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Cowan said that she and Thal relied heavily on Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant’s research on “successful aging.” Vaillant found that those who are older than 80 and are living with joy “had a spirit that enabled them to maintain close relationships, to be optimistic, to not live in the past with regret or nostalgia, to not look to the future with fear,” Cowan explained.
With those findings in mind, the Wise Aging curriculum focuses on developing the kind of spiritual reserve that bolsters people as they age.
Cowan, former executive director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, sees the program as a prospective boon for synagogues. At a time when congregations are bemoaning a drop-off in membership post bar mitzvah, Wise Aging provides a chance to engage the 20% of American Jews older than 60.
Success will require a paradigm shift, given the communal focus on a younger cohort. “The Jewish community is in a mode of a great deal of anxiety about the future,” and has been pouring money into creating Jewish identity-building experiences for children, teens and young adults, Cowan said.
And while the community also devotes significant resources to end-of-life nursing care, “there’s a whole generation of people for whom there’s not any kind of educational focus on this life stage,” Cowan said, referring to aging baby boomers.
Wise Aging is an outgrowth of a Jewish adult study group, Vetaher Libenu — Hebrew for “purify our hearts” — that has been meeting monthly for years at Cowan’s home.
One participant, Karen Frank, 62, said that this kind of shared learning is a natural fit for boomers, a generation of activists and spirituality seekers who are inclined to discuss topics that their own parents found to be taboo. “They are looking ahead, as they see their parents aging, and they want to do this intentionally,” she said.
Temple Emanuel, in Beverly Hills, Calif., and the JCC in Manhattan have also hosted five-session Wise Aging pilots.
At Central Synagogue, the Wise Aging group, which began in January 2012, had planned to meet eight times over several months. But as the sessions neared an end, the group had grown so close — and felt that there was so much unfinished business — that it tacked on an additional six sessions, and then four more after that. The program is slated to end in June, but members have discussed staying together in some form.
Many of the Central Synagogue participants say Wise Aging has been profoundly transformative. Rothschild said that it has made her a better listener and a more patient person, and that it has crystallized the importance of her ongoing volunteer work at a transitional housing program for drug abusers. “The group has made me focus not only on continuing that work, but on finding other ways of engaging with people,” she said. “As I get older, that’s going to be important.”
Sharfstein, who has been married for 43 years and has two children and two grandchildren, said that the group inspired him to re-enroll in a training program to become a health care chaplain. And after years of letting workplace success define him, Sharfstein said, he has finally embraced the idea that he can “stop striving” in the traditional sense. “What I need to strive for now,” he added, “is a greater understanding of self.”
Gabrielle Birkner is a contributing editor at the Forward.