A Rabbi and a Social Worker Walk into a Shul

By Ann Luban and Rabbi D’ror Chankin-Gould

A single father of two daughters*, deeply ensconced in the Jewish community, is fighting for his family: a teenager is struggling with mental illness and a younger child is simply lost in the mix. Neither the synagogue’s standard constellation of resources, nor that of Jewish Child & Family Services (JCFS), is enough to address all of the family’s needs on its own. The family is surrounded by rich resources, but without deep collaboration, there are real and solvable needs which are falling through the cracks. The family needs the Jewish community to think outside the box.

In Chicago, collaboration between JCFS and synagogues provides a model which serves individuals and families better than ever before. As the rabbi of the family’s synagogue and the synagogue’s JCFS liaison, we met together with the father to brainstorm what could be done to help. He came reluctantly; he was exhausted and overwhelmed and simply couldn’t imagine that we would have anything new or different to offer. However, the undefinable needs, the ones falling through the cracks, were exactly the needs that, together, we could address. When asked about the most difficult time of day, the father said, “pick up from school.” Between the teenager’s psychiatric appointments and the father’s job, the youngest child was being consistently picked up late. The synagogue recruited volunteers to pick up the child and drive her home. The volunteers were thrilled to be of service, and the impact for the family was tangible and immediate. Moreover, the father was getting no help for himself and felt shame in even thinking about his own needs. Clinical services had been offered before, but until JCFS offered a therapist who could meet with the father in the synagogue, in a place where he felt safe and supported, the pieces had never come together. By collaborating, thinking outside the box, and using the resources of both the synagogue and JCFS, the family was supported in an extremely difficult moment in their lives. Real change was made.

Yes, of course, synagogues can always pick up the phone to call JCFS when a need arises, and clergy can, and often do, develop their own lists of resources to refer to, but investing in a more formal partnership benefits everyone. The cornerstone of the JCFS Synagogue Community Partnership initiative is a specially trained JCFS Liaison to the partner congregations. Synagogues contract with JCFS for an average number of hours each week. Synagogues choose whether the Liaison has set hours on site, or is available on a more flexible schedule. The Liaison (1) works directly with congregants to assess and address mental health and social service needs, (2) provides support and advice to clergy and professional staff, and (3) offers education/prevention programming and support groups in the synagogue.

Two more examples will help clarify:

A congregant calls her rabbi again and again: she has lost her job, she is facing eviction, and she is battling addiction. Without the formal and direct relationship with the JCFS liaison, her rabbi might not know who to call, or might connect her to a resource which doesn’t actually meet her need. Instead, the rabbi makes one call. The JCFS liaison, who knows the rabbi, his/her congregation and the community, saves the rabbi time and energy, and can put together a whole constellation of resources and expertise, which are directly relevant and immediately helpful.

A final example: JCFS bereavement services are not reaching all those in need. A JCFS Synagogue Community Partnership liaison working with multiple congregations in the same geographic area knew that there was a larger than average number of young adults in need of grief support at a particular moment in time. With this understanding of a specific need, the liaison arranged for a bereavement support group, housed in one of the local synagogues, and co-sponsored by all of the area partner congregations. The group was quickly filled by congregants who the clergy had already identified. JCFS was able to provide the right resource at the right time because the needs were identified through ongoing collaboration between JCFS and synagogue partners.

For individuals, the partnership means direct access to a liaison, an actual person and not an agency phone number, a person who can connect directly to multiple resources within the Jewish and broader community. For synagogues, the partnership allows congregants’ mental health and social service needs to be met more robustly than ever before, provides clergy with direct consultation and training to build capacity for excelling in pastoral work, and brings access to program initiatives which can be embedded in the life and the walls of the synagogue. For JCFS, the partnership is a means to expand the footprint of the agency by providing services and programs to individuals and families who are not otherwise being reached.

We, the Jewish community, can do better at meeting the truly complex mental health and social service needs of Jewish individuals and families. We have found a successful path to achieving these ends better than ever before. We believe that the key to success is bringing together non-traditional partners (synagogues and social service agencies) in authentically deep collaboration. It’s not rocket science; we just need to invest the time and resources. When we do, the beneficiaries will be the Jewish families who need us most. What could matter more?

Please be in touch with either of the authors to learn more.

* The examples used in the article have been disguised to protect the privacy of individuals; however, each example is based on one or more real life situations.

Ann Luban, MACJS, MSW (AnnLuban@jcfs.org) is the Coordinator of Synagogue Community Partnerships at Jewish Child & Family Services in Chicago. Rabbi D’ror Chankin-Gould (dcgould@ansheemet.org) is one of the rabbis at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago. Both Ann and D’ror are alumni of The Wexner Graduate Fellowship.