For young and old: spirituality and aging lecture series welcomes Rabbi Sara Perman


Rabbi Sara Perman delivered a lecture at the Fred Rogers Center on Wednesday, Oct. 23, entitled “Ethical Wills.” The lecture was the second installment of Saint Vincent’s fall series on “Aging and Spirituality.”

Perman, now retired, served as rabbi of the Emanu-El reform congregation in Greensburg for 31 years. She graduated from Hebrew Union College as part of the first class that included a larger number of women.

An ethical will, Perman explained, is a document for the purpose of passing on ethical or moral principles. For example, it may be used to give moral instruction to children or descendents, to express the values of the deceased, to express gratitude or ask forgiveness, or to request specific funeral or burial arrangements. An ethical will is intended to complement a legal will by passing on moral rather than physical property.

Greensburg residents Dennis and Dotty Dominick were among the 50 or so attendees on Wednesday. Along with two friends, they are attending all the lectures in the series.

Dennis Dominick was unfamiliar with ethical wills before the talk.

“We’ve been coming to all of the talks,” Dennis Dominick said. “The whole thing started with spirituality and aging. We’re starting to get older.”

Dotty Dominick sees attending the lectures as a way to gain knowledge.

“We thought we fit the bill,” Dotty Dominick said. “The three of us are retired — he’s still working. So things like this, if I was still working, I wouldn’t go to. So now I’m trying to just expand my knowledge on as many things as possible.”

Mary Beth Spore, dean of the school of social sciences, communication and education, is co-director of the Spirituality and Aging series. She explained that this fall’s series is part of a much larger project.

“In Sept. 2010,” she said, “Fr. Vernon Holtz and Br. Ben Janecko began this series by discussing how successfully resolving our contradictions in midlife (with our marriage, our job, and our living situation) can enable us to see late adulthood as not the end of a fulfilled life, but the beginning of a whole new kind of life.”

Holtz and Janecko approached her about beginning a series of talks centered around the topic of aging. Since then, lectures have been offered each semester on related subjects.

Spore suggested that the audience for the talks is driving their success.

“The biggest connection, of course, is the audience. They’re aging, of course. . . . I call them the ‘Seekers,’ because sometimes older people have a reputation, a false one, of being close-minded,” she said.

The attendees are open-minded and faith-filled, Spore contends. She remembers a secular humanist from Carnegie Mellon University who delivered a talk a few years ago.

“He gave a very heartfelt talk about what secular humanists believe, about their behavior, about the world. And they listened very attentively. The very last question, an older woman was called upon. And she said, ‘Well, I have to tell you, that I do believe in heaven, I do believe in God, and I do believe that there is a life beyond this one. And I know you don’t believe. And here’s what I want to tell you: I listened to you tonight, and I have to tell you that I think I will go to heaven, and I will meet you there.’ And there was just this pause, and the speaker looked at her and he said, ‘You can’t imagine how much I hope you are correct.’ That was one of my favorite moments,” Spore said.

But she wants to bring in students and young people as well, and thinks that doing so would be helpful both for the older and the younger generation.

“I always hoped that I could commingle some of our younger people, the students, into this group, because I think it would change some of their opinions about older people,” Spore said.

Spore believes that aging often produces a divide and a general lack of understanding between generations.

“They both have concerns about each other. One that, when you’re old, you kind of curl up and die, and you don’t think anymore, you don’t learn anymore, you believe what you believe. And the older people look at the younger in despair of the technology that seems to be so obsessive,” Spore said.

Spore mentioned that they often express concerns about the faith of young people as well.

In much the same way, Rabbi Perman believes that ethical wills are important for the young and the elderly to consider together. After all, an ethical will is left behind to benefit the next generation.

“I think, especially, a college student is ready to start to talk to their parents or maybe their grandparents about what their preferences are for death, or funeral, or those kinds of things,” Perman said. “I think you can say, ‘You know, I’d like to talk to you about what’s important in terms of your values. You’ve sent me to a Catholic university — are there certain Catholic values that are important to you? How do you feel about abortion, mom and dad? How do you feel about intermarriage? How do you feel about immigration?’ So even if it’s not written down, you at least have begun the conversation. And maybe then, further down the road, suggest to a family member, ‘Have you thought about putting this in writing for me or recording this for me so that I can pass it down to my children?’”

Spore has a plan to make similar conversations happen in the context of the lecture series.

“Because I get a lot of the attendees telling me about their concerns for younger people, I’ve really toyed with the idea of bringing in a panel of students to talk about various issues. Their faiths would be something that this crowd would be very interested in. They are intensely curious about the interpersonal relationships that young people have versus their technological relationships. I’m thinking about this for February, March, April — our last three sessions,” Spore said.

The next installment of the Spirituality and Aging Series will be held on Nov. 15 from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Fred Rogers Center.

Photos: Dan Speicher/ Tribune-Review

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