Finding religion later in life

Sara Weiss was raised as an atheist in a small Michigan town. She raised her children as atheists as well. As a college anthropology instructor in Florida, she taught her students about God as an anthropomorphic concept.

But after a painful divorce, a stressful move to New York and the loss of a promised job, Weiss, 68, of Garden City, found herself searching for answers. “I was scared to death,” she said of her situation at the time. That’s when a friend invited her to the synagogue he attended in Forest Hills. “I was so unhappy, miserable and really broken from the divorce that I began to think that maybe there’s something here,” she said. “The Torah portions we read and the sermons the rabbi gave were just fantastic, and that’s what got me to think about affiliating with organized religion.”

After 25 years in corporate finance, Jim Van Schaick walked into a United Methodist Church in Manhattan and decided he was home. Raised in the church, he had married a Roman Catholic woman and attended Catholic mass all through his marriage. After his divorce and a move from Ridgefield, Conn., to Manhattan, he began passing a local Methodist church on his way to work each day. “I had walked by the church for three years, and I always said, ‘One day I’m going to go to that church.’ I woke up one morning, and I knew that was the day I was going back.”

In 2003, at the age of 50, Van Schaick entered a seminary. He’s now pastor of First Church Baldwin, United Methodist.

The decision to return to a religious community, to search for a new one, or to simply become more deeply involved varies from person to person. But for many people, questions about their spirituality and faith become more intense as they enter their 40s and 50s.

“One reason is simply about time, available time. People who are into their 50s, generally the kids are gone, they have more time, they have more freedom,” said Rabbi Meir Feldman of Temple Beth-El in Great Neck. Feldman undertook a re-examination of his own spirituality when he was 38 and, after a career as an attorney, entered a seminary. “Another issue is they begin to see their mortality in a much clearer way. They have seen friends who are ill or who have passed. And sometimes there is just curiosity, and now that there is more time and space in their lives, people have time to feed their curiosity.”

Searching after a loss

Psychologist Richard Schaub, who runs the Huntington Meditation and Imagery Center, counsels clients searching for spiritual answers. The author of several books on the subject, Schaub said there are two main triggers for a spiritual search later in life. “They suffer a loss that changes their world or shakes up their perspective of how things were going to be. Some revisit their traditional religion . . . others begin a search to seek out a way of looking at things. It’s basically a way to balance the mind, to bring solace and balance to the mind to take in the reality of loss. And really what’s underneath that is they become aware of their own limited time.

The other reason is less defined, Schaub said. “Something creeps up on them and they start to ask classic midlife questions: ‘Is this all there is? Isn’t there more to life? Am I wasting my life the way I’m living my life now?’ Basic questions about values begin to crop up. What happens along with that, they begin to feel more discontent, more listless. They go into a quiet crisis, and it can be quite extensive.”

Donna Vacca, 66, owner of Estate Jewels in Huntington, was looking for a deeper sense of spirituality and came to Schaub’s center for meditation. Raised in a strict Italian Catholic household, she attended Catholic schools and felt a deep connection to her religion early on. “There was an aura of spirituality in the house, and I found my spirituality probably at 8 years old,” she said.

As she grew into adulthood, Vacca said she found her faith morphing into a spirituality with a deep connection to the church but not necessarily to church dogma or its stand on social issues. “The spirituality became more intense as I’ve gotten older,” she said. “When I’m in church, especially if it’s a church that looks like what I think a church should look like and the priest is right and hymns are right, I’m transported to a deep connection to God or higher being.”

Like many Baby Boomers exploring their spirituality, Vacca said she needed all the experience of her years to allow her to appreciate the importance and meaning of her spirituality. “As you get older, you get wiser, and then you can admit you know nothing,” she said.

Doing what matters

Van Schaick began reconnecting to his spirituality at the same time he was becoming disenchanted with the business world. “I lacked the sense that I was doing anything that mattered,” he said. Now remarried with two children, he appreciates how his maturity has helped him relate to his congregation. “My life experience, a sense of myself, level of maturity- there are so many days I just thank God for every bit of experience I bring to this job.”

For Sara Weiss, it was about finding a sense of spirituality and community at the Forest Hills synagogue. “I really believe that having found that faith was the reason I’m still alive,” she said. “I don’t think I would have survived without it. And here I am a nice Jewish girl working for a bunch of Christian ministers.” Weiss is director of development for the Long Island Council of Churches, helping to raise funds to feed 26,000 Long Islanders a year. “I know what it’s like to be destitute,” she said. “It’s been 20 years, but you never forget that, so I really have a heart for this.”

Now a member of Community Synagogue of Port Washington, Weiss had her bat mitzvah at the age of 53. As she studied the Torah, there were certain themes that called out to her, particularly in the story of Joseph. “That’s what I identify with,” she said, “the suffering and the redemption motif, a rescuing and a lifting up and establishing a relationship with God.”

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