Twenty-five years ago, Ted Largman asked the leadership of his synagogue, Temple B’nai Or in his hometown of Morristown, for help in organizing a discussion group for its senior citizens.
“The temple’s board of directors gave me 25 bucks, and I bought day-old bagels” for the group’s first meeting, a breakfast on Sept. 10, 1989.
Largman managed to attract 45 people to that initial gathering. They named it the Renaissance Group and, he boasted, “I became the godfather.”
Within a year, the Renaissance Group became the Renaissance Coalition.
“Then this young lady made it statewide,” he said, pointing to Lila Bernstein, seated beside him in the NJ Jewish News conference room last month. “She saw beyond the narrowness of what I was looking at. She saw the bigger picture.”
Today, the B’nai Or effort has served as a model for dozens of senior groups at Reform synagogues nationwide. Aimed at “empty-nesters,” the North Jersey-New York Renaissance Coalition programs provide social, educational, and cultural programming for those in the 50-plus age group.
“Within our area, you have a sizable population of retired people who are looking to make both social and intellectual connections,” said Bernstein, who lives in Mendham. “A lot of these folks belong to synagogues, and at most of them there is a women’s group, a men’s group, and a youth group. We thought it would be beneficial for people of a ‘certain age’ group to meet and discuss their initiatives.”
Both Largman and Bernstein are retired; he was a research scientist, and she a former human resources director at a pharmaceutical company. Bernstein now is a full-time volunteer advocating for foster children and a board member of the National Council of Jewish Women’s Essex County Section.
Together, said Bernstein, the two are “a traveling team. We go to the synagogues to start new Renaissance chapters. We bring together representatives from all over the state. We share programming. We share ideas. We share bus trips. And we reinforce each other’s thinking about what it means to be an elder in the community. The important part of what we do is that we get together and talk to each other and try to solve our common issues.
“We see Renaissance as an adventure.”
Coalition dues are $15 a year, and those who join a chapter must be members of the sponsoring temple.
Neither she nor Largman wished to disclose their ages, but, Bernstein said, “most of our members are age 60 and up, and most are retired. But they are retired from occupations; they are not retired from life.”
“I think elders need something to do with their lives,” she added. “Their lives are showcases for another generation because of the accrued wisdom of their years. In the American culture, age is not revered. Quite the opposite. Especially with the baby boomers coming up, there needs to be a new vision of growing older.”
The Renaissance Coalition’s next program will be “Israel, Jews, and World Events: What You Should Know But Were Afraid to Ask” featuring Kean University political scientist and NJJN columnist Gilbert Kahn. The program, open to the entire community, will take place on Sunday, Nov. 24, at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange.