New Push To Link Jewish Boomers to Community

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published July 20, 2011, issue of July 29, 2011.
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Baby boomers are reaching retirement age, and for the Jews among them, the search is on for active and meaningful pursuits beyond the stereotypical retreat to South Florida for three decades of porch-side sunning.

This, at least, is the viewpoint held by Stuart Himmelfarb and David Elcott, the brains behind B3 the Jewish Boomer Platform, a new organization that aims to work with Jewish institutions to help them engage boomers — individuals born between 1946 and 1964 — at the critical pivot between career and retirement.

Operating on the premise that baby boomers have more in common with their kids than with their parents, B3 Platform seeks to provide boomers with the kinds of opportunities that the Jewish community has showered upon their children to foster their connection to Judaism: discounted trips to Israel, volunteer gigs in the developing world, leadership training programs and public service jobs.

“The ‘retirement into your golden years’ kind of idea is somewhat passé,” Himmelfarb said. “Here I am, 59, and I figure I’ll live into my 80s. I don’t want to sit around for the next 20 or 25 years, I want to do something interesting.”

Himmelfarb is a quintessential new boomer. With slicked-back silver hair, two-day scruff, a pair of black plastic glasses and Converse sneakers, he looks more like some of the dads who can be seen pushing strollers through his neighborhood, Manhattan’s Tribeca, than like the button-downed contemporaries he left behind when he moved to the city from suburban New Jersey six years ago. A former advertising and marketing executive, Himmelfarb most recently worked at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. He runs B3 out of a small cubicle in a shared office space in Tribeca.

Himmelfarb and Elcott came up with B3 (the “B” stands for boomers; the number three refers to the third, or middle-life, stage) less than a year ago. The project’s seed was a study that Elcott, a professor of public service at New York University, published last year about Jewish boomers. Using e-mail addresses supplied by local Jewish federations, Elcott surveyed affiliated boomers — typically wealthier and better educated than Jews in general — about their interest in volunteer opportunities and postretirement, or “encore” careers in public service. The study showed that these boomers would prefer to look to Jewish institutions to find postretirement activities. But it also found that they would not hesitate to ditch the Jewish world if more meaningful opportunities arise in the secular one.

This cohort has a strong Jewish identity, Elcott noted. But he warned, “If the Jewish community doesn’t provide meaning for them, they will go somewhere else.”

For Elcott and Himmelfarb, the study proposed an implicit challenge. If boomer Jews are willing to leave the Jewish community, they reasoned, it is because the Jewish community isn’t trying hard enough to hook them. The two men established B3 Platform — which they expect will obtain certification from the Internal Revenue Service this year as a tax-exempt charity — as an enterprise that aims to stem this potential siphoning of middle-aged Jews into the secular world.

To achieve this, the two men plan to consult with Jewish institutions on a communitywide level, looking to the Jewish Federations of North America to locate Jewish institutions — synagogues or Jewish community centers, for instance — within a particular geographic region. With this information in hand, they will then conduct a community assessment of boomer life and intergenerational affairs. From there they will create a steering committee of institutional leaders to oversee boomer engagement. Finally, they plan to design around boomers a series of workshops tailored to the community’s needs and interests. For this, B3 Platform will charge between $30,000 and $50,000.

“At the core of this whole thing is the assumption that Jewish life and community are worth preserving and evolving,” Himmelfarb said. “Without those two things, it gets static and you wind up with a static community.”

Himmelfarb said that B3 has reached out to several Jewish foundations for financial support, but so far the organization has obtained just one two-year grant. In fact, Himmelfarb and Elcott are challenging 20 years of conventional thinking about who matters in Judaism’s future. Ever since the National Jewish Population Survey of 1990 found that the American Jewish population has a 52% rate of intermarriage (a statistic that was contested in another study, 10 years later), Jewish institutions have poured millions into programs for Jews in their 20s and 30s.

“When you do something that no one else is doing, there is a reason that the funder community will be slow to pick it up,” Himmelfarb said. “If everyone was doing it, then there wouldn’t be a need for us to. It is a bit of a Catch 22.”

Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said that he would be open to speaking with B3, but he also noted that his organization already reaches out to boomers, hosting meetings in the early mornings and late evenings, for instance, to accommodate volunteers who have demanding daytime careers. But in fact, he said, his primary concern is young Jews.

“The truth is that we have not effectively reached out to Gen Xers and Gen Yers,” he said. “We have actually had some success with baby boomers.”

George Bean, a 62-year-old New Jersey real estate agent, said that he welcomed B3’s efforts to attract his cohort. “I think it’s a great idea,” said Bean, who sits on the board of a Jewish home for the elderly. “There are a lot of people who are feeling fulfilled in terms of their career. It would be great if they could find fulfillment in doing social good in the community.”

The greater challenge might be in reaching out to unaffiliated boomers. Abby Ginzberg, a 61-year-old filmmaker in Berkeley, Calif., said that Judaism has played a diminishing role in her family’s life over the years. Her grandfather was Conservative rabbi Louis Ginzberg, who wrote “The Legends of the Jews,” a landmark six-volume tome of Jewish parables and stories. His grown granddaughter doesn’t belong to a synagogue.

Asked whether she would be interested in going to a Jewish program for boomers, Ginzberg was ambivalent. “I would say I am on the fence,” she said. “I am very active in all kinds of community work, but that has almost never been in a Jewish-identified way.”

The men behind B3 point to stories like Ginzberg’s as potent evidence that the Jewish community will fray beyond repair if it fails to engage baby boomers alongside 20- and 30-year-olds.

“That rebellion is beginning in the baby boomers,” Elcott said. “We want to shake up our colleagues and say, ‘You have every reason to be concerned.’ The concern is now, it is not 20 years down the road.”

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at zeveloff@forward.com


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