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Message from AJAS Conference: Setting the Standard

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield was the keynote speaker at the Association of Jewish Aging Services (AJAS) Conference. He gave a very powerful exoneration to members to continue the crucial work we’re doing—not only for the people we serve, but for the very dignity of the Jewish people.  After all, he argues, it is impossible for any group to be a caring community without a place to care for its elders.

Rabbi Hirschfield began by talking about an unprecedented shift in our society, from an exclusive focus on the quantity of life to concern for quality of life.  For most of human history, he argues, the need to survive dominated; in this era we want to thrive. 

“Choose life” is a central tenet of Jewish philosophy, which affirms our responsibility to treat all with dignity and respect.  It is not just about preserving physical existence: it’s about adding purpose and dignity to every moment.  Thus the special “value add” of Jewish elder care is that we seek to add greater meaning, greater dignity, greater purpose and greater joy.  We are at once the answer to people’s greatest fears and their greatest prayers.  In doing so, we have created sacred institutions.

Chapter 71, Book of Psalms, “Do not throw me out in my old age” could be seen, he suggests, as setting a very low bar!  Yet it is really an expression of how vulnerable people feel about how they will be treated when they are old and in need.  In meeting this obligation, we as Jewish institutions must shift from simply serving Jews to serving everyone “Jewishly”.  For a long time we had to care for Jewish elders because no one else would.  Now we can set the standard for how all elders should be cared for.  Thus we embody the Jewish way:  excellence, professionalism, dignity and maximizing the human experience.  Our true challenge is to combine clear-eyed professionalism with menschlikite.

The way we will navigate through a changing context is to be driven by our values.  The Passover story (the holiday most celebrated by Jews worldwide) is that we will leave no one behind.  Logically, it made no “sense” to take the elderly &/or sick on a long journey through the dessert.  However, it was not the efficiency of the journey, but the dignity of it that matters.  We were seeking not only freedom from oppression, but freedom to flourish.  And that freedom is exemplified by institutions like ours that help every person make the most of life from wherever they are.


Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is president of Clal - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center committed to religious pluralism and the healthier use of religion in American public life. An Orthodox rabbi, he is an expert on religion and public life, an interfaith activist, author, Washington Post columnist and regular contributor to Lou Dobbs Tonight on Fox Business Network.  He has been listed for many years in Newsweek as one of America's '50 Most Influential Rabbis.'"

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