Cultural Sensitivity: An Imperative in the Nonprofit’s Delivery of Services

Nonprofit organizations provide services to many different groups and, in conceptualizing, structuring, and delivering their services, must be sensitive to the cultural imperatives of each group. There are subgroups within the Jewish community that have unique needs because of their unique lifestyle and culture. What is common and acceptable in one community is not necessarily accepted or even desired in another community – the most striking example being the differences between the ultra-Orthodox community and those Jews who are more integrated into the general society, whether in Jewish communities around the world or Israel.

For example, in the ultra-Orthodox community, a client may be more comfortable seeing a social worker, counselor, or therapist of the same sex. In dealing with issues of intimacy and possible family violence or sexual abuse, it might be easier for an adolescent girl to speak with a female than a male. A young mother who is abused by her husband might find more comfort when speaking with another woman rather than discussing her problems with a male social worker. In cases where the police are brought in to investigate sexual abuse a woman police officer is generally assigned to speak with the woman making the complaint.

In the ultra-Orthodox community it is not only the comfort of the victim that is of concern but also the importance of modesty within the community. This is not an issue of “sexism” per se, but concerns religious observance; religious leaders in some communities may even require that clients see professionals of the same sex.

In ultra-Orthodox communities, the rabbis’ endorsement of social services and their value is very important in encouraging individuals to seek help. I remember when forty years ago ultra-Orthodox Jews were only willing to accept services and receive treatment in one of the many offices of the Jewish Family Services of New York – the office in Boro Park, Brooklyn. This was “their neighborhood,” and the services it provided had received the endorsement of the local rabbis. This meant a great deal to the people; the endorsement was like a “certificate of kashruth” for counseling and therapeutic services.

The same is true in Israel today. The first women’s shelter for abused ultra-Orthodox women opened several years ago. Its cultural sensitivity is not only demonstrated by providing kosher food but also by having an environment where the staff and other residents have a shared value system and commitment to an observant lifestyle. In the past women in this community were ostracized for complaining about an abusive husband; some religious leaders counseled them to try and understand how they could make their husband less angry so they would stop abusing them. Over time with a deeper understanding of the dynamics of abuse, rabbinical leaders and others serving the community have come to recognize the rights and needs of abused spouses.

A related issue is the willingness of religious and community leaders to address serious social ills. It has taken a long time for sensitive issues such as sexual abuse and domestic violence to receive the attention of the social service, mental health, and religious community. In the past, such problems were swept under the rug, but now the ultra-Orthodox community has come to the realization that it is not serving its own interests when it avoids dealing with such issues.

In a similar way the ultra-Orthodox community has come to recognize the importance of providing mental health services delivered by professionally trained therapists. In the past some people perceived mental health professionals as holding negative, if not antagonistic, views of the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. Today there have been tremendous advancements not only in the training of professionals from the community but also in the provision of services. A growing number of professionals who embody the values of the community in their lifestyle are now committed to confronting such issues and to providing much needed services.

Recently I had the opportunity to sit in on staff meetings of interns in a training program for ultra-Orthodox therapists. It is very heartening and inspirational to witness the caring, sensitivity, and level of knowledge and understanding these aspiring professionals have for their work within their community. Their use of professional language to separate out issues of observance from issues of aberrant behavior is testimony to the integration of a new level of service into the community. At the same time it was evident that people in the community are availing themselves of the services, being willing to accept the help offered through trained professionals in their community.

Advancements in the delivery of services to populations with special needs confirm the importance of conceiving, shaping, and delivering services in a culturally appropriate manner that takes into consideration the client’s social situation. Professional services are enhanced when nonprofits not only understand the unique needs of populations such as ultra-Orthodox Jews but also deliver services that demonstrate this understanding. They thereby enable the community to confront its serious and pressing challenges.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy