Bill Peerce stood on the bimah in Beth El Congregation in Phoenix during the celebration of the 70th anniversary of his bar mitzvah last July.
He confessed to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who sat in the first two rows, that he had been living a double life. He asked them to stand up, turn around and face the members of the congregation.
“Meet my other family,” he said.
This feeling of community draws many adults 75 and older to participate in synagogue life.
Although many adults maintain membership in the same congregation for nearly a lifetime, others join following retirement or a move to be closer to family members.
For some, synagogue services and activities reactivate childhood memories.
Being active in synagogue life offers some seniors “a feeling of spiritual fulfillment, an identification to their heritage,” friendship and a sense of satisfaction of being part of a community, says Rabbi Arthur Abrams of Temple Beth Shalom and Jewish Community Center of the Northwest Valley in Sun City.
Family and tradition
What draws seniors to a particular synagogue?
“A lot of times relatives of family members who (belong to a synagogue) move here to retire and they join because their kids are here,” says Joni Cohen, program and membership director at Beth El Congregation.
They often are “looking for something they had back home, wherever that ‘back home’ may be,” says Rabbi Alan Bright of Beth Emeth Congregation of the Northwest Valley.
Many Beth Emeth members moved here from the East Coast.
“They’re used to traditional services; they’re looking for the old traditional style that takes them back to their childhood,” Bright says. “Even if they weren’t necessarily observant, they may have traditional vibes in them from when they grew up and that’s what they’re looking for.”
Lee Shalek, head of the Friendship Club at Temple Beth Sholom in Chandler, says she joined the synagogue almost 30 years ago mainly because “it’s small, which is what I grew up with” and she wanted a Conservative congregation because she grew up in a Conservative home.
She adds that she also joined because it was close to her home and her daughter is a member.
Terry Taubman, executive director at Temple Beth Israel in Scottsdale, says what draws seniors to temple life is “a need for community, a link to Jewish community (and) a link to Jewish family.
“Because of our 80-year history, many families are more than three-generation” members.
Continuity is also important to members of Beth Emeth.
“Many of our people are the original founders and the builders of the current building,” Bright says of the 36-year old congregation.
Sometimes the answer is location.
Peerce, 83, a retired commercial artist, joined Beth El Congregation five years ago because his late wife, Peggy, wanted to live closer to the city.
Abrams says many of his congre-gants moved to the Sun City area because of affordable housing and the way of life.
Adults 75 and older look toward the synagogue to build friendships.
Although they have friends out-side the synagogue, Efrem Melnick of Temple Chai in Phoenix says that most of the friends he and he his wife, Jetta, have are through his synagogue “because that’s where our interests are.”
What draws him to Temple Chai is the feeling of “Jewish community, services and the congregation in general.” He tries to attend services regularly and has participated in adult education programs.
Seniors are “looking also for a social and spiritual activity like chavurahs (friendship groups),” Bright says.
Some social groups are open to the community, while others are limited to synagogue members.
Beth El Super Seniors is open to all seniors over 65. The group, organized by Irving and Frances Horn through Beth El Congregation, holds a luncheon with entertainment once a month.
Emanuel Seniors, for members in their late 60s and above, is run through Temple Emanuel of Tempe. It meets twice monthly, once for a program such as a lunch excursion or guest speaker, and once for a lunch-and-learn session with Rabbi Andrew Straus.
Temple Beth Israel’s Free Spirit Club, open to congregation members, offers trips, parties, theater outings and other events.
Temple Chai’s Dor L’Dor group, for members 62 and older, presents guest speakers, game and card socials and evening affairs.
Synagogues also offer several other ways for seniors to get involved, from sisterhoods and men’s clubs to attending classes.
Educational programming tends to be directed toward people of all ages.
“We try to balance the year with things that will attract different ages,” says Cohen of Beth El.
Taubman says that many seniors attend classes because “they have the time and the interest.”
Classes throughout the Valley range from Torah study and Hebrew to current events.
Temple Beth Shalom, where few members are younger than 60, “has programming just like every other congregation,” Abrams says. He says the synagogue is the “most energetic congregation I have been associated with in my 40 years as a rabbi. We have committees on committees, and we have people here all day because they are retired.”
He also notes that his congregation probably has more participation than those with a wider age range “because our members have more time, they’re more mature and they’re more interested in Jewish life at this age.”
Cohen says that members 75 and older seem to enjoy “more programming in the daytime because they’re not comfortable with driving at night.
“They’re hesitant to go out in the evening unless there is prearranged transportation,” she says.
In some areas, such as Sun City, transportation is arranged for those who can’t drive to classes and services. Many of the 30 or so retirement homes offer transportation to and from the synagogue.
At Beth El Congregation, Linda Barzilai coordinates carpools for Saturday morning services. Synagogue members pick up seniors at their homes and drop them off afterward.
In other areas, such as in the East Valley, congregants’ homes are so spread out distance-wise that it’s difficult to arrange transportation, says Evan Du Bro, administrator of Temple Emanuel.
Although Leah Rosenbluth, 87, would like to attend more classes, the distance between her home and Temple Beth Israel often dissuades her.
However, she does tries to attend Shabbat services as often as she can.
“When we sing and chant together in the synagogue, I have a wonderful sense of belonging,” she says.
She says attending services also brings a positive dimension to her life.
“Most of the prayers and poems that make up the service are expressions of gratitude to God for our lives and what we have in our lives. … Without perhaps our even realizing this, this gratitude opens the floodgates to a sense of well-being.”
At Beth Emeth, members participate in the services by reading English passages Bright assigns beforehand.
At Temple Beth Shalom, Abrams tries to keep the services upbeat with music and singing and says he likes “people to feel that this is a family congregation and each person is very important.”
Rabbi Zalman Levertov of the Bais Menachem Chabad Lubavitch in Phoenix says that for seniors, “coming to shul is like (visiting) extended family, especially if the person is alone.” On Friday evenings, congregation members invite widows and widowers, or seniors whose spouses are sick or in nursing homes, for Shabbat dinner “so they’re not by themselves.”
“When they have a community where they can go to and meet people and socialize, they look forward to it,” he says.
When members can’t make it to synagogue events, synagogues let them know that they aren’t forgotten.
For instance, as part of the social action committee, the Temple Emanuel Mispocha Family visits the ill and brings food to them during Hanukkah and other holidays, says Du Bro. This year, children from Eman-uel’s religious school made Rosh Hashana cards for seniors at Kivel Campus of Care.
Temple Chai’s Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick) program also provides a network between its members, and volunteers call, send cards or visit the ill or homebound.
“It’s not just taking care of the ill. … We also try to support the caregivers,” says Barzilai.
Temple Beth Shalom has a Caring Committee of some 40 members assigned to call and visit people who need assistance. “It’s a very important part of our outreach program,” Abrams says.
For seniors who have experienced loss, the Shalom Center for Education, Healing and Growth at Temple Chai provides support groups.
Peerce is one of a number of volunteers involved in pioneering an intergenerational group at the Beth El Center for Early Childhood Education.
“I love kids. They’re all precious,” Peerce says. The program also gives him a chance to spend time with his grandchildren, who attend the school.
The volunteers work with preschoolers in the classroom, playing games and reading books.
“(The volunteers) have what we as teachers and parents often don’t, which is time,” says Carol Bell, preschool director.
“The children want to be listened to and heard, and the same is true for the older generation. Sometimes (seniors) have the time and skills and love but nobody to give it to.”
“We embrace them and they embrace us,” Bell says.
Another intergenerational program is “Pieces of our Past,” a program headed by Linda Feldman of the Bureau of Jewish Education in conjunction with the religious schools at Beth El, Beth Israel, Beth Shalom, Chai, Emanuel, Har Zion Congregation and Temple Solel.
Seniors in the program meet with fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders to discuss their past.
The four-week program gives them “an opportunity for them to interact together and for the seniors to share their Jewish history with the students. We want to determine what events in the seniors’ lives helped to develop the Jewish identity that they have today.”
“Seniors share their experiences with students and develop a relationship with them,” Feldman says.
“The elderly tend to volunteer a tremendous amount,” says Bright. “The synagogue could not survive on a daily basis without our beloved volunteers.”
At Beth Emeth, volunteers help run the synagogue’s office, publish the bulletin and work at the synagogue’s fledgling Hebrew school.
Volunteering is becoming “part of the community,” Bright says. “It comes as part and parcel of them being uplifted spiritually and socially.”
Seniors spread their work throughout the community through synagogue-sponsored programs. One example is Melnick, 77, who is active in a literacy program for elementary-age children through Temple Chai. Every week, he visits Phoenix public elementary schools to help students learn to read.
Efram and Jetta Melnick have also attended a Bikur Cholim training program at Temple Chai, and will donate their time to visit sick members of the congregation in hospitals and in their homes.
From volunteering and learning, to building friendships and continuing traditions, seniors 75 and older want from their synagogue what people in all age groups want – a place to belong.
This article first appeared in the Oct. 20, 2000 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.