When Nancy Pollinger moved to Desert Ridge in 2016, she found herself wondering where all the Jewish people were. She had moved from a rather tight-knit community — “kind of a ghetto” — in Baltimore, Maryland, and Greater Phoenix’s Jewish community wasn’t as clearly marked as in her hometown, she joked.
Luckily, the internet provided assistance. Pollinger was intrigued by something called Wise Aging on the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Phoenix’s website. It seemed like it could be right up her alley — after all she was aging too. But more than that, she didn’t want to move to Arizona only “to live in a cocoon after retiring,” she said. “I wanted to give back to the Jewish community.”
She investigated the program and soon was part of a group of people who would become close friends and confidantes. She became a facilitator herself and has run her own Wise Aging cohort since.
On April 25, BJE will host Wise Aging’s fourth annual fundraiser gala. Last year, the gala took place soon after COVID-19 restrictions took effect and before many people were Zoom savvy, but it still “went beautifully and was very successful,” said Linda Levin, the program’s first facilitator and director of the Wise Aging Center. Now that people understand the virtual world better, she expects “to knock it out of the park.”
This year’s gala will feature Ashton Applewhite, anti-ageism activist and author of The Chair that Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. Levin expects people from all over the country to tune in.
The Wise Aging program is based on the book “Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience, and Spirit” by Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Linda Thal and is part of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.
“The program is a way to transition as you age into living a life filled with purpose, vitality and knowledge, which translates to wisdom and happiness,” said Pollinger. “It breaks down the myth that we need to just decline or that we’re irrelevant. It lets people feel relevant, connected and supported.”
While that idea might seem a shoe-in for a city filled with retirees, Wise Aging arrived through a somewhat circuitous path.
Harriet Rosen, an active volunteer in the community, was familiar with the program and believed in its mission. She enlisted the help of her friend, Connie Wolf, and the two of them visited with synagogue and community leaders about bringing the program to Arizona. Rosen gained support before bringing it to a board member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix who provided initial funding and eventually asked the BJE to become a home for the program. Myra Shindler, executive director of BJE, then asked Levin to become a facilitator and a coordinator for the program. Levin also keeps track of new Wise Aging groups and continues to train new facilitators.
Levin, who had experience teaching college classes in developmental psychology and aging, was excited to sign on. In part, she was motivated by the simple fact that “I’m aging myself, and the program has a wonderful perspective on aging — instead of the typical negative one about aging bodies and wrinkles,” she said. “I wanted to grow from this and learn from it.”
And she did. Along with a group of volunteers, Levin was trained by Thal to become a facilitator for BJE’s first cohort. The whole process was enlightening and fun, she said.
“Personally, it helped me to grow spiritually, emotionally and mentally,” said Levin, “and to look at life from a more resilient perspective enabling me to help others.” She has been pleased to watch it catch on with both men and women from all walks of life: teachers, doctors, lawyers, counselors and many others. And while it has Jewish origins, the program is open to people of all faiths.
Pollinger continues to be inspired as well and is proud that her class has sustained itself over the last few years — even in the face of COVID-19. When the group was forced onto Zoom, they called themselves the Hollywood Squares. Joking aside, she said her group has been successful “because we’ve created a sense of trust — a confidence in knowing what we say is confidential and valued. More importantly, everyone is heard.”
A silent art auction begins on April 7 and can be accessed until the gala. JN
For tickets to the event, visit bjephoenix.org.