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Finding Alternative Portals into Jewish Life

The posts on The New Spirituality blog are responses to Rabbi Sid Schwarz’s lead essay in his book, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future(Jewish Lights). In that essay, which was posted on this site on May 5, 2016, Schwarz argues that any organization that hopes to speak to the next generation of American Jews needs to advance one or more of four key value propositions. They are: Chochma, engaging with the wisdom and practice of our inherited Jewish heritage; Kedusha, helping people live lives of sacred purpose; Tzedek, inspiring people to work for a more just and peaceful world; and Kehillah, creating intentional, covenantal communities that bind people to one another and to a shared mission.

I describe myself as a rabbi of social workers and caregivers. My congregation is the Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA), which serves the entire Greater Washington region. Roughly half of our membership (staff) is Jewish, but I seek to be the rabbi to all. Most recognize their work at JSSA as holy. Some see it as the primary expression of their religious identity.

As the child of a pulpit rabbi, the synagogue was my home, but it was also the source of many family frustrations (the topic of another paper). Perhaps this is why I have always found myself both drawn to and simultaneously resistant to organized religious life. As such, my rabbinate has been largely dedicated to finding alternative portals into Jewish life. Places where Jewish wisdom could be put to use improving the lives of others (and mine in the process).

The four propositions Sid described in Jewish Megatrends are all present in my work to one degree or another. I attempt to parse each one (briefly) below.

Nearly a third of my work takes place within the walls of the agency. There, I employ Jewish wisdom (including story, practice, thought, ritual and language) to explore the sacred dimensions of human services… to help people thrive and grow, even in the midst of challenging circumstances.

It is what I use to nourish my colleagues who have incredibly difficult jobs accompanying people through death, and helping them process life’s traumas. I draw on holiday themes in my writing and teaching as a vehicle for reflecting on the work and the impact it has on our lives. But, perhaps the most cutting edge part of my work is the application of Jewish wisdom in service of the agency’s clients. This is a relatively new area of exploration for JSSA and for Jewish family service agencies as a whole. We are seeking ways in which Jewish wisdom can be useful to individuals and families facing adversity.

Can Jewish wisdom help empower the aged and comfort the dying? Does it have something of value to offer a family in the midst of divorce? How can it help a person struggling with mental illness or a parent whose child has special needs? And most importantly, can it be shaped into a form that clinicians (Jewish or not) will actually use? Stay tuned.

Social Justice/Tzedek
Unfortunately, Jewish social service agencies are often left out of the Jewish social justice conversation. I’m not sure if this is because advocacy is not a primary focus of our agencies, or if we have been too busy doing the work. Perhaps, we have not made a strong enough claim that human services are a Jewish endeavor.

Regardless, part of my mission as JSSA’s rabbi has been to illustrate that what we do is an absolute expression of tzedek. We feed the hungry (Meals on Wheels), care for the elderly (Senior Services), and assist people in the deep work of teshuvah – of recognizing the ever-present potential for personal growth and transformation (counseling services). Irwin Kula once chanted the annual report of a Jewish Family Service using Torah trope. Enough said.

I think it is time for more Jewish organizations to begin viewing their professional staff through the lens of community. Sociologists have long made the point that community is no longer an all-or-nothing proposition. Many of us feel part of multiple communities, be it our kid’s school or sport’s team, our work, family, friends, neighbors, or even an AA group.

As I mentioned, many of my JSSA colleagues view work as an expression of their religious identity. More so, many have no synagogue affiliation. What does it look like for a rabbi to take this reality seriously? A few examples: I once led a healing service after a department lost a number of long-term Holocaust survivor clients. I have served as religious officiant on numerous occasions, having the opportunity to lead baby naming’s, funerals and even a wedding. I keep my door open and encourage colleagues to seek me out during difficult times. I run regular lunch & learns and staff retreats, all designed to nourish, educate and give staff a chance remember why they signed up for this in the first place!

Lives of Sacred Purpose/Kedushah
Sid wrote: “The community needs to invest resources in postgraduate training for rabbis to give them the training and support not only to be effective spiritual leaders but also to become agents of institutional transformation” (p. 38). I couldn’t agree more. To this end, my work has focused on clergy training programs, which translate the expertise of human service professionals into resources and practical tools for clergy. The aim of these programs is not only to make more competent clergy, but to transform their vision of Jewish community. Let me explain.

Clergy serve on the front lines. Congregants may come to see the rabbi before ever reaching out to a mental health professional. And so, rabbis must be capable of dealing with issues of mental health, suicide, end-of-life, shame, divorce, etc. Few of us leave rabbinical school qualified to do this work. But, what concerns me most is the knowledge that many congregants don’t show up during hard times. Instead, they run for the door.

Someone once told me that synagogues are great if you have healthy children, who behave and do well in school; kids who get into great colleges and go on to be successful lawyers and doctors; kids who are blessed to find great spouses, who have healthy marriages (like their parents), and produce amazing grandkids. But, what happens when everything doesn’t go according to plan? For this individual, synagogue was not a safe place to share the story of their son’s battle with addiction. I fear this is not the exception, but the rule.

I believe that clergy have a super-power— an ability to normalize, validate and even sanctify experiences. We can make it ok to fail, to hurt and to struggle. We may do this well in 1-1 meetings but I fear that we have not been effective at infusing this quality into the life of our communities. We have not made them safe places to be vulnerable, safe havens to process life’s hurts and celebrate its joys. My work at JSSA is devoted to changing this reality.

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