The Evolving Meaning Of ‘Senior Colleague’

Earlier this year, as I was approaching (with no small degree of apprehension) the imminent arrival of my 60th birthday, I found myself struggling to address exactly what turning 60 meant to me. What was its significance?

I’m still not sure that I have one definitive answer to that question, but I do have one answer that I know is true. Being 60 means that, no matter how hard you might try, you can’t realistically claim to be young anymore.

Before you go any further, I will assure you that this is not a “crying in his beer” article about aging. Actually, it is quite the opposite. And, since I can almost hear people saying things like “60 isn’t old,” “you’re only as old as you feel,” “I am a better and more interesting person at 60 than I was at 30,” and every other cliché that you could think of, let me also assure you that I agree. You’re all right. Turning 60 in 2013 is not the end of the world by any stretch of the imagination, and it may well be that the best years of my life are still in front of me (there, I thought I’d throw in one more cliché just for good measure). Life continues to be very good for me, and I am a happy and contented man.

But… being 60 is not young. Twenty is young. Thirty is young. Forty is pushing middle age. Fifty is middle age. Sixty is… how shall I put this? Late middle age. That’s not a statement on the quality of life at 60, just a fact. One can certainly be a young 60, and I hope that I am. But just in terms of years alone, it is a time to admit that, channeling George Jefferson, one is “movin’ on up,” and not to the East Side.

The rabbinate is one of those professions in which age can be an asset. I have absolutely no doubt that I am a better pastor now than I was when I assumed rabbinic responsibility at the age of 28. I have, by definition, 32 years more of experience than I had when I began this career. I have seen 32 years worth more of the agonies and ecstasies of human experience, and I, myself, have mourned the loss of both of my parents. I have raised four children, the youngest of whom is now 20, and I had no children when I set out on this path. I was a “young rabbi with great promise” when I was 28, but I had barely been around life’s block. Now I have. I know what it means to grieve, to exult in a child’s accomplishment, and to literally, physically hurt when he/she is in pain. Experience is an indispensable component of pastoring.

But, of course, all 60-year-old rabbis know that, when congregations go looking for new rabbis, they tend to want “young, dynamic” types- for understandable reasons. They want to attract younger new members, and assume that older clergy would be less attractive to that very desirable cohort of the market. Very few congregations look for “seasoned, experience-rich” men and women. It’s not really all that different from the rest of the work force, which can be notoriously reluctant to hire older job candidates.

I am one of the luckier rabbis that I know, in that my congregation, the Forest Hills Jewish Center, has a long history of practicing what the commodities crowd might call “buy and hold.” They find their rabbis young, invest in their growth, and find satisfaction in the depth and breadth of their experience. My predecessor, the great Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, of blessed memory, led this congregation for fifty years, and was revered in both his younger and older years. My thirty-two years are but another example of their appreciation of “seasoned clergy,” something that I never, ever, take for granted, and for which I am grateful every day.

A few months ago, I wrote a piece for this paper on my very first experience of getting a “senior discount.” It hasn’t happened again since then, and frankly, that’s just fine with me. But earlier this week, I came to a realization that was, in a larger sense, immeasurably more significant. Because of retirements and job changes among some local colleagues, I am about to become one of the most senior clergy people in Forest Hills, and certainly the most senior rabbi in a large congregation. And I find myself wondering– how did that happen?

It’s a long way from 28 to 60. I was a very young man in so many ways when I came to Forest Hills, and I hope and pray that the story of my career has chapters yet to be written. My rabbinate is an unfinished work. Robert Frost’s timeless closing lines from “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” resonate more deeply within this “seasoned” rabbi than ever before–

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.”

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.