In between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot which celebrates the Jewish people’s acceptance of the ten commandments, many Jews observe a seven-week period of counting called the Omer. The idea of counting each day represents spiritual preparation and anticipation for the giving of the Torah. Each day is connected to two mystical traits that we can cultivate, explore and connect to our daily lives and actions. Two that I find particularly fascinating are authority (in Hebrew, malchut) and endurance (in Hebrew- netzach). I have been thinking a great deal about how these traits connect to the folks I work with everyday.
I work for a wonderful, statewide, grassroots seniors organization. I therefore get to spend my time with wise, feisty seniors – folks who participated in the civil rights movement or simply decided they needed something to do in retirement that would allow them to continue working toward something and realized later in life that they could shout much louder in a crowd then they ever anticipated.
In the last week of April, we convened 250 seniors from all over Massachusetts to pack the gallery of the chamber of the House of Representatives in the state house as the reps were voting on the state budget. There, we initiated a mic check, discussing the necessity of the legislature to intervene in a decision made by the public transit authority to raise fares disproportionately for seniors, people with disabilities and youth – all vulnerable populations that live on fixed incomes. We chose this more confrontational tactic because all these groups have been consistently and clearly communicating their disapproval and concerns for months now, and they have fallen on deaf ears. So we needed to regroup and raise the stakes.
This was an amazing sight to see! Hundreds of elders taking over the floor from the suit-wearing, (in many cases) power hungry legislators. And though these seniors got thrown out pretty quickly, only to pour into the hall continuing to protest boisterously for about a half hour, it became clear that this move was one of fear from the state house higher-ups; that they understood the value in the message of these people who have lived long enough to know when they are being treated unjustly and are brave enough to recognize their own power, regardless of what society’s discriminatory messaging might be to and about the older generation.
I feel privileged to spend my days having my understanding of what it means to be old completely blown. At the same time, I am saddened by how little respect seniors are granted, how much they are made to feel like burdens in America. Old is perceived as a disease and so we pathologize elders rather than see their wisdom, their accomplishment, their resoluteness. But there seem to be many who honor their own endurance and are willing to voice the authority that it births. Insodoing, they are building up their collective power as a traditionally-marginalized group and ensuring that civic engagement and the democratic process are alive and well.
As we move from Passover to Shavuot, from a place of confinement to nationhood (at least in terms of the Jewish calendar), may we all grow to recognize the fallacy of the current hierarchies and nourish our own increasing authority as we grow older!
Rachie Lewis is a Jewish Organizing Fellow and works at the Massachusetts Senior Action Council. Originally from Elkins Park, PA, she graduated from Brandeis University in 2009. She is an alumna of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps and of Yeshivat Hadar.