By Rabbi Sarah Freidson
[The following article is offered as a partnership between eJP and the Clergy Leadership Incubator program (CLI). CLI is a two-year program to support and encourage congregational rabbis and rabbinic entrepreneurs in the areas of innovative thinking, change management and institutional transformation. CLI is directed by Rabbi Sid Schwarz and is fiscally sponsored by Hazon. Each month CLI offers a Synagogue Innovation Blog. Past columns can be found at: www.cliforum.org/blog/.]
In a world where people seem to be cold and cruel, I have witnessed my congregation’s members demonstrate kindness, compassion, and concern time and time again. When I was 33-years old, my marriage ended and I became a single parent to a toddler, six months into a new job as the solo rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom, a small synagogue in Mahopac, NY. I had no local support system when the life I had built cracked apart.
As I broke the news individually to each member of my congregation’s executive committee, they shocked me. Every single one of them said something along the lines of, “I’m so sorry. The details are none of my business. How can I support you?” And support me they did, in concrete ways, both large and small. Always the one who gave help, I was on the receiving end. My community demonstrated to me the power of chesed, acts of lovingkindness.
When a young couple was in a car accident with their baby, they were surprised and grateful by the outpouring of support from members of Temple Beth Shalom. Within two days, they had received visits in the hospital by Temple members. Their refrigerator was full for weeks thanks to the kindness of members, some of whom the couple had never met. They had offers to help with shopping and child care, and many phone calls simply checking in.
When a member’s husband passed away unexpectedly, she was completely bereft. The members of her adult B’nai Mitzvah class scooped her up, helping to plan the funeral, providing meals, regularly checking in on her, and including her at holiday celebrations. They made sure she was cared for as she grieved and entered her new normal.
Judaism understands that our joys are sweeter and our sorrows more tolerable with the support of others. The great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Akiva, taught that “Love your neighbor as yourself,” V’ahavta l’reicha kamocha,” is the greatest principle in the Torah. My community seemed to understand that implicitly.
As a Fellow in Cohort 3 of the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI), a two-year fellowship program for rabbis, I was tasked with creating an innovation project. I decided to make explicit the implicit ethos of Temple Beth Shalom. Along with a remarkable lay leader, Sharon Gunzburg, we created V’ahavta: The Caring Collectives of Temple Beth Shalom. The collectives are small groups of congregants with a shared purpose, working together on an aspect of building and maintaining a “caring community.” These Collectives empower participants in their Jewish lives, better the surrounding community, thicken relationships in the congregation, provide a place for folks in the margins of the shul, identify and train new leaders, and view acts of chesed, lovingkindness, as Jewish work.
We initially began with six Caring Collectives. The focus of each was determined through a series of conversations and Find Your Purpose workshops. In addition to working on their projects, each Collective had a Shabbat meal together, designed to further thicken their relationships in a Jewish context.
V’ahavta: The Caring Collectives of Temple Beth Shalom were launched on Rosh Hashanah 2018. They were an experiment. We knew that they would evolve and change even as they got underway. We knew that some of the Collectives would get more traction than others. We were pleasantly surprised that five out of the six collectives have experienced remarkable success in just one year. Approximately 25% of the congregation’s adults have actively participated in a Collective, with many more attending events or donating to a Collective’s initiative.
The Deepening Relationships collective was formed with the mission to connect members of Temple Beth Shalom and deepen existing relationships. In keeping with Jewish tradition, their events are connected with food! Their projects have included “Shabbat Schmooze” with wine and appetizers before our popular musical service; “Last Shabbos Before New Year’s” Kiddush luncheon with special food, decorations, and additions to the Shabbat morning service; and “Babka Mania” following a Friday night Family Service, where they brought in a variety of babkas from different bakeries and also created Babka Trivia with prizes during the d’var Torah slot. Along with the Cooking Together Collective, they created a Friday night Shabbat potluck dinner. They are also partnering with the Ritual Committee to create a questionnaire for folks to fill out after visiting other congregations.
The Cooking Together Collective has created a Facebook page off of the main Temple Beth Shalom page to share recipes, post articles about food, and help each other out with cooking questions. They also partnered with the Deepening Relationships Collective for the potluck Shabbat.
The Caring for the Sick or Elderly Collective created a new protocol to make sure that members with health issues have support from the congregation. A “Help Needed” electronic form on the synagogue’s website allows individuals to alert the Collective of situations where they or another TBS member may request or alert us of some need in the community. They assess the cases, and ensure that no one “falls through the cracks.” They have pulled together to support a widow who had undergone surgery, making sure she had a call every day, helping her in the house, and running errands. They have also lined up rides to services and Temple events for seniors who no longer drive.
The Helping Kids Collective ran a successful “Backpack Drive,” seeking school supplies to fill 25 backpacks as requested by the Mahopac Central School District for low income, incoming kindergarteners. The Collective far exceeded their goal, donating three times the amount of supplies needed into each backpack. They were also able to donate art supplies to the local women’s shelter, where children ages 5-16 live temporarily, often with few belongings. Many Hebrew School parents and students brought in supplies that were deposited into the supply trunk in the lobby. In August, the backpacks and supplies were handed off to the Superintendent of Mahopac schools and to the head of the Women’s Resource Center. The Collective was publicly thanked at a school board meeting.
The Health and Wellness Collective hosted a blood drive and three CPR and First Aid classes for adults and teens. They organized a workshop on Project Drawdown: A Comprehensive Plan to Reverse Global Warming which empowered participants to take action to reverse global warming in our own households and community. The Collective also joined with several area churches for a Crop Walk for Hunger, which raised nearly $7000 for both local and international organizations that fight hunger. The Temple hosted the event.
In just one year, we’ve already been recognized for our accomplishments several times in the local newspaper. In December, our congregation received an international Schechter Award in the category of “kehillah” (community) from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) for the V’Ahavta Caring Collectives. I also was privileged to present twice at the USCJ 20/20 Convention to share the idea of Caring Collectives and empower other communities to implement the model.
Our society is permeated with anger, mistrust, loneliness, fear, and incivility. That’s not the world that the Jewish people are called on to build. The image of society laid out in the Torah is one built on compassion, integrity, trustworthiness, community, and justice. Temple Beth Shalom is advancing that mission through the V’Ahavta initiative. I’m proud to be the rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom, a community of value and values.
Rabbi Sarah Freidson serves the religious, educational, and pastoral needs of Temple Beth Shalom, a 125 household Conservative synagogue in Mahopac, NY. She infuses her work with meaning, storytelling, and fun. Sarah is an alumnus of Cohort 3 of the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI). She is happily remarried and the proud mother of two girls.