Religion & Jewish Life

Whither the Jewish baby boomers?

Fifty percent of affiliated American Jews are Baby Boomers, like these participants at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North Americain New Orleans, Nov. 9, 2010. (Courtesy JFNA)

NEW ORLEANS, La. (JTA) — As America’s 77 million baby boomers retire, they will place an unprecedented burden on the Jewish community’s infrastructure.

They will need more services, and many will want to become involved in a community that isn’t making room for them.

The federation system in particular needs to meet the challenge — and now, as the oldest boomers turn 65 next year — or face losing the wealthiest and most highly educated generation in American Jewish history.

Those were two salient results of a study presented at the recent General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America titled “Baby Boomers, Public Service and Minority Communities: A Case Study of the Jewish Community in the United States.”

The report, a joint effort by New York University’s Berman Jewish Policy Archive and the university’s Research Center for Leadership in Action, analyzed a national survey of more than 6,500 Jewish baby boomers — those born between 1948 and 1964 — in 34 U.S. communities.

Jewish baby boomers expect to work after retirement age, want that work to be meaningful and want it to help others, but are not necessarily committed to working within the Jewish community, the report found. Boomers represent 50 percent of affiliated Jews in the United States — a major loss if they disappear.

“Even affiliated and involved Jews will look elsewhere if the meaning they seek is not available within the Jewish community,” said David Elcott, the Taub professor of public service at NYU’s graduate school and author of the report.

While most Jewish boomers plan to work or volunteer in an “encore” career after retiring, the survey showed that 35 percent aren’t sure what kind of work they want to do, and 42 percent expect to get paid for it. The Jewish community is used to relying on its older population to volunteer, Elcott said.

Not only that, but just over a third of boomers surveyed said they “want to help other Jews” in their encore career, and just 14 percent look at the new career as a way of expressing their Jewish identity.

Nearly 86 percent of those hoping to perform public service work would like to work through a Jewish organization, the survey showed, but that does not mean they are committed to helping Jews, Elcott noted. They could just as well be building homes in New Orleans or doing literacy training in inner cities.

If Jewish organizations cannot provide meaningful outlets, Elcott cautioned, they will look elsewhere.

“This is the first generation for whom it will be as natural to work with the YMCA as with a Jewish organization,” he said. “We are not prepared for that. We’re prepared for it from our 30-year-olds, but not from this middle generation.”

The federation system and other Jewish communal structures have been putting much of their funding and emphasis into programs for Jewish youth and children, with some attention to the very elderly. But for the most part they have ignored or taken for granted the needs of the generation in its mid-40s to early 60s.

Some federations are beginning to reach out to boomers in a concerted way.

JBoomers, a grass-roots nonprofit created to advocate for boomers within the Jewish community, planned to launch Nov. 21.

Linda Blumberg, planning director for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, told the GA audience that her federation and Jewish Family Services agency are seeing increased numbers of boomers seeking their help.

American Jews over age 50 are losing their jobs and coming to the federation for help paying mortgages, accessing health care and training for jobs in new sectors, she said. Blumberg noted that many were former donors who are no longer able or willing to give — at least not at previous levels.

The Detroit federation has created a number of programs to help these adults. Women to Work provides job training for women who have never been in the workforce but whose husbands are now unemployed. Prime Time helps those over 50 prepare for a second career and acquire necessary computer skills, as well as estate planning and medical care.

“Federations are certainly interested in increasing their donor base, and are looking for ways to engage baby boomers as volunteers, too,” Blumberg said, noting that a number of boomers have been recruited to serve on committees, plan these initiatives and even provide the pro-bono professional services that their colleagues now need to access, from medical care to legal advice.

It is well known that federations are trying to engage and train young leaders, but this year for the first time the Detroit federation started a leadership training program for boomers to bring them into the federation system as planners and other agency personnel.

“We are looking for opportunities that speak to them, where they can give back to the community and make a difference,” Blumberg said. “Federations around the country haven’t really developed a comprehensive approach” to the problem.

“If we lose this generation,” she said, “we lose their children and grandchildren.”