Don’t Just Retire; Rewire

As many baby boomers retire, they are faced with the challenge of how to maintain a level of activity and engagement that is both healthy and satisfying.

It is critical not just to retire, but to rewire and seek out personal engagement socially, intellectually and spiritually. unsplash.com/@mbennettphoto

The baby boomer generation represents a significant demographic that enjoys several benefits. These include relative longevity, financial security, career and lifestyle choices, and educational achievement. As many retire, they are faced with new challenges of how to maintain a level of activity and engagement that is both healthy and satisfying. In this regard, studies have shown that maintaining high levels of a combination of social and intellectual engagement is associated with avoiding the deleterious symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia. The workplace is no longer an outlet for expressing and satisfying this need. Hence, it is critical not just to retire; but, rather, to rewire and seek out a substitute venue and challenging program that can provide for active personal engagement socially, intellectually and spiritually. 

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For Jewish baby boomers, the Beit Midrash (Study Hall) and an intensive Torah study program, as a part of a group, can help fulfill this essential function. Studying or just reading a book alone is no substitute for the dynamic of studying a Torah text together with others. It allows for a more complete understanding of the relevant and sometimes complex Torah topics through the reflections of each participant in the discussion, with varying life experiences and philosophical points of view. The convivial environment of the Beit Midrash is one of the last bastions of academic freedom; an excellent and safe space to exchange differing perspectives and share wisdom. 

It’s been over four years since we organized such a learning program in Teaneck for retirees, known as the Beit Midrash of Teaneck (BMT). A fundamental part of the program is the innovative plan to replicate the Beit Midrash experience of Torah study. The BMT program is designed to empower all participants to have a meaningful experience, no matter their skill level. BMT is not only a venue where a person can sit and study Torah; it is also a place where people can assemble and interact with each other as an integral part of the Torah study process. This includes breaks between classes for coffee, snacks and old-fashioned in-person socialization. 

The kind of social and mental engagement generated by Torah study in the Beit Midrash, within a study group setting with peers, is unmatched. Preparation for classes within the context of a system of study groups is an essential part of the program of study. The format enables intense personal engagement and lively discussions as source materials are reviewed, questioned and analyzed. Delving into original sources and discussing them, with the benefit of real-life experience, is incomparable. When this kind of intense source-based preparation is combined with the prevalent Socratic teaching method characteristic of Torah study, the effect is magical. It is a part of what makes Torah study so unique and satisfying an experience.

The curriculum consists of several classical areas of study, including intensive text-based classes in the Bible, Prophets and Writings, and Talmud texts. There are also classes covering topics in Jewish Law and Philosophy and Jewish History, taught by world-class scholars. The Mishna (Kinim 3:6) notes how studying Torah as we age benefits from a more composed mind and enhanced understanding achieved over a lifetime. By the same token, as the Talmud (BT Shabbat 152a) reports, abandoning Torah study just increases foolishness, especially as we grow older. This frightening condition is all too familiar to some and it’s one we must strive mightily to avoid. The Talmud (BT Kiddushin 82b) records that Rabbi Nehorai taught how important Torah study was in his youth and old age. He explains that Torah study provides a person with a future and hope as he or she ages. He cites a verse from Psalms (92:15) in support of his thesis, which states that those who pursue the life journey of Torah study will metaphorically bring forth fruit in their old age and be full of sap and richness.

It’s never too late to start studying Torah, and there’s no end to what can be studied. Delving into original source materials, from ancient to modern, and discussing them with others under the guidance of a talented and expert Rabbi and teacher, is engaging, challenging and invigorating. As Rabbi Nehorai counsels, it keeps our minds sharp and supple. 

Like life generally, Torah study is all about the journey, including, most importantly, how it is regularly applied in practice. We’re only a few weeks away from celebrating Passover. Studying the history, customs and laws of this wonderful holiday enriches the experience. It is a time when the young will be strutting their stuff and we can show them our appreciation for their efforts. We can also add to the joy by providing a pithy Torah thought of our own.

The Seder is a time for telling stories about the miraculous Exodus from Egypt. Every generation must view itself as being there at the time. Expressing this fundamental sentiment is not a prosaic exercise. It is something we can all relate to in some fashion. 

My father, Z”L, and father-in-law, Z”L, were both miraculous survivors of Auschwitz. They would recite the portion of the Haggadah, known as Avodim Hayinu, about how we were slaves in Egypt with special fervor. It would often trigger a memory of their Holocaust experience and they would relate an anecdote from their life that amplified the message in an intensely personal and most compelling fashion. These were memorable moments and we treasured them. Ever since they passed on, I have carried on their tradition by retelling the tales of their lives to our own grandchildren and also relating them to the relevant text of the Haggadah. 

Thank G-d, most of us didn’t experience the Holocaust firsthand. However, we can study and relate to the miraculous Exodus, vividly portrayed in the Haggadah, and express our heartfelt feelings and thoughts. We each also have the opportunity to apply the wisdom we garnered from our own life experiences to the Haggadah. In this manner, we can transform the reciting of the Haggadah at the Seder from what may appear to be a tired old ritual into a fresh and vital experience. Our mission in retirement is to know and keep our traditions alive and evocatively pass them on to the next generations.

We enjoy a rare privilege in the history of the Jewish people because we can relish and speak of the joy of living in a free country, which allows us to practice Judaism. For almost two thousand years of history, we yearned that next year we would be able to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem. Today, we are free to do so and dare to dream that it will soon be fully rebuilt to rival and even exceed its ancient glory and splendor. May it be so, and may we be blessed to be a part of the ultimate redemption, soon and in our times.  Wishing everyone a happy and sweet Passover and, G-d willing, let’s all meet and joyously learn together in the Beit Midrash.

Don’t Just Retire; Rewire