining the cellular structure of life and the thought that there is life and agency on so much of the structures of life, even to the smallest of things. She asserts the existence of a “conscious agency other than ourselves, in the form of a deity, an assertion that has often been backed up by coercion.” Yes, she looks at the rise of monotheism and the belief that this deity “is all-good and all-loving” and notes that this belief system was needed to allow people to get away from the belief that “they will end up as a pile of refuse. Or, as the atheists are often asked, how can we die knowing death is followed only by nothingness?”
In the end, however, we get the sense that, while we are the subject of so many inputs (biological and sociological) we also still have the power to choose how we live and that living our life on our terms is preferable to having it controlled in a medicalized concept. This book will challenge us, as her other books have done. Yet, she points to some powerful issues and ideas, not the least of which is that we are, in the end, part of a larger living entity. A challenge then would be to return to this understanding that, as Ecclesiastes 1 states, that we are part of something living and flowing and evolving, something larger than our own “self”.
Rabbi Richard F Address.
“Natural Causes”. Barbara Ehrenreich. Twelve. Hatchette Book Group. NYC, NY. 2018.
Editor’s Note: This guest blog post is provided by Rosemary Lloyd, BSN, MDiv, Advisor to Faith Communities for The Conversation Project.
Congregations are ideal settings for starting conversations about what matters most to people when it comes to making decisions about the kind of health care they want—or don’t want–in the face of life-limiting illness.
The Conversation Project—a national campaign to get people talking about end-of-life wishes sooner rather than later—recognizes the key role clergy and congregations can play in transforming the American death-avoidant culture. Ever since Ellen Goodman founded TCP in 2012, our strategy is to reach out to people where they live, work, pray, and gather with a message: have “The Conversation” now. Don’t wait until there is a medical crisis and someone you love is in the ICU. Start talking at your own dinner table or in another familiar setting—like your congregation.
By listening to sermons from trusted clergy or talking in groups about how others have addressed these topics in their families, people feel better prepared to be stronger advocates for themselves and their loved ones. Exploring one’s own questions and concerns about aging, illness, and death in a spiritual setting is also a powerful entry point into a profound spiritual practice: embracing the reality of one’s own mortality.
We know from surveys we’ve done and from talking with thousands of people throughout the country that people really DO want to talk about the fact that we are mortal. And they want to share their preferences about how life can be lived until the end. Still, there is this little problem: many people don’t know how to bring up the topic or think they will upset their family if they do.
That is why The Conversation Project developed short, easy to use, free Conversation Starter Kits: to help frame the conversation and offer some ideas and icebreakers for getting started. While people report feeling nervous or fearful before engaging in these kinds of conversations, once they have had them, most people say they feel relieved.
Drawing on years of experience with scores of congregations, TCP also developed a free guide for clergy and lay leaders who want to bring these essential conversations to their congregations. The guide, which is filled with examples of how other congregations did this successfully, can be downloaded at our website. There is also companion webinar: Bringing Advance Care Conversations to Congregations, beginning Tuesday, April 17th. For more information and to register for the free, six-week course, go to www.theconversationproject.org/faith/
Give an invaluable legacy to your loved ones: have “the conversation” now. Don’t wait. It’s always ‘too soon’…until it’s too late.
Rev. Rosemary Lloyd, Advisor to Faith Communities
Rosemary Lloyd, BSN, MDiv, is Advisor to Faith Communities for The Conversation Project at the Institute for Health Care Improvement in Boston, Massachusetts. Rev. Lloyd supports clergy and congregations in having values-centered conversations with loved ones and health care providers about crucial end-of-life matters.
A graduate of Georgetown University and Harvard Divinity School, Rev. Lloyd has a life-long interest in end-of-life care and ethics that is fueled by her experience as a registered nurse and hospice volunteer. An ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, she served The First Church in Boston and has spoken nationally in congregational and health care settings on end-of-life issues for more than a decade. She is a graduate of the Metta Institute for End of Life Care Practitioners and an advocate for deepening the spiritual practice of embracing the reality of our mortality for the sake of having more joy in life.
It is curious, I guess, that we come to the Passover Yizkor moment at such a confluence of issues. This Passover season reminds us of memory. How many stories were shared at our seder of people who were present in spirit only? The recipes that had been handed down, the roles now transferred to another generation! And what a history reminder as well. Passover week marks the 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King’s death. We are reminded that it has been 50 years since 1968 and that year that saw this country torn apart over civil rights issues and Viet Nam. In just 2 months we will remember another Kennedy assassination. Has been 50 years? What has happened? Have we progressed? That symbol of the wandering in the Wilderness that cements the Passover story, that symbolic searching is still with us.
We have witnessed in these 50 years much social change. The feminist movement, the breaking down of some racial barriers, a greater acceptance and inclusion for GLBTQ people. One can certainly say that we have progressed. Yet, there is that gnawing feeling that the more things change, the more things remain the same. Have we as people learned much? Have we really, as human beings, progressed, or is so much of this progress facadal? There remains so much evil and hatred, there remains still so much division and isolation. We may still be wandering in that Wilderness, not so different than the Israelites, just with better technology.
This is a time for reflection and, one hopes, renewal. We are not the same people we were in 1968. The world is different, at least outwardly. Our generation of Boomers, so active in those “good old days”, are now seeing the generational torch being passed to a new generation. We hope that they will go forth and fear not into their future. Progress, like the Exodus story, is slow and never linear. Like each of our own personal stories, we move forward, only to slide back or sideways before resuming our own life’s journey. Perhaps, a key is that, like the Exodus story, like King’s dream; there is the north star of hope that guides us. As Jews we keep that sense of hope alive. It is faith in a future, a future that we may not see, but a future that we trust will emerge.
It may be that “Messianic” ideal of Elijah that we saw at the seder. It may be our own internal belief that we have, each of us, a responsibility to save, as Pirke AVot reminds us, our own part of the world. Whatever, as we remember on this Yizkor and as we reflect on these past 50 years, let us keep the hope for tomorrow alive and allow it to serve as motivation and inspiration.
Rabbi Richard F Address
The Seder awaits. Friends and family will gather at this season as we re-enact, in a variety of ways, the foundational story of Judaism. The Wilderness and the move from slavery to, we hope, freedom, is a theme that will be discussed in so many ways during this season. No doubt, many Sederim will mention the linkage between the recent March for Our Lives and the call for freedom and justice that rests within much of the Seder liturgy. This event, the Seder, even with its historical roots, is a living breathing dynamic event that speaks to the constancy of change and evolution within Judaism. The plethora of Haggadot, ranging from Humanist to Renewal attests to the varieties of Passover expression. The evolving ritual elements speak as well, to this value. When we were young did you have a “Miriam’s Cup” or the Orange to symbolize GLBTQ inclusion? Change, communal and more important, personal, is a part of this ceremony.
A major factor of every Seder is the ritual surrounding the opening of the door for Elijah. The symbolism of the hoped for Messianic Age is embraced by the Eliahu Ha’Navi melody. We open the door, but what else can we glean from this act? Let me suggest something that speaks to our age, and perhaps , all generations. Let me suggest that when you open that door, you welcome the possibility of growth, change, risk and future. Open the door for the future, that is what we can speak to this year. Last year was the year that Boomers were replaced by Millenials as the largest population cohort in the United States. It is this generation that,we hope, will continue to open doors to greater freedoms, equality and activism. No doubt that in recent weeks we have seen this generation not only open doors, but, in a sense, kick a few down.
And what of us? As long as we live,we are called by our Judaism to embrace the future. The Seder again speaks of the constancy of change. We are no different. We change as well and are changing. Each of us, in a different way, buy there is the call of our tradition to embrace our future and not to fear it. When we open the door for Elijah, we open the door to the possibility of our own tomorrows. The Messianic Age, as is with our own life, will be created not by Divine edict, but by out own committment to it. Perhaps no other ritual moment in our year symbolizes the “call” to create a meaningful tomorrow than that open door. Let’s not fear to welcome that future, no matter where we are in life. The choice of that future rests within our own hands and hearts. OPen the door and let our tomorrows begin.
Have a sweet , joyous and healthy Passover.
Rabbi Richard F Address