When Florence Nathanson of Temple Sinai in Atlanta became ill last year, people she had never met called, sent cards, visited and brought meals to her home. “There was never a time I felt alone,” Nathanson says. “Whenever I needed something, volunteers from the congregation’s Kesher caring program rushed to lend a hand.”
About 100 Temple Sinai Kesher volunteers are on call to help others. Some deliver home-cooked meals to congregants who are ill or who’ve had a new baby; others arrange for a meal of consolation after a death or guard the home during a funeral. Kesher’s Member to Member programs also offer one-on-one support to congregants facing unemployment, divorce, and other travails. All of these volunteers have gone through a comparable experience. The rabbis handle the confidential match-up.
Temple Sinai is just one of many Reform synagogues that have created kehilot chesed (caring communities) which serve as extended families for congregants in need of emotional, physical, and spiritual help. Here are just a few shining examples of Reform congregations engaged in transforming their communities, one relationship at a time.
In Wellesley, Massachusetts, volunteers at 900-family Temple Beth Elohim are on call for congregants who have recently joined TBE, are experiencing bereavement or illness, needing healing, or dealing with aging-related issues. When a member becomes ill, they express concern by telephone and in person, delivering a TLC (Temple Loving Care) bag that includes a quart of homemade chicken soup and a CD of comforting songs recorded by the cantor. When a congregant’s relative dies, they offer to help arrange a shiva minyan; a challah is personally delivered to the family before the Sabbath; and, a couple of weeks later, they stop by with a TLC bag filled with Shabbat candles, a mug, and tea bags—a visit most appreciated by most mourners, as family and friends are usually no longer there.
In San Rafael, California, volunteers and staff members of 1,140-member Congregation Rodef Sholom not only partner in making phone calls and sending cards, they have established a temple Mitzvah Kitchen (which congregant and retired professional chef Jeff Kirshbaum refurbished at his own expense). Kirshbaum bakes challah for congregants celebrating simchas (special occasions), and about 25 to 30 temple members help him cook and deliver meals to other congregants in need.
In Phoenix, 900-family Temple Chai also understands the healing potential of a home-cooked meal. In the Cooking with Kavannah (spiritual intention) program, some 8 to 12 volunteers meet once a month in a private home to prepare vegetable and dairy dishes, usually a soup as well as entrees such as lasagna or frittata that freeze and reheat well. All meals come with reheating instructions and (because many recipients have dietary restrictions) a list of ingredients.
Other Temple Chai volunteers are Knitting with Kavannah, creating healing shawls and quilts for congregants who are ill, recovering from surgery, or suffering a loss. Knitters work on the bimah in front of the open ark and finish their pieces with a blessing. Still other congregants make blessing bundles—colorful fabric bags filled with stones (inscribed with inspiring messages) and a miniature labyrinth (a focal point for meditation). Once volunteers assemble the bundles and say a blessing, they’re delivered to bone marrow transplant patients at the nearby Mayo Clinic Hospital.
At 900-family Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany, New York, volunteers hand-deliver mitzvah baskets on both happy and sad occasions: a bereavement Shabbat bag with challah and wine after a death, and a basket with challah, wine, a mezuzah, and Shabbat candles upon the birth of a child. “It’s nice to know the temple valued the birth of my daughter [my third child] as much as I did,” says congregant Muriel Church. “It’s just one more example of how I feel part of the community.”
What do successful caring communities have in common? What can you do to begin or strengthen your own program? In Becoming a Kehillat Chesed (URJ Press), Harriet Rosen, the URJ North American Chair of Jewish Family Concerns, recommends that congregations follow these 10 lessons:
1. Enlist clergy support. “Setting up a caring community is like laying a good foundation for a home you’re building,” says Rabbi Richard Address, former URJ Congregation Specialist for Caring Community-Family Concerns. “You have to get the people on the front lines—such as the rabbi, temple president, administrator, and education director—involved at the start.”
Barbara Wolff, former Kesher Committee co-chair of Temple Sinai in Atlanta, agrees. After the clergy gave the co-chairs the opportunity to speak about Kesher at a Yom Kippur service, the caring committee’s ranks swelled.
At Wellesley, Massachusetts’ Temple Beth Elohim, the program has always been perceived as a lay leadership-clergy collaboration that “makes us a better, stronger, more caring community,” says Cantor Jodi Sufrin. “Caring community volunteers enhance what the clergy does, extending our reach through loving gestures.” When someone is ill or bereaved, a rabbi or cantor makes contact with a visit or phone call and then the caring community team members “run with the ball,” delivering TLC bags or containers of chicken soup.
2. Assess the congregation’s needs before you proceed. About 20 years ago, the Reyut (friendship) caring community at 850-family Congregation Beth Emeth, Albany, New York initiated a temple hotline and trained volunteers to support callers—but the phone never rang. Now, Cantor Glenn Groper says, the temple identifies needs before creating programs. “If there’s a group of people who [require] rides, we organize rides. We adapt to the changing needs of the congregation.”
At 650-family Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia, the Caring Community Committee offered an Elder Parent Support Group for congregants with aging parents until interest and attendance began to lag. Reassessing the situation, the committee discovered that congregants wanted a support group for all types of caregivers. The name was changed to Caregiver Support Group; now more people attend.
Because there was no Jewish funeral home in the area, members of Temple B'nai Sholem, in New Bern, North Carolina decided to establish a chevrah kadisha society in the 70-family congregation. They have since cared for the bodies of six people who’ve died.
3. Democratize the mitzvah—include the whole congregation. Rosen says it’s important to engage the entire temple family, including groups such as Sisterhood and social action committees. “Make [caring] part of the fabric of the congregation,” she explains. “The goal isn’t to have a caring committee, but to have a caring congregation.”
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz of Congregation B'nai Israel in Bridgeport, Connecticut says that with 800 families it’s impossible for the clergy and Caring Network to be aware of everyone who has a need: They depend on the eyes and ears of the congregation. “We all take responsibility for caring,” she says.
4. Ask every congregant to make a caring commitment. When Bonnie Manko took over as Mitzvah Circle chair of Temple B'rith Shalom in Prescott, Arizona, she placed an announcement in the newsletter describing how temple members could help (driving, cooking, visiting congregants, etc.) and asked: What interests you? How much time can you give? Then she and core Mitzvah Circle volunteers divided up the temple directory and phoned every member of their 125-family congregation to see which activity he/she wanted to do. “I said, ‘Don’t feel like you have to volunteer every time we ask,’” she says. “But I’ve never had to make more than two calls to get needs met.”
5. Start slowly, then get organized. Begin your caring community with small, successful projects, Rosen says. For example, if a congregant is hospitalized with a long-term illness, ask everyone in the congregation to send him/her an e-mail expressing best wishes.
In Paradise Valley, Arizona, Temple Solel organized a mitzvah project through the religious school: Students sent cards, stories, jokes, videos, and pictures to a fellow student who had recently undergone a bone marrow transplant. Each month, a different grade level was assigned to “provide a smile.”
Remember that taking the next step to organize volunteers to serve an entire congregation requires careful planning. Atlanta’s Temple Sinai uses Hineynu, a software-tracking program designed to help clergy, staff, and lay leaders communicate about congregants in need. Melissa Sporn, caring committee co-chair of 1,400-member Temple Rodef Shalom (TRS) in Falls Church, Virginia, recommends the free web program Lotsa Helping Hands. TRS volunteers sign up to make and deliver meals; Melissa can also summon help by e-mail from volunteers in specific zip codes.
Deb Kratzer, co-chair (with Julie McKee) of Temple Adath Israel's Caring Connections, says that the system practiced at their 350-member congregation in Lexington, Kentucky is much more effective than cold-calling when help is needed: Volunteers are invested as mitzvah group contact persons, each of whom then recruits 6 to 10 friends to join him/her. Last year, one temple family was struggling with illness, impending surgery, and a three-year-old daughter who needed extra nurturing when the boy they were adopting became available sooner than expected. With a single phone call to a contact person, Kratzer was able to arrange for a two-week supply of kosher meals. “I felt like I was drowning, and here were community members, half of whom had never met me, throwing life preservers,” says the grateful mom. “Those meals felt like manna from heaven.”
At Temple Chai in Phoenix, a monthly caring committee coordinator (one of six coordinators who serve two months each year) will consult a directory of roughly 100 volunteers trained in bikur cholim, matching the need (making hospital visits, preparing meals, sending cards, etc.) with a volunteer who prefers to offer this kind of support.
6. Demonstrate the caring community’s work to the congregation. It’s important for the congregation to be educated, Rosen says. “Put up a poster in the lobby. Speak about it at a Shabbat service. Write an article for the bulletin. Post pictures of the committee in action on the temple website.” And make sure the congregation hears from people who have been helped by the caring committee, she says. “[This] creates an environment in which people are willing to accept help.”
Cantor Groper of Temple Beth Emeth in Albany agrees. “Sometimes people reach out to us,” he says.
7. Maintain confidentiality. Caring committees must keep congregant information private, Rosen says. The rule at Temple Rodef Shalom, Falls Church, Virginia is not to reveal even positive accounts that might identify the recipients. “Members are coming to us during a life transition or trauma and need to know that we will not share what we hear, see, or experience with them,” co-chair Melissa Sporn says. “We will also refrain from asking questions of a private or intimate nature. We respect congregants’ desire to keep private what they choose. ”
Many congregations publish confidentiality rules in their caring committee manuals. The Temple Beth Elohim, Wellesley manual stresses that volunteers are obligated to protect a patient’s privacy, but should be alert to situations that may require professional intervention.
8. Honor volunteers. At Temple Chai in Phoenix, caring community volunteers are frequently acknowledged on and off the bimah, notes director Sharona Silverman. “When volunteers hear the rabbi say that this synagogue is a wonderful place because we have an incredible group of caring committee members, it makes people want to get on board.”
Wellesley’s Temple Beth Elohim honors their volunteers with a Chanukah dinner and an elegant dessert party at the end of the school year. In addition, on the High Holy Days all 100+ caring community members are called up to the bimah for a group aliyah.
9. Maintain continuity in key leadership positions . To insure that there’s always a veteran chair on Temple Sinai’s Kesher caring committee, two people co-chair the committee. The first co-chair to step down becomes a mentor; the other one continues in the role.
10. Develop the next generation of volunteers. As volunteers come and go, congregations must constantly recruit new members. Rabbi Address likens it to the farm system in baseball, where young ballplayers are groomed for the major leagues. “You have to train the next generation,” he says.
“Every congregation has the ability and potential to create an environment that opens the hearts, minds, and spirits of its congregants,” says Becoming a Kehillat Chesed. To take the next steps, consult this comprehensive guide (URJ Press). If you'd like more information or to follow up with a specific question, please call the URJ Knowledge Network at 855-URJ-1800 or email URJ1800@urj.org.
—Marilyn Hawkes, journalist and caring community co-chair of Temple Solel, Paradise Valley, Arizona