Book Review: Seekers of Meaning: Baby Boomers, Judaism and the Pursuit of Healthy Aging

“It is not good that we exist l’vado, cut off, isolated, withdrawn from our world and own unique self. Yet each of us, as we grow older, often looks back on our journey and reflects on those moments when we felt alone, as if we were wandering in our own wilderness, seeking community, searching for love.” -Rabbi Richard Address

In Seekers of Meaning, Rabbi Address focuses on the transitions — economic, personal, professional, social, and spiritual — that   Baby Boomers within the Jewish community, many of who are returning to their religious tradition, are facing as they age.

Seekers of MeaningDrawing on the Torah, Address outlines three fundamental questions that transitions in life often trigger:

  • Where Did I Come From?
  • Who Am I?
  • Where Am I Going?

All of us want to find the answers to these questions, but we can’t find them l’vado, alone. We’re driving by our desire to find answers to reach out to others, as its only within these relationships, Address argues, that we ultimately find the answers we’re looking for.

So we are seeking a connection with others in order that we won’t find ourselves alone. As Address writes, “We, who are now moving in the autumn of our lives, search for our own sense of meaning and purpose. At times, it seems as if the questions we have outweigh the possible answers.”

Nothing defines the Baby Boomer generation more as they age, Address thinks, than the relationship they’ve entered into as a caregiver, often for their elderly parents.  “We often enter this life stage unprepared and in an instant,” he writes.  In these situations it’s easy to begin caring for our parents much like we do for younger children. Drawing on the Torah, Address reminds us that we must always show “deference to the old”.

We’ll go shopping, for example, at the supermarket. Mom and dad will give us a list, and we pick up the groceries on the way over for a visit. We unpack them and they ask, ‘How much?’ Our natural inclination is to say, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ think that, after all, it is the right thing to do as mom and dad may be watching their expenses. The tradition, however, cautions us against making this a habit for, in doing so, we may gradually take away our parents’ sense of self-respect, almost infantilizing them, making them feel totally dependent on us.

Address adds that there are of course no rules per se, as each situation will be different. The rule of thumb is to avoid anything that might take away the dignity of our parents.

In a moving passage, Address writes that there is sometimes a palpable sense of the sacred in our role as a caregiver for our parents.

In this new life stage of caregiving, we come face to face with the often-repeated verse in Leviticus 19, ani Adonai (I am God). There are moments of spiritual reckoning, awareness that some other power or mystery is present. They contain within them aspects of transcendence that are often frightening and almost always humbling. I speak of those quiet moments, private usually, when you are with the person being cared for. I am thinking of time spent with a parent, escorting her to a doctor’s appointment, for example. You go around to her side of the car and help her out. You grab hold of her arm, or place your arm around her shoulder to help. And in a flash of insight, you are suddenly aware that this parent has become a frail older adult; that those arms that held you and cared for you now reach out to you for caring, support, and guidance. You experience a revelation, a sense that roles have changed; and you are humbled to realize the responsibility that is now yours. Many of us have had these moments. They are sacred and filled with awe.

Sacred and filled with awe. These are not commonly applied descriptions to the caregiver’s role. Wrapped into these moments, Address sees a sense of meaning and completeness brought about by a shared care journey, where we now care for those who once care for us.

Address does not attempt to sentimentalize the caregiver’s role.  Seekers of Meaning is balanced throughout with an honest account of the difficult times faced in the adjustment to new challenges and associated roles and responsibilities.

Address’s previous work (see below) shows that he is well acquainted with aging and the Jewish tradition.  Yet what makes this book unique and its insights memorable are the lessons that draw directly on Address’s personal experience.  As one reviewer on Amazon put it,

Seekers of Meaning, I believe, is [Address's] personal best, his life’s experiences, his education and his interaction with the hundreds of people he has communicated with, taught, counseled and shared a personal relationship. He takes us to a new stage in our lives to enter with knowledge, excitement, confidence and the hopeful outlook for a new kind of contentment and happiness.

While the author’s work draws on tradition from within the Jewish faith, the insights (as the above reviewer noted) are appropriate for anyone chasing the fundamental questions — Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? — that growing older brings in tow.

About Rabbi Richard Address

Rabbi Richard AddressRabbi Richard F. Address is the senior rabbi at Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ. Called to the congregation after 33 years with the Union for Reform Judaism, he previously served as the specialist and congregation consultant for the North American Reform movement in the program areas of Caring Community and Family Concerns. His work has been based on the belief that a congregation, to be a true “caring community”, must be founded on a theology of sacred relationships. (Read Rabbi Address’ blog for M’kor Shalom, “Chai from Rabbi Address.”)

A major part of Address’s work has been in the development and implementation of the project on Sacred Aging. This project has been responsible for creating awareness and resources for congregations on the implication of the emerging longevity revolution with growing emphasis on the aging of the baby boom generation. This aging revolution has begun to impact all aspects of Jewish communal and congregational life.

Rabbi Address was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati (1972) and served congregations in California before joining the staff of the Union for Reform Judaism (formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) in 1978. He directed the Union’s Pennsylvania Council from 1978 through 2000. In 1997 he founded the Department of Jewish Family Concerns and went full time in New York in January of 2001.

Rabbi Address received a Certificate in Pastoral Counseling from the Post Graduate Center for Mental Health in 1998 and his Doctor of Ministry from HUC-JIR in 1999. He also received his honorary Doctorate from HUC-JIR in 1997.

In January of 2007 he was awarded the “Sherut L’Am” award by the Kalsman Institute for Judaism and Health. He teaches classes in Jewish Family issues and Sacred Aging at the New York campus of HUC-JIR.

In March 2010, Rabbi Address was awarded a Best Practices in Older Adult Programs: First Place by the National Council on Aging-Interfaith Coalition on Aging.

He has contributed articles and chapters on Judaism and Aging for numerous publications including:

  • Jewish Lights
  • Journal of Central Conference of American Rabbis
  • Newsletter of American Society of Aging’s Forum on Religion, Spirituality and Aging (FORSA)
  • The Journal of Religious Gerontology
  • The Jewish Forward
  • “Jewish Relational Care” (chapter on “Jewish Relational Care and Healthy Aging”)
  • “Aging, Spirituality and Religion, Vol 2” (chapter on “Making Sacred Decisions at the End of Life: AN Approach from Sacred Jewish Texts”)

Rabbi Address has edited and co-authored:

  • “Jewish Relational Care with Healthy Aging”: in Jewish Relational Care. Jack Bloom. Haworth Press. 2006
  • “Creating Sacred Scenarios: Opportunities for New Rituals and Sacred Aging”: in Religion, Spirituality and Aging: A Social Work Perspective. Harry R Moody, Ph D, Ed. Haworth Press. 2005
  • “The Human Body and the Body Politic”: in Midrash and Medicine. Dr. William Cutter, ed. Jewish Lights. 2011
  • “What Elders in Congregations Need From Spiritual Leaders”: in Journal of Religion, Spirituality and Aging.  Vol. 32. Jan.-June, 2011
  • “The Unbroken Path: Emerging Issues for the Care-giver”: in Broken Fragments: Jewish Experiences of Alzheimer’s Disease. Doug Kohn, ed. URJ Press. June 2012
  • “Standing in Life Before God: Report on One Congregation’s First Steps for Creating a Congregation=Based Program on Health and Wellness” in CCAR Journal. Journal of Reform Judaism. Summer 2012
  • “Contemplating A Theology of Healthy Aging”: in Healing to All Their Flesh: Essays in Spirituality, Theology and Health. Dr. Feff Levin and Dr. Keith Meador, eds. Templeton Press. Fall 2012
  • “To Honor and Respect: Programs and Resources for Congregations on Sacred Aging” ( Union for Reform Judaism Press. 2005)
  • “That You May Live Long: Caring for our Aging Parents, Caring for Ourselves.
  • Jewish Perspectives On Caregiving” (with Rabbi Hara Person. URJ Press. 2003)
  • “Caring for the Soul: R’fuat Ha Nefesh: A Mental Health Resource and Study Guide. (URJ Press. 2003)
  • “A Time to Prepare”. A Practical Guide for Individuals and Families in Determining One’s Wishes for Extraordinary Medical Treatment and Financial; Arrangements. (URJ Press. 2001)
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