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Scholar in residence brings new perspective to aging wisely

Rabbi Rachel Cowan is passionate about aging wisely. But what is it exactly?

“It’s an agenda for a new stage of life that has never existed before in human history, which is the healthy years between age 60 and 80,” Rabbi Cowan said. She went on to explain that while some people will still suffer from dementia or other terrible illnesses, the majority of people in this country can expect to live with health and energy and alertness during that time.

Rabbi Cowan will be in town the weekend of April 25-27 discussing the issue of Aging Wisely during several events. (See below for complete schedule of events.)

The rabbi, who is senior fellow and co-founder of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, an organization that works with rabbis, cantors, educators and lay leaders to deepen the spiritual dimension of contemporary Judaism, said we no longer live in a world where “people got old and then thought of themselves as old.”


Whether it’s called the third chapter or third act, Rabbi Cowan said people now have a variety of options in how they want to live out these years.

“Do we want to continue living and working at the pace we’ve been at as we’ve been building our careers and our families? Do we want to continue to be sort of driving or is it a time where we might like to slow down a bit, explore new interests?” she noted.

Aging Wisely programming, Rabbi Cowan said, is really about helping people identify their personal agendas for this time of their lives and see the things they want to work on.

“We just can’t keep running, running, running and suddenly just drop. The way our society has viewed aging for so long in this sort of innate ageism is seen that getting older is getting weaker, is getting feeble, is getting demented, is dying,” she said.

Rabbi Cowan believes people don’t want to think dying is actually going to happen to them, so they simply pretend that it isn’t.

“Then at some point they can’t keep running at the pace they’ve been at and they can’t keep denying their aging anymore and then they’re left without much to sustain them now that times are harder. They haven’t done the work of building really close relationships. They haven’t done the work of cultivating gratitude and generosity. They haven’t done the work of forgiving people that might then still become a valuable part of their life. They haven’t learned to live with loss and pain. They haven’t been thinking about ways of being more creative and learning more things and discovering their own real, deep interests that they’ve never had a chance to develop. They haven’t been able to really think about death or dying in a way that makes them prepare well for it, so they are caught off guard with families that aren’t prepared to be there for them or to help them make choices. Those are some of the things that we are talking about in this work,” she said.

In other words, Cowan said Aging Wisely is bringing a new perspective to life.

“There’s something called the encore career movement, which is encouraging people who have worked for a long time to step out of their work, allow younger people to move in and find ways of work that are more serving the interests of their community or their society. That gives them more time for developing their own lives. That’s a very big thing,” she said.

The rabbi, who will be 73 in May and has been named to both Newsweek’s and the Forward’s top rabbis lists, began wondering about aging wisely herself just a few short years ago.

“I think when I turned 69 actually it hit me that I’m going to be 70 soon, I’m getting old. I better look into this. What do we do? How do we accept it? It’s a wonderful time of life. Our society needs older people who have wisdom, who have taken time to reflect, to make sense of their lives, speak out in terms of long-range interests and not just short-time decisions people make as they are rushing through their lives. To me it’s a fantastic time of life and I want to enhance that,” she said.

She said in recent years the Jewish community has paid attention to older Jews in nursing homes and in real old age, but hasn’t spent much time working on active aging issues.

“That’s a waste. We are people who want to learn, who want to care, who want to do, who want to be counted, who want to share what we’ve learned, who want to learn from younger people from their perspective. Most of that is just not happening anywhere in the Jewish world,” she said.

She said the things emphasized in Aging Wisely programs are things these seniors could and should be thinking about their entire lives.

“How do really know who you are most deeply? How do you create the relationships that really support you and nourish you and don’t hurt you or diminish you? How do you forgive people? How do you become a more generous, compassionate, caring person in the world? That’s the work of a lifetime but what we’re trying to do is bring that focus into this stage of life, to just make people more open hearted, more embracing of this time of their life and not hiding from it or feeling ashamed of it or pretending it isn’t happening,” she said.

Few cities actually have Aging Wisely programs in place, Rabbi Cowan said, because the concept is too new. She’s been teaching, and subsequently training others to lead groups, at Central Synagogue in New York. Another large congregation, Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, has also been working on aging initiatives. To help others facilitate such programs, Rabbi Cowan is preparing a handbook on the subject, which she hopes will be completed in the fall.

The rabbi doesn’t believe these types of programs need a lot of funding.

“The only cost of this program, once people are trained and we have this handbook, is somebody needs to lead the group, to get it facilitated. These groups could go on forever. I’m facilitating a group that has been meeting for eight years and they never want to stop because it’s like consciousness raising back in the old days. You just discover so much about yourself by listening to other people. We always use Jewish texts and Jewish study in it and the goal of the study is how is this text speaking to me in my life now,” she said.

Rabbi Rachel Cowan Aging Wisely weekend

Friday, April 25

Shabbat Eve Service — 5:30 p.m.at Congregation B’nai Jehudah bisseleh nosh; 6 p.m. Kabbalat Shabbat services. Rabbi Cowan will deliver the sermon: “Making Each Day Count: Opening to the Rest of Our Lives.”

Shabbat Dinner and Conversation for the newly and soon-to-be empty-nesters. Topic: “Wow, we’re free! Now, what’s next? Finding Sacred Meaning and Purpose in this New Phase of Life.” To register for Shabbat dinner, contact the office at 913-663-4050. Dinner is $18 per person 

Saturday morning, April 26

Torah study — 9:45 a.m. at The New Reform Temple. Rabbi Cowan will lead Torah study.

Wise Aging Curriculum —1 p.m. at Congregation B’nai Jehudah, “The River of Life: Reviewing the Stories of our Lives.” During this afternoon session, Rabbi Cowan will present a module from her Wise Aging curriculum developed through her work at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. This groundbreaking program is designed for the growing population of aging Baby Boomers, involving intellectual study and discussion about what it means to age. Using a model of intimate group conversations, Wise Aging applies texts to foster conversations on spirituality, God, family, comforting physical challenges, mindfulness and finding meaning in our golden years.

All events are open to the public. The weekend is co-sponsored by The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah and the Jewish Federation in collaborative partnership with the Jewish Community Center, Jewish Family Services, New Reform Temple and the Rabbinical Association and support from Dr. Daniel and Miriam Scharf.