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16 Over 61: Meet Daniel Rothstein

This profile appears as part of “16 Over 61,” a collaboration between the Forward and the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan’s Wechsler Center for Modern Aging.

Daniel Rothstein, 66, has a mission in life: making sure people know how to ask the right questions.

Dan Rothstein

16 Over 61 honoree Dan Rothstein. Courtesy of Dan Rothstein

It’s a mission Rothstein, who goes by Dan, first developed while considering how to help parents become more effective participants in their children’s education. But as he pursued it, he realized how many parts of human experience are made more painful because we don’t know how to ask the right questions about them. Through the Right Question Institute, which he co-founded, he’s worked within and beyond educational institutions to help people learn how to ask the questions that are really necessary for them and their communities to move forward.

It’s an interest in progress that Rothstein, a member of the inaugural cohort of “16 Over 61” honorees, can trace to his upbringing, which he spent immersed in the Civil Rights Movement as the son of a JCC director based first in New Hampshire and then in Louisville, Ky. Rothstein “began a lifetime of service early,” wrote Ariela Rothstein, who nominated him for “16 Over 61.” It’s a passion that still guides him today.

Describe your ideal birthday celebration.

Spending time with family and friends. Reading personalized birthday cards and wishes. Maybe a toast or roast, or two.

16 over 61

The Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan and the Forward present 16 over 61. Courtesy of Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan and The Forward

You wake up on a beautiful Sunday morning with an unplanned day ahead of you, and no responsibilities. How do you choose to spend it?

A walk with family and friends on city streets or in nature, taking what the Japanese call a “forest bath” or braving the winter cold to walk around a frozen pond.

What makes you smile, no matter what?

Clever humor. Groucho Marx. Am I being redundant?

When you get good news, who is the first person you tell, and why?

My wife. Why? Well, isn’t it in the original language of the ketubah?

What’s your earliest Jewish memory?

Not sure it’s the earliest, but it is an early and complete one. Hebrew School. Spring 1965. Manchester, New Hampshire. I’m 10 years old. Passover stories about slavery and liberation. An emerging awareness of the Civil Rights Movement — discussed, I’m sure, by my older sisters and parents in my home. I wrote a one page essay titled “Do we really know what it was like to be a slave?” Barely a year later, in 1966, we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line as my father (of blessed memory) became the director of the JCC in Louisville, Ky. Soon, very soon, our entire family witnessed up close and then joined the fight against racist attitudes and policies.

What’s one thing you absolutely cannot live without?

The Forward. Ok. I exaggerate, but it truly is one of my great pleasures. Reading it regularly takes me through a range of emotional tugs and stimulating ideas not found elsewhere and offers glimpses of topics, people and literary works I wish I knew more about.

How do you feel you’ve changed over the years? What ideas have been most meaningful to you as you’ve traveled through life?

From Rabbi Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot: “Who is wise? One who learns from all people.” The one big change: I have been on a long journey of moving from aspiring to traditional standards of educational success to discovering the great value of learning from all people. Continuous learning from new ideas, new perspectives and different interpretations supports constant intellectual and emotional development and growth. That’s constant change.

Has your Judaism informed how you approach the process of aging? If so, how?

I am struck by the overlooked power, maybe discipline, of repetition in Jewish tradition. When I spent more time regularly at Shabbat services I was always surprised that each year as we read the weekly parsha, I would rediscover some ideas and details I had forgotten, but also, depending on what was going on in my own life or in the world, I would think differently about the same text I had read before.

The lesson: There is great value in engaging and re-engaging with texts, ideas, people and causes that have previously been in my life.

I have not chosen to spend my life reading and re-reading Jewish texts, although I do study occasionally. And, still, Jewish sources influence how I approach the work I do, especially this statement from Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot: “It is not upon you to finish the task of perfecting the world, but neither are you free to desist from doing the work.”

And Judaism has brought me humor. Attempts at humor. Even failures at humor. Humor, as shield and sword, can help us not only deal with the recurring presence of tyrants and injustices large and small, but also engage with the challenges and opportunities of aging.

What does the idea of honoring and celebrating aging mean to you?

Principles for honoring and celebrating aging: No ageist jokes. Under absolutely no circumstances — never.

Be ready and able to laugh at yourself.

Recognize what we can learn from the full spectrum of human life, from the youngest all the way to the eldest, who have lived well beyond three score years.

That is the essence for me, a distillation into one principle of the many ways we can honor and celebrate aging; we should honor, celebrate and respect what we can learn from all people at any stage of life. Each perspective — infants, early childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, middle age, and aging beyond 60 — adds to our individual and collective wisdom.

I learned that lesson of respect for others from my parents (of blessed memory), who not only spoke of the importance of treating people with respect, but lived it. I am fortunate to have been able to learn from many other people a few years to a generation older than me: siblings, friends, parents, parents-in-law, uncles and aunts who have lived lives of purpose and meaning, people who have become part of my life’s work at the Right Question Institute, supporters and friends. There is so much more to be learned from people whose wisdom is informed by decades of learning and action.

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