The Unwelcome Elderly

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



“You shall rise before the white head and honor the face of the old and you shall fear your God, I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:32). This commandment and a number of others in the Torah displays the Jewish view of old age.

The American point of view concerning old age rejects this Jewish teaching altogether. In twenty-first century America, the old are treated “like skunks at a picnic.” Those who look old and even younger people can become the target of ageism, which is best defined as hatred and contempt for the old.

It is remarkable that sexism and racism are denounced all day every day all over the United States, even as those most adamant in their pursuit of the “offenders” are foremost among the ranks of the ageists.

The old in America are rejected, insulted, ridiculed, held in contempt, ignored, demeaned, belittled, overlooked, left out, locked out, cheated, abandoned, and condemned. Contempt for the “old” forces those so labeled to live in segregated communities such as nursing homes, assisted living, senior communities, and any other device insuring the “old” are out of sight.

It is significant that ageists of today become the victims of ageism tomorrow. Racists and sexists are hardly so encumbered. Yet those who campaign against the old reap what they sow when they are “old.”

“Old” is relative. Many a forty year old cannot find a job because of his age. In some industries even thirty is too old to find employment. Ageism is so pervasive that children call twenty five year old teachers “an old bat.”

In view of all this our synagogues drive the “old” out of the congregation. Ignoring Jewish teaching, “old” members are ignored. For example, at “shivah” visits the widow is usually overlooked, while the visitors talk to each other but not to the most affected. At “Kiddush” after Shabbat services, the “old” are ignored. No one speaks to them, no one greets them. The rabbi is anxious to meet only with the congregational bosses and treats the “old” as if Jewish teachings concerning old age do not exist.

“Old” Jews learn gradually that they are not welcome “in shul” and stay away even as the so-called “young” prepare their own rejection by teaching those yet younger to reduce them to non-persons.

There is a solution to this assault on all of us. That is to lead a productive life. Retire to writing books, playing an instrument in a dance band, studying  a foreign language, starting your own business, visiting the hospitalized, or studying the Talmud, and remember that you are a dignified person no matter the ageists in your synagogue who don’t hesitate asking for your money so long as you don’t come there any more.

Shalom u’vracha .

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Gender, Sex, & Status (2019).

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