Across The Great Divide


In a synagogue library in northern Westchester, a dozen senior citizens sit around a long table discussing current events. In a temple conference room on the Upper West Side, a young family talks about the tensions raised by a child’s serious illness. In the meeting room of a Long Island JCC, a group of recent widows share photographs and memories of their late husbands.

The men and women in the current events club, counseling session and bereavement support group represent a trend that is changing a face of the Jewish community. The activities — among dozens like them that have begun in the last few years, often quietly to assure participants’ anonymity — are taking place at synagogues, JCCs and some neutral sites in the New York area, coordinated by social workers as part of a UJA-Federation initiative.

For decades, the rabbi and the social worker symbolized the Jewish community’s religious-secular divide. Today, as part of UJA-Federation’s Partners in Caring, social workers are working in scores of local synagogues with rabbis’ approval, while rabbis publicly from the pulpit or privately in their studies publicize the social workers’ work and encourage congregants to sign up.

Partners in Caring is complementing rabbis’ traditional counseling duties.

“It’s not taking the place of the rabbi,” says Marge Wise, executive director of Congregation Sons of Israel in Briarcliff Manor, which sponsors several Partners in Caring programs. “It gives them additional resources.”

This evolving relationship reflects several changes in Jewish communal life:
Once-high barriers between the religious orientation of the synagogue and the more secular perspective of the JCC/federation/Jewish family service world are being lowered.
Congregations are redefining themselves.
Federations are viewing synagogues as a location for service, not merely for fundraising.

Partners in Caring, says John Ruskay, UJA-Federation’s CEO, is an attempt to “bring the incredible services of the [philanthropy’s] social service agencies to the places where Jews come together as Jews.”

“Part of the mandate is to bring people back into the Jewish community,” says Susan Kalev, a social worker-psychotherapist who is based at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side two days a week. She says social workers like her are “becoming the eyes of the synagogue.”

Since Partners in Caring began as a pilot program six years ago, the number of participating congregations has risen from 36 to 150.

At many of the synagogues rabbis confer, within the bounds of confidentiality, with the social workers who have set up a temporary base in the congregations. A disproportionate percentage of participants in the programs are senior citizens, because they are the fastest-growing part of the Jewish community.

“The rabbis adore the program, because they’re overwhelmed” by burgeoning responsibilities, says Roberta Marcus Leiner, managing director of UJA-Federation’s Caring Commission, which oversees Partners in Caring.

“It’s absolutely a partnership,” says Rabbi Steven Kane, spiritual leader of Congregation Sons of Israel. “There has not been a feeling that ‘All you want is our membership list.’”

The program’s social work consultants are based at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York City, at Westchester Jewish Community Services in Westchester and at FEGS Long Island Family Services in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

“We get calls 24 hours a day from rabbis for emergencies,” says Shari Baum, who coordinates Partners in Caring in Westchester. “Now the rabbis have another place to go for support,” says Audrey Bernstein, a social worker who leads support groups through FEGS at the Sid Jacobson JCC in East Hills.

“There was a period when we saw each other as totally different from each other — the federation was secular, we were religious,” says Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis.

That has changed over the last several years, especially after 9/11, when many Jews turned to the synagogue for spiritual solace “because many felt it was futile traveling on separate paths,” Rabbi Potasnik says. “The leadership on both sides has recognized that we need to be with each other … [that the] federation and the synagogue world are allies. We have heard very positive [feedback].”

“We call ourselves the social service arm of the synagogue,” says Stuart Botwinick, director of Partners in Community Care at the Jacobson JCC. “It creates a tremendous feeling of community.”

Counseling sessions in a familiar synagogue often attract people who would fear going to a clinical setting. “It has removed a lot of the stigma,” says Marge Wise of Congregation Sons of Israel.

Because several small congregations lack the critical mass to support their own groups, their rabbis encourage members to participate in Partners in Caring programs at neutral sites like a JCC or Y. One widow in the bereavement support group hosted at the Jacobson JCC says her rabbi recommended the group to her after her husband died last year. In the support group she met women her age who had recently suffered the same loss and who knew how she felt. “I’m not the only one who felt this way,” she says. “We’re all hurting.”

The women in the group have become friends, shopping together and checking up on each other’s health.

“We get the camaraderie,” says a participant in Congregation Sons of Israel’s current events discussion group. The discussion is therapeutic, says Shari Baum, the social worker who conducts the group. “People who are in this group are not at home sitting alone.”

“Without hesitation, the pilot has been successful,” says Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein of B’nai Jeshurun. “It’s a transformative experience.” Rabbi Bronstein says the new relationship with social workers reinforces the outreach orientation of the synagogue. “It helps foster the culture of caring. We always were a very caring congregation. But we can do it better now.”

Susan Kalev has her own cubicle in the B’nai Jeshurun office suite. “She’s not an outsider,” Rabbi Bronstein says. “People don’t see her as an outsider.”

Partners in Caring grew out of a challenge UJA-Federation’s Ruskay posed in a speech at the philanthropy’s annual meeting in 1999, shortly after he became executive vice president. “How can we, at the most elemental human level, create compassionate Jewish communities that provide for those in need and whose members reach out to and are there for one another in times of joy and in times of sorrow?” he asked. “Imagine every synagogue, in cooperation with our human service agencies, having a social worker, pastoral counselor or therapist available…”

Partners in Caring is the only official program in the country that links synagogues and social workers in this manner, Ruskay says.

A UJA-Federation report on the program calls it “an expansion of Federation and network services from serving the ‘most needy’ to serving all who are ‘in need.’”

Partners in Caring sessions include family and marriage counseling, parenting skills training, one-on-one therapy and referrals for financial assistance. In other words, the full range of services of any social worker.

Several rabbis whose congregations take part in Partners in Caring programs say the activities led by the social workers supplement the counseling work that many rabbis do; but a few classes in rabbinical school don’t offer the extensive training that certified social workers receive, rabbis say, and few of them have the time for extensive meetings with congregants.

Rabbi Kane says he, like many of his colleagues, received limited training in counseling during his rabbinic studies. “There were a couple of formal classes in counseling,” he says. “More of it was [learning] what are your limits in terms of counseling. Part of your job is to refer [congregants] to someone who is a professional in this area.”

“I think [Partners in Caring] is one of the jewels of the Jewish community,” says Rabbi Michael White of Temple Sinai in Roslyn, L.I. “It sends an important message of who we are as a community.

What would happen to members of his temple if they did not have Partners in Caring programs?

“I’m sure some of these people would not see anybody [for counseling],” Rabbi White says. “They’d just [continue to] have their problems.”

While the purpose of Partners in Caring is not to promote individual congregations, “It probably has brought people indirectly into the synagogue,” Rabbi White says.

The UJA-Federation initiative follows programs like STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), which urge congregations to rethink their mission and operating style, and efforts by individual synagogues to incorporate activities such as business networking and employment fairs under their umbrella.

“Synagogues are evolving to meet the needs of the community. We’re constantly in the process of redefining ourselves,” Rabbi White says. “We have to reach out to people, offer them lots of different things.”

“There is a full complement of services” at many congregations, Rabbi Potasnik says. He calls the new partnership “a form of ‘one-stop shopping’” for congregants.

“Historically, a synagogue was more than a house of worship,” Potasnik says. “It was a house of gathering, a house of study.

“This has become a major component of synagogue life today,” Rabbi Potasnik says. “This is a major component in helping people confront the problems of life. We’re fulfilling the original concept of the synagogue.”