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Interview: GTF professor Rabbi James Michaels on his book about Jewish pastoral care for seniors



Last year we did an interview with Rabbi Dr. James Michaels, Professor of Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Foundation, and his co-editor, Rabbi Cary Kozberg, on their book about Jewish pastoral care for seniors, one of the only (if not the only) books on the subject.  Are you in the field of pastoral care?  Perhaps this book could help!

Read on, and let us know what you think by leaving a comment below.


Thank you for speaking to the Foundation about your new book, Flourishing in the Later Years: Jewish Pastoral Insights on Senior Residential Care.  Can you shed some light on how this book came to be and how your respective experience and expertise informs the work?

Rabbi James Michaels:  A number of years ago, we became aware that very little had been written about the field of pastoral care in senior care settings. This was especially true for Jewish aging services. We realized the field is evolving rapidly, so we decided to solicit specialists in the field to write about the subject.

Rabbi Cary Kozberg:  From our shared experience and those of colleagues, it was evident that people from the various disciplines who work with Jews living in senior residential facilities don’t always have a solid knowledge base about Judaism and Jewish culture. Often they are not prepared to effectively address the specific religious and cultural needs of Jewish residents and their families.  This was the main reason that the book’s approach is multi-disciplinary.


The book description mentions that you as authors and editors share “insights into the very core of what it means to be old in our culture.”  What does it mean to be old in American culture, and does this differ for seniors of other cultures who are in residential care in America? 

JM:  As the Baby Boomers age, their care will be one of the major issues confronting American society: Where will seniors live, who will care for them if they’re ill, who will pay for this care? The biblical edict to honor the elderly will be severely put to the test. As one who has just turned 65, I’m very concerned about what will happen to me in another 15 to 20 years. I think everyone in my age cohort should be concerned about it. Not to do so would be naïve.

CK: Having just turned 61myself, I share Jim’s concern about how society will treat us Baby Boomers in the coming years.  I think Western culture in general, and American culture in particular, is at best ambivalent about what it means to be old.  On the one hand, we say that we have a moral duty to honor the elderly and to properly care for people as they age and become more physically and cognitively compromised.  But on the other hand, ageism is rampant everywhere. If comedians made the kind of jokes about minorities that they make about older adults, they’d be summarily fired.  Western societies have pioneered the concept of providing housing for older adults outside of the extended family, and a large number of professional care-givers are from Third World countries. Yet, in their own societies, it is unthinkable that one would put older family members in such a place—it is tantamount to abandoning them.

Given that you are both rabbis, can you talk about what Judaism offers to the American perspective on aging?

JM:  Leviticus 19:32 states, “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old”.  The thrust of Jewish tradition has always been to give honor and dignity to the elderly. Senior residential care facilities run under Jewish auspices allow people of all beliefs and cultures to receive respect and adequate care.  In the future, many senior citizens will opt to “age in place;” that is, they will live where they’ve always lived, or in homes and apartments which are conducive to their needs. The Jewish community will need to develop ways serve them, regardless of where they live. I would hope that all social service agencies will do the same.

CK: To expand on Jim’s comment, the commandment in Leviticus tells us to honor the elderly precisely because it is human nature NOT to do so. Furthermore, the commandment directly links our showing reverence for God to our showing deference to the elderly.  Rabbi Abraham Heschel put it best when he wrote “a test of a people is how it behaves toward the old.”  How we behave toward the elderly says a lot about us.


In your estimation, as Jewish religious leaders, what do you think has been both positive and negative about secularism regarding our understanding and experience of the aging process and elder care?

JM:  I’ve observed that many non-religious people want to live in facilities which honor religious traditions and encourage religious observance. It seems that they feel more comfortable in such settings, even if they didn’t emphasize religious practices when they were younger. Society may be secular in general, but those providing elder care should honor the religious impulse.

CK:   Certainly, keeping the “public square” secular and free from any one religious influence has helped all of us appreciate the beliefs and religious opinions of others that differ from our own.  However, I don’t think that such a strategy—keeping religion out– is necessarily a good one to follow in a senior residential care facility and certainly not in one that is under the auspices of a faith community.

Religion is an important means by which people can confront their mortality.  By connecting to the sacred, they connect with something that transcends them as individuals.  Participating in the religious activities of their own faith community helps older persons feel a deep sense of linking to the past, while also deriving the assurance that the community itself will continue after they have passed on.

To be sure, there are many faith-based facilities whose populations are religiously diverse; they don’t need to create a secular ambience in an effort to respect all traditions. On the contrary, if their missions are based on the belief that all people are created in the Divine Image, they should create the means for all residents to live according to their respective religious beliefs. (In our book, we have included several articles which illustrate how this is done.)  This can be an essential element in providing holistic, person-centered care.


Read more about Rabbis Michaels & Kozberg’s new book by clicking here.


MichaelsRabbi James Michaels is Professor of Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological and Director of Pastoral Care at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington in Rockville, Maryland.  He has had a distinguished career as a pulpit rabbi and health care chaplain with roots in the academic community. Born in Auburn, New York, he received his B.A. from Cornell University in 1968, and was ordained and received his M.A. from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 1974.  Rabbi Michaels received his Doctor of Ministry in pastoral counseling from the Graduate Theological Foundation in 2006, with a specialization in bereavement counseling.  In 2005, he became a board certified chaplain, and in 2007, was certified as a CPE supervisor.  (To read Rabbi Michaels’ faculty profile, please click here.)


Kozberg-Cary-blog1Rabbi Cary Kozberg is the Director of Religious Life at Wexner Heritage Village, a senior residential care facility in Columbus, Ohio.  A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Texas (Phi Beta Kappa), Rabbi Kozberg received his Masters of Hebrew Letters and Rabbinic Ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.  He served two congregations and was the Hillel Director at the University of Texas in Austin. He has worked at WHV since 1989, creating and developing its religious and spiritual program for both Jewish and non-Jewish residents, their families and WHV staff. (To read more about Rabbi Kozberg, please click here.)