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The Only Yarmulke In The Room

I had mixed feelings sitting there. I was hoping to find a compadre but deep down knew this to be very unlikely. This was a conference attended by movers and shakers from across the country in the field of environmental health. Participants included academicians, CEOs,  PhDs,  MDs  such as the Senior Director, National Environmental Education Foundation, Professors and Chairs of Intergenerational Programs and Aging at Penn State University, Temple University, and UCLA, Vice President for Programming Strategy, WK Kellogg Foundation, Dean of CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, as well as professors and practitioners of nutrition, agriculture, visual art, architecture, and music. I had been invited as a member of a national group of professionals dedicated to the field of aging.

I was uncomfortable because my attendance was not purely to learn and share my knowledge, although I certainly did expect to obtain new knowledge. Today I had a mission. The organizers are the very leaders in the field of whom I had written  about in this same column expressing disappointment. They seemingly had not taken into consideration the Orthodox Jewish population in their respective projects, the US EPA Aging Initiative and the NYC Age Friendly Project. I had registered to advance my agenda. It offered an opportunity to directly approach them with my concerns. It needed to be done respectfully to foster better understanding and a positive result.

The other element that was unusual was the very structure of the program. It was touted as an “unconference,” with no abstracts, no data nor scientific research presentations. The objective was to collectively address the environmental  health aspects of how we live, work, play and socialize throughout life, and how we can transform our environments to promote health and prevent disease. Instead of the standard call for abstracts, the conference issued a call for creative submissions: imagine a world unpaved – I did not know what to expect.

As it turned out, I was welcomed. These are some observations I shared in a letter to the program organizers:

“I registered in order to learn the state-of- the-art and become inspired. Indeed, those objectives were readily accomplished.

Secondly, in the spirit of fostering inclusiveness of diverse constituents, engaging every sector, a fundamental theme of the proceedings, I saw it as an opportunity to raise awareness to the cultural practices of the Orthodox Jewish population. I intended to advocate that public health leadership become aware of Orthodox Jewish practices as they relate to health intervention outcomes, and incorporate this knowledge in service delivery. This too was fulfilled.

We all experienced a sampling of this issue at the conference. How many are aware that the invigorating Breathing Song, Balancing, and Sing Along would not be acceptable to many of those practicing Orthodox  Jewish  tradition?  However,  if it were tweaked a bit, we could all benefit from it. As another illustration, use of the Internet is discouraged and not a ready teaching tool. A recent rabbinic outcry regarding the dangers of internet use filled both Citifield and Arthur Ashe stadiums. 60, 000 thousand seats were filled that May evening, more than any recent sports event. And what about the physician who orders a two-week regimen of care? If the patient feels it is inappropriate to take the pill or administer the intervention due to Sabbath observance, the physician is unaware of this behavior, the patient is not comfortable discussing this with his doctor, and as a result, the care management plan becomes modified due to incomplete information.

Your program provided the forum to share these insights, and I was heard. I am most appreciative.”

A contributing author to this issue of Kol HaKavod News is someone I met at the conference, I was subsequently invited to join a panel at the American Society on Aging in Chicago, and received this response from the New York Academy of Medicine, the lead agency for the City’s Age-Friendly initiatives:

You are right that we have not paid specific attention to the Orthodox Jewish community within which there is also of course much diversity.

We hope that community organizations and leaders such as yourself will ask the older adults where you live about the strengths and challenges of aging in New York, in your neighborhood, and share what you learn with those who can make change both locally and at the city level. We now rely on neighborhood partners and recently created and are  distributing a toolkit that communities themselves can use called Creating an Age-Friendly NYC: One Neighborhood at a Time.

Here is a link to the toolkit: http://www.nyam.org/agefriendlynyc/docs/Toolkit_Report_0321-VA-new.pdf

Editor’s Note: Readers, please share your responses and suggestions with me. Your  input is welcome.

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