Until recently, Howard Sharfstein, an attorney who has had a decades-long career at a white-shoe law firm, had never meditated. “I never took the time to sit and be mindful,” he said. “I never took the time to consider my life values or life goals, or the meaning of relationships or faith.”
In a little more than a year, all that has changed with his involvement in a pilot project called Wise Aging. Sharfstein is one of 11 people, ranging in age from 61 to 72, who have been meeting at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue to discuss their respective transitions into older adulthood.
“It’s not a kvetch session,” said Sharfstein, 67, but a chance for people to explore, through the lens of Jewish wisdom, everything from their postretirement identity to dealing with new physical limitations.
Unlike much of the communal programming geared toward those older than 60, Wise Aging isn’t about keeping seniors busy with cultural activities or continuing education. Instead, it’s about doing reflective work and preparing oneself for late life, when there is greater frailty and greater loss.
“We’re helping people transition from doing and accomplishing and making their mark on the world to being more present in the world — whether they’re seeing a beautiful flower in Central Park or looking into their grandchildren’s eyes,” said Rabbi Marion Lev-Cohen, who as Central Synagogue’s Rabbi for Community Engagement selected the participants for the pilot.
Lev-Cohen, together with Rabbi Rachel Cowan, who is spearheading the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s Wise Aging initiative, facilitates the group of eight women and three men. Some participants are married, others are divorced or widowed; some are retired or semi-retired, and others are still working.
The lunchtime meetings run anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours, and include guided meditation and facilitated discussions on such topics as body image, gratitude, repairing relationships, living with loss and considering one’s legacy. There are often smaller breakout groups around Jewish text study, or sharing and listening exercises.
“Whatever is said in the room stays in the room, and we all take that very seriously,” said Laura Rothschild, 64, a married mother of a college-age daughter.
In hopes of getting other synagogues and Jewish centers to begin Wise Aging groups of their own, Cowan and the educator Linda Thal, who leads the Yedidya Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction, are developing a curriculum and resource guide. Chapters include meditations, readings from secular and Jewish texts — written by geriatricians, poets, Martin Buber and the Baal Shem Tov alike — and discussion and journaling prompts.
Cowan and Thal have received about $30,000 from the Covenant Foundation and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation to create the guide, which they hope to complete this fall. They are currently seeking additional grants to train Jewish leaders to use the Wise Aging curriculum.