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Never Too Old
Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Never Too Old

At 102, Ingeborg Rapoport just passed her oral exam for her doctorate that the Nazis prevented her from getting.


A new Guinness world record has just been set.

It shows us how sometimes wrongs can be righted after many decades. It proves that it’s possible for dreams to be realized even in the late twilight of our lives. It is heartwarming and inspiring. But perhaps most of all it reminds us that age is not an insurmountable barrier to great achievements.

Ingeborg Rapoport just passed her oral examination for her doctoral degree. At age 102, professors from the University of Hamburg questioned her for close to an hour on her thesis about diphtheria and were unanimous in their praise. True, the retired neonatologist who lives in Berlin had submitted her original scholarly work back in 1938 but after having her scientific conclusions validated she was not permitted to proceed with the oral exam for “racial reasons.” With a Jewish mother, the Nazis considered her ineligible for academic advancement and her medical career was categorically suspended.

Emigrating to the United States, she would finally be able to achieve part of her dream. She got her MD, married and raised a family. Only her doctorate was stolen from her by the cruelty of Nazi anti-Semitism. But recently, fate intervened. A colleague of her son, a Harvard medical school professor, shared her story with present Dean of the University of Hamburg’s medical school. Wanting to rectify the ancient wrong, the Dean allowed her now to qualify for the long denied degree. Nonetheless, she would have to pass an oral showing her knowledge of present-day advances in the field. And so Ingeborg, with failing eyesight, had friends read to her from the Internet all the current new information about diphtheria. She absorbed it all, retained it sufficiently to overwhelmingly satisfy her examiners and today occupies the unique record of being the oldest person, at the age of 102, ever to receive a doctoral degree.

Grandma Moses and the A Team

Of course old age is not always so kind. For many, Robert Browning’s words to “grow old along with me, the best is yet to be” seem more wishful thinking than realistic possibility. Yet, it bears noting that some of mankind’s most remarkable achievements came from those already far advanced in years.

Much has been written about Anna Mary Robertson Moses, better known to the world as Grandma Moses, a woman who didn't begin to paint until the age of 76, when her hands became too crippled by arthritis to hold an embroidery needle. She found herself unable to sit around and do nothing, after a long life spent working on farms, and without any formal art training began a career spanning over a quarter of a century which would make her an internationally renowned figure whose paintings were praised by President John F. Kennedy as “inspiring an entire nation.”.

There have been many others who made a powerful impact on the world even after becoming octogenarians. At 89, Arthur Rubinstein gave one of his greatest recitals in New York's Carnegie Hall. At 89, Albert Schweitzer headed a hospital in Africa. At 88, Pablo Casals was giving cello concerts. At 88, Michelangelo conceived some of his greatest architectural plans. At 85, Coco Chanel was the head of a fashion design firm. At 84, Somerset Maugham wrote Points of View.
At 83, Aleksandr Kerensky wrote Russia and History's Turning Point. At 82, Winston Churchill wrote a History of English Speaking People. At 82, Leo Tolstoy wrote I Cannot Be Silent. At 81, Benjamin Franklin negotiated the compromise that led to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.
At 81, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe finished Faust.

But there is one more octogenarian who truly changed the history of the entire world. Grandma Moses may have inspired a nation but Moses the lawgiver, Moses the leader of the Jewish people, Moses who spoke “face-to-face” with the Almighty without doubt transformed all of mankind.

Read the biblical story and you may perhaps be amazed to note that Moses began his career at the well advanced age of 80. It was then that he stood at a bush which burned but miraculously was not consumed. It was then that he began his mission to free the Jewish people from the slavery of Egypt and to bring them to Mount Sinai to receive the words of God’s Torah. It was then that he took upon himself the difficult role of leader, teacher and guide of the Jewish people so that they might become a light unto all the nations.

And perhaps of all the messages which Moses would bring to the world, the one most closely linked with his age at the time of embarking upon a new career in life might well be the most inspiring. Age brings with it its own list of infirmities. Yet it also endows us with a kind of wisdom unknown to the young. It continues to offer us challenges and new opportunities. We may be too old to run marathons but we are never too old to dream dreams – the dreams of Ingeborg Rapoport, of Grandma Moses, and of all those who showed us that life offers ongoing trials, opportunities and blessings.

May 16, 2015

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Visitor Comments: 21

(18) Ann Canada, May 20, 2015 12:36 AM

B'H dear Rabbi Blech

Thank you dear Rabbi Blech for a most inspiring and wonderful article! Learning is the flip side of love...and these people are living that truth!

(17) Susan Rubinstein, May 19, 2015 10:20 PM

My mother is 92 now...and going ok, with alittle trouble walking

My mom is 92 and I disagree that we can't live as long as Moses..My mom (a levite decendant) may come close, as I believe..She has outlived her sisters ages, her parents ages and even many of her nieces ages..Some people have a strong will to stay alive..I know her blood pressure pills have helped her prevent strokes like her sister and mother had, so some modern medicine has helped people to make 100...others have shortened our lives, like psych drugs and their dangerous side effects.

(16) Anonymous, May 19, 2015 6:53 AM

We can take it as a lesson but people lived longer in the days of Moses. His body and mind were not begining to deteriorate like many people today in their 80s

(15) Anonymous, May 19, 2015 4:26 AM

Good Comment...there are now .....

Good comment above from the Australian Jew who travelled to NY, and got to The Rebbe, when he was 90 ...........

There are now I believe over 6,000 Chabad Houses worldwide,
And to think The Wonderful Rebbe started this concept on his 70th Birthday...............

It just goes to show even starting out later on in life doesn't mean you can't be successful in Torah, Mitzvos or in another worthy endevor

(14) Anonymous, May 18, 2015 7:21 PM

What about The Lubavitcher Rebbe ZyA at the age of 70 starting the concept of Chabad Houses

Great article Rabbi Bleich and

In the business world Ray Kroc began McDonalds at the age of 52. How many of us think at 52 about starting a company!

LeHavdil, in the world of Torah, the Chofetz Chaim Tzl began writing and publishing many of his Seforim later on in his long and fruitful life, any of them when he was older than 50!

Consider the wonderful achievements of the Lubavitcher Rebbe TZl ZyA he suggested on his 70th Birthday that the idea of Chabad Houses should begin, within a year there was established more than 70 Chabad Houses!

In the world of Torah , we have a fantastic examples of 'older individuals' using heir talents to help Am Yisrael and all humanity.

(Interestingly are The Rebbe's comments against many of the Western notions of 'retirement' and becoming older, maybe that deserves another article.
Maybe Rabbi Bleich could write another great article on this...... Just a suggestion :)))

I remember in 1990 when our family travelled to USA from Australia for my younger Brother's Wedding in Cincinnati we had the honour and zechus of going to the 'Sunday Dollars' in New York , and how then the wonderful 90 year old Rebbe received us with a wonderful smile, good wishes and many Brochos!
The Rebbe looked at me with a wonderful smile that showed he had a real love of other Jews! I still remember with elation these precious minutes spent with the -90 year old Rebbe!

At the time of The Rebbe's passing at the age if 92 there was approximately over 3,000 Chabad Houses worldwide!

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