Rabbi Dayle Friedman is the 2011 ASA Forum on Religion, Spirituality Et Aging (FORSA) Award winner. This honor recognizes outstanding individuals, programs and services in religion, spirituality and aging.
If one were to distill Rabbi Dayle Friedman's best idea, it would be that we try not "serving" elders, but engage with them. Since her first experience with older adults as a group- in college when she was coerced by friends to attend Shabbat services in an old-age home- she has been energized by connecting the old and the young, inducing them to "share prayer and community."
That interaction convinced Friedman she wanted to work with elders, but she wasn't sure anyone would allow her to, at least not in the role of rabbi, because so few women in the late 1970s were rabbis. Earning a social work degree as a sort of insurance, she soon realized her desire to pursue rabbinical studies after all. Friedman was the first of 75 female rabbis to be ordained. Now she's one of hundreds.
After completing rabbinical studies, she worked as a chaplain in the Philadelphia Geriatric Center, which served 1,100 Jewish elders. Friedman began figuring out how to forge a religious life in a setting with an already-made community.
She finds it "so satisfying to draw on the stuff of religion and spirituality to meet elders and their caregivers [in group homes]- the wisdom of tradition, the beauty of ritual, the solace of community and the gift of presence all resonate so profoundly with them."
The Importance of Significance
People feel helpless when institutionalized, Friedman says, when they are simply at the mercy of their caregivers. They are often depressed because they don't think they're making a contribution to society. But in the context of religious life, that becomes possible.
Friedman used the concept of "mitzvah," religious duty, to call on elders in the home to see themselves as obligated to engage in study, worship and service. With this shift in perspective, in learning and participating in community, "you become connected beyond yourself," Friedman says.
"Ultimately, we will have missed the boat on what makes life worth living if we just address [elders] physical needshousing, care, transportation. Because, outside our bodies, what else do you have besides the spirit, or a sense of meaning?"
Training Clergy to Engage and Serve
During her 12 years at the Center, Friedman realized that most clergy were not being trained to actively engage with elders. So she created a clinical internship program for student rabbis. In order to add an academic component to the training, Friedman partnered with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC), to fashion a geriatric chaplaincy track, which, in 2003, became Hiddur: The Center for Judaism and Aging, for which Friedman serves as director.
Recognizing that "aging is not an optional activity in the rabbinate," Friedman recently completed Embracing Aging, a Retirement Research Foundation-funded pilot project to prepare all of RRCs students to serve and engage elders through infusing aging content across formal and informal seminary learning.
Friedman also runs a private practice called Growing Older: Wisdom + Spirit Beyond …