04/09/2012 07:29 am ET Updated Jun 09, 2012

Age Discrimination: Do Not Close Your Eyes

It began as a weekend job while in college, a way to earn a few extra dollars, but became much more. Every Friday morning for three years I boarded a Metro-North train from New York and journeyed to Connecticut where I served as a weekend rabbi in a Jewish nursing home. I led Shabbat services, taught a weekly class on the Torah portion, shared meals with the residents and what was initially a part-time position transformed into a radically eye-opening experience.

The residents of that nursing home taught me to see the world in a way that I have carried with me ever since my days there. They introduced me to how society infantilizes the elderly and makes them feel useless and unwanted. The residents of that nursing home had struggled, fought and persevered through World War I, the Great Depression and World War II and yet people half their age treated them as if they had no wisdom and no life experience to offer. Furthermore, they faced significant obstacles to finding employment in a work culture that favored the young over the old. This discrimination was pervasive in every sector of the work force.

Age discrimination is perhaps one of the most difficult cases to prove in court. How do you demonstrate beyond any doubt that age was the primary factor in not receiving employment? This is especially true in a job market where for every desired position, one can find dozens of applicants vying for the job. The New York Times rightly pointed out in an opinion piece that ever since a 2009 ruling by the Supreme Court on a case in Iowa, that further shifted the burden of proof even more to the elderly, this discrimination has become even more widespread. The introduction of a bipartisan bill by two Iowa state senators to reverse this court decision is a step in the right direction.

The years I worked in the nursing home environment exposed me to the never ending patterns of discrimination the elderly of our society face on a daily basis. I bore witness to their humiliation and suffering, whether by well-meaning but patronizing passersby or by dismissive potential employers. The Torah in Leviticus 19:32 poignantly enjoins us to uphold the dignity and respect that those who have come before us deserve: "You shall rise before the aged and you shall respect the elderly, and you shall fear your God; I am the Lord." The great medieval French exegete Rashi comments that the juxtaposition of fearing God with respecting the elderly comes to teach us that one cannot simply close their eyes to those deserving of our respect, recognition and appreciation because even though we think no one saw us ignoring an injustice or acting inappropriately, God knows our inner thoughts and deeds.

It is incumbent upon us as individuals and as a society to work diligently towards a day when we see a person before us who has lived a long life and who has navigated the sometimes tumultuous and murky waters of decades and decades of living that we no longer patronize them, disrespect them or dismiss them. Rather, we stand up for those who have paved the way for us and we sit by their feet gleaning the wisdom that life has bestowed them.