Never Too Old to Engage

Since 2013, I have directed UJA-Federation of New York’s Engage Jewish Service Corps at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, a volunteer initiative that helps baby boomers find meaning and community as they begin to envision what retirement may look like for themselves (very different than how it may have been for others in the past — with longer lifespans, more active day-to-day lives, and often remaining partially in the workforce). Each year we have over 800 Engage participants who volunteer, attend programs, and take on leadership roles — helping to co-create a rich and vibrant experience.

Engage volunteers, first and foremost, are seeking community (kehilla). Many of their past social networks were connected to their place of employment or professional field. Those are therefore, less relevant now than they used to be. Some Engage participants recently moved to New York from the suburbs and don’t have as many pre-existing connections in the city. Participants are looking to Engage for social experiences and also to provide themselves with support as they continue to grow older and want to remain at home for as long as possible. This is especially true for Engage volunteers who live alone, who have an ailing spouse or partner, or who do not have adult children who live nearby. We have responded to these needs by curating regular group volunteer projects, creating one time and ongoing community-building groups, and initiating a supportive caring collaborative through which volunteers can assist each other when they have medical-related needs..

Engage volunteers want this new stage of life to feel purposeful, imbued with meaning and holiness (kedusha). They want to be of value to others, using the skills that they have developed over 40 or more years of successful careers. They have little patience when they feel that their time is being wasted, or when they feel unappreciated. Engage volunteers also want to learn new skills, potentially re-inventing themselves in this new period of “emerging retirement”, not all that dissimilar to the “emerging adulthood” period of millenials in their college and initial post-college years. Boomers often hope to both reconnect with interests that may have lay dormant for many years, and also to stay current with the latest trends in technology, and not feel “left behind” by recent societal developments.

Engage volunteers came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, and are motivated by a social justice (tzedek) ethos. In our current political climate, they are yearning to find ways to make a concrete difference, helping meet the acute needs of people who require it, while also addressing some of the systemic root causes of the related problems. They are drawn to experiences in which they can encounter people different from themselves and forge meaningful connections that bridge the divides of neighborhood, class, and race. We have recently partnered with the JCC’s new Joseph Stern Center for Social Responsibility to find concrete advocacy activities with our partner agencies that can take place in a group context.

Finally, Engage volunteers are often seekers of wisdom (chochma), whether the source is ancient (like the Torah or Talmud), or modern (like the op-ed columns in the New York Times). We have tried to incorporate service learning into our efforts whenever possible, allowing participants to explore the societal contexts of their volunteer experiences and glean how Jewish traditional voices might have value in helping them better understand their world. The learning, especially when it happens in chevrutah-style paired learning context, helps foster deeper connections amongst the participants.

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Rabbi Brian Fink is the Director of UJA-Federation of New York’s Engage Jewish Service Corps at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan (http://jccmanhattan.org/engage). He graduated from Tulane University and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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