Older Generations Are Reclaiming Rites of Passage

Harry Oxman’s bar mitzvah at the Society Hill Synagogue in Philadelphia looked much like the traditional Saturday morning event.

He recited the customary prayers before and after the Torah reading. He discussed the meaning of the day’s Torah portion. He carried the sacred scrolls in a procession around the sanctuary. The rabbi offered a blessing; the congregation yelled a congratulatory “Mazel tov!” and tossed pieces of candy to symbolize the sweetness of the days ahead. Lunch followed, with toasts from family members.

The difference was that the celebration, a tradition that normally marks Jewish adulthood for 13-year-olds, occurred in 2019, when Mr. Oxman was 83. Because the 90th Psalm says that age 70 represents a full life span, some congregations offer this rite of passage — often for the second time — to those turning 83.

“It comes at a different transitional moment in life,” Rabbi Nathan Kamesar, who proposed the ritual to Mr. Oxman, said. “It’s the reflective moment, the opportunity to look back at the life you’ve led, and perhaps ahead to what the next chapter might be.”

Younger people have many rituals that mark important passages — graduations, weddings, ceremonies for newborns, even milestones like acquiring drivers’ licenses or casting first votes — while older adults have few. Though birthday and anniversary parties may be great fun, they do not usually involve the same kind of life-cycle changes or the contemplation that rituals can bring later in life.

That’s partly because ceremonies observed since antiquity don’t acknowledge the longevity of modern life, Jeanette Leardi, a social gerontologist and community educator in Portland, Ore., said. Americans born in 1900 didn’t expect to see age 50; why would they have planned rituals for later in life?

But the lack of opportunities to celebrate, Ms. Leardi said, also reflects the ageist assumption that older adults have nothing much to look forward to, that they are incapable of change. Yet transitions lie at the heart of such rites of passage, she added: “As a culture, we don’t have an appreciation that this person has lived for decades and is ready to move into a new role, and that we should honor that.”

Mr. Oxman is now 86 and still a practicing lawyer. Raised by secular Jewish parents, he did not have a bar mitzvah as a teen. Decades later, “it was important to me to have done it,” he said. Although he had served as president of the congregation, he said, the ceremony and the weeks of preparation were “extremely meaningful” and marked “the first time I felt like I really belonged.”

Here and there, older adults are inventing or reinventing other rites of passage at important junctures in their lives.

Katherine Spinner, a child care provider, spent many weekends commuting from her home in Seattle to classes at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. Decades earlier, bouts of depression had interrupted her education. But later in life, she said, “I was not horribly depressed, and after a lot of work, I’d finished my degree.”

In 2018, at age 60, she marked her graduation at the University Friends Meeting in Seattle, where she had long been a member. She organized a special meeting for worship in the unprogrammed Quaker tradition, where some participants were moved to speak.

The gathering included a potluck dinner, an exhibit of her ceramic sculptures and lots of singing. “I felt I was offering something and also receiving appreciation from my community,” Ms. Spinner said.

Mr. Oxman’s tallit. While most older adults will have the late-life rituals of a funeral or memorial, they do not hear the hymns or poems, remembrances or eulogies.Credit…Michelle Gustafson for The New York Times

At Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, Senior Rabbi Rachel Timoner plans to add blessings for congregants entering retirement or becoming grandparents to sabbath services. She also intends to offer a ritual developed in the 1980s for older women called simchat chochmah, a celebration of aging and wisdom.

“The second half of life includes so many moments that are worthy of attention and communal celebration,” Rabbi Timoner said.

Other late-in-life rites take secular forms. Some proponents have devised rituals for common but fraught experiences such as handing over car keys and relinquishing driving, or leaving the family home for a senior living facility.

Nancy Rhine, a gerontologist and marriage and family therapist in Mill Valley, Calif., has helped about 40 older adults prepare for and process late-life rituals involving hours of retrospection and introspection, art and music. “They’re looking at legacy, life review, taking stock,” she said. “It’s that searching, a contemplative practice.” Her oldest such client was 81.

This spring, Kris Govaars was turning 70 and still mourning his wife, Vicki Govaars, who had died in 2019, just weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “I was a boat without a tether,” Mr. Govaars, a former architectural consultant in the Bay Area, said. “I was struggling, trying to figure out my next steps.”

He came across the Center for Conscious Eldering, founded by Ron Pevny, author of “Conscious Living, Conscious Aging,” and decided to join its weeklong retreat at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, N.M. His group of 14, which included people in their 50s to their 80s, spent several days engaging in spiritual practices, exercises and discussions.

For his culminating ritual, called a “solo journey,” Mr. Govaars selected a private spot on a riverbank. After passing through a portal formed by two trees (and having a close encounter with a bobcat), he fasted, maintained silence, read poetry, journaled and wrote “legacy letters” for his two children. “I just spent a lot of time in thinking and meditation,” he said, deeply moved by the experience.

“The outcome is hopefully a greater sense of happiness and purpose,” he explained. “I feel calmer. I feel much more introspective. I listen with an open heart and mind. I may look the same, but I am different.”

In addition to helping people see old age as a phase of life with purpose and rewards, along with the more commonly recognized challenges and deficits, rituals for older adults may affect others, Ms. Leardi pointed out.

“They benefit the community,” she said. “You might have little kids there — young people, other elders — watching you go through this, hopefully aspiring to this. You cross the threshold and walk into your future.”

Most older adults, of course, will have the late-life ritual of a funeral or memorial, a remembrance some may plan themselves. That, too, involves contemplation of their lives, their contributions and accomplishments. But while some older adults plan their own memorials, they do not hear the hymns or poems, remembrances or eulogies.

But Mr. Oxman did see his family and friends celebrate him and his role in his synagogue, his community and the world. He heard his rabbi bestow a blessing and tell the gathering that Mr. Oxman had spent his days wisely.

“Your presence is felt,” Rabbi Kamesar said. “Your legacy is accounted for. You matter, in a significant way, and in some ways, that’s all we’re here to do in this world.”

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