7 Jewish Programming Innovations — for (and by) Seniors

With LGBTQ chaplains, Jewish camping opportunities for grandparents and synagogue-based senior ‘villages,’ the community is welcoming a new generation of older adults.

As Baby Boomers age, senior programming, services, and care is evolving — leveraging technology and adapting to the needs and interests of older adults. Many new programs are being piloted and developed by seniors themselves. What follows are some pioneering programs being modeled in the Jewish world.

ChaiVillageLA (Los Angeles)

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (Reform) and Temple Isaiah (Conservative) once saw each other as competitors for members. Now, while each synagogue remains independent, the two share a “village.”

With 230 members between the ages of 60 and 92, ChaiVillageLA is the first synagogue-based member of the Village to Village Network, a nonprofit supporting these grassroots intentional communities for older adults, in which members provide services for one another, such as helping with household chores or running errands, and get together for shared activities, such as excursions to museums, art classes and book clubs.

Villages, which proponents say reduce loneliness and make it easier for members to continue living independently at home, are becoming increasingly popular; as of 2019, the Village to Village Network reported the existence of 240 open villages and more than 100 in development in 41 states and Washington, D.C.

Rabbi Laura Geller, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanuel and co-author of “Getting Good at Getting Older,” was inspired to launch ChaiVillageLA not just because it filled a need for a demographic the Jewish community has long neglected — older adults who are retired, but still healthy and active — but because she believed it would strengthen synagogues.

“In order to be a member of ChaiVillage, you need to be a member of one of the synagogues,” Rabbi Geller said. “We’re discovering that people who would have left the synagogue are staying and others are joining a synagogue because they want to be part of the village.

To join ChaiVillageLA, individuals pay $150 in annual dues plus synagogue membership and commit to doing four hours of community service a month, anything from taking another member to the doctor, to tutoring with a literacy organization, to volunteering at one of the synagogues.

ChaiVillageLA leaders are already working with four synagogues in the Los Angeles suburbs to help them plan their own villages, and are exploring the possibility of creating a national network of synagogue-based villages. “We’re not looking to expand ChaiVillageLA, but to offer the model to other synagogues,” Geller said.

LGBTQ Seniors Initiative (Hebrew SeniorLife, Boston)

Among the souvenirs circulating at the Boston Pride Parade in 2018 were hundreds of handmade rainbow-colored potholders, each one with a label that said “Made with Pride at Hebrew SeniorLife.” And each of the nine long-term care facilities in this Harvard-affiliated, Boston-area senior care network, which serves more than 3,000 (mostly Jewish) clients), has a rainbow banner displayed outside.

The message, reinforced by the extensive training chaplains and staff there now undergo: LGBTQ seniors are welcome and supported.

“I’ve literally had someone look at the banner and then say, ‘Oh, I thought I was going to have to be closeted here,’” said Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow, Hebrew SeniorLife’s director of spiritual care, who began the LGBTQ Seniors Initiative.

Hebrew SeniorLife also a chaplain dedicated to issues related to the LGBTQ community, provides training for other senior care institutions, and offers various programs to promote LGBTQ awareness and sensitivity among residents of its facilities. The staff learn to be sensitive to some of the unique challenges LGBTQ seniors may face. Many have lingering trauma from earlier in their lives, such as experiencing police brutality at gay bars or having their children taken away from them because of their sexuality, Paasche-Orlow explained.

The heightened sensitivity paid off recently when a male resident arrived and staff found several articles of women’s clothing in his suitcase. Whereas “in the past that might have resulted in the staff giggling about him or maybe taking those clothes away,” this time, the discovery prompted an open conversation about his identity, Rabbi Paasche-Orlow said, and “between then and when he died, he was able to live out his orientation.”

Bubbie Zaydie Family Camp (Tamarack Camps, Detroit)

Do you wish you could join your grandchildren at Jewish summer camp? You can! Since 1982, Tamarack Camps, near Detroit, has been offering weekend-long “Bubbie Zaydie” (Yiddish for “Grandma Grandpa”) sessions for grandparents and their grandchildren. As the program became increasingly popular, the nondenominational Jewish camp expanded what was a once-a-year program to nine separate weekends at its retreat center throughout the summer.

At Bubbie Zaydie, grandparents room together at Tamarack’s retreat center with grandchildren ages 4-12, and the weekends include Shabbat services, meals and a wide range of activities to choose from, including tie-dying, fishing, hiking, sports, swimming, roasting marshmallows over a campfire, canoeing and kayaking, rock climbing and horseback riding.

Not only do the weekends provide a weekend of grandparent-grandchild bonding, but they also make it easy for grandparents to share Jewish culture. “Some participants have grandchildren that may not be practicing Judaism and this is their Jewish experience,” said Helayne Shaw, Tamarack’s director of family camping.

Grandparents also enjoy the opportunity to bond with grandchildren away from the distraction of smartphones and other tech devices, Shaw said.

The program’s popularity — plus its track record of generating enthusiasm among the grandchildren, who often go on to register for Tamarack’s regular summer camp programs — is inspiring other Jewish camps, such as Capital Camps in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, and Camp Chi in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, to offer similar programs. In addition, the Pearlstone Retreat Center, near Baltimore, is launching a Jewish grandparent-grandchild weekend called “Gramp Camp.”

‘Experience Stations’ for Dementia Patients (San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living)

The San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living (formerly the Jewish Home), a nonprofit providing long-term residential and short-term rehabilitation care for older adults, is developing several “experience stations” — sophisticated virtual reality booths — where residents with dementia will be able to do a variety of things, from playing games to spending time in simulated pleasant environments to visiting special places from earlier in their lives.

The main goals, says Robert Sarison, SFCJL’s director of campus programs, are to “improve quality of life” and provide greater cognitive stimulation. He added, “people with dementia are still capable of learning new things,” Sarison said, and mastering a new tool, such as a virtual reality game, can be empowering.

Jewish Grandparents Network (National)

Lee M. Hendler calls grandparents the “ghosts of the Jewish world.”

For decades, the Jewish community has focused obsessively on engaging almost every other demographic — teens, college students, new parents, toddlers, 20- and 30-somethings — while Jewish grandparents of children under 18 were “overlooked” and “invisible,” Hendler said.

In fact, Jewish grandparents often play a critical role in families, with their working children frequently turning to them for child care and financial assistance. So in 2017, Hendler and her friend David Raphael created Jewish Grandparents Network to learn more about this demographic and how Jewish institutions can serve them.

First, the network commissioned a landmark study of Jewish grandparents of children 18 and under, which, according to Hendler, found that “transmitting Jewish traditions matters” to Jewish grandparents, but they don’t always have the tools or know-how to do so.

Hendler and Raphael have been meeting with a range of Jewish institutions, including the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America, to help them better engage Jewish grandparents. That involves everything from making sure they’re offering relevant, appealing programs to ensuring that grandparents feel welcome and are represented on institutional websites.

The two are also engaging StoryCorps, a nonprofit focused on collecting, sharing and preserving stories for help developing tools to make it easier for Jewish grandparents to pass on family stories.

“Jewish grandparents matter in family life today,” Hendler, herself a grandmother of six, said. “And we need to pay attention to that.”

Connect Through Tech (Dorot, New York City)

For decades, Dorot, a Jewish institution that works to reduce social isolation among home-bound seniors on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, has responded to its clients requests for volunteer visitors to help with various household tasks. But as an increasing number of those requests were for help with smartphones and other tech devices, Dorot’s staff realized they needed to be more proactive: Enter, Tech Coaching, a program launched in 2019, in which specially trained volunteers come over for four one-on-one sessions to help clients figure out how to make the best use of their Apple or Android devices.

“We realized that this could be a tool in our larger mission of reducing social isolation,” said Lorraine Voytek, director of Dorot’s Connect Through Tech programs.

Seniors can get tech coaching on the basics, such as how to block a call or dial with a voice command to more complicated functions. “Some people just want to be able to FaceTime with grandchildren who live in another state,” Voytek said. “Another of our clients is a political activist, and she said she needs to be able to email and use social media to be active now. Everyone has their own direction. They’re learning the tech aspect, but because they have their own coach, they can say, ‘I’m not interested in Facebook, but in this other platform where my friends are’ or ‘this is the work I want to be able to do.’”

Wise Aging (National)

Life doesn’t come with an instruction manual, but maybe the last third of it does: Linda Thal and Rabbi Rachel Cowan’s 2015 book Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience & Spirit, offers a variety of tools, many of them Jewish, to navigate the spiritual and emotional challenges of aging. These include journaling exercises, meditations and other activities focused on topics like forgiveness, loss, getting along with adult children, adjusting to changes in one’s body, and end-of-life concerns such as “legacy and stewardship.”

It’s become the curriculum/foundation for Wise Aging workshops throughout the United States, many in synagogues or JCCs, and more than 500 people have trained to facilitate Wise Aging groups — some of which meet for eight sessions, while others last for years. Participants are mostly between the ages of 65 to 85.

“While we’re not trying to have a Pollyana-ish perspective, we are seeing that [this age] can be an interesting, challenging and growthful period,” Thal said. “There are developmental tasks suited to a certain age, like coming to terms with what one’s life has meant and how one wants to use whatever time is left in a positive way.”

Cowan, an influential rabbi who helped lead the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, under which Wise Aging was launched, died in 2018.

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