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Jewish Journal

Social services come to shul

Rachel Wizenfeld, contributing writer

January 9, 2014 | 11:52 am

What would you do if you had to talk someone out of a suicide? Or advise someone facing an eviction? Or help a person who just went bankrupt?

For today’s clergy, forced to deal with issues both pressing and profound, these are not just theoretical questions. Due in part to the repercussions of the Great Recession, the local synagogue has increasingly become a place where people in crisis come first.

That’s why a newly expanded program, called the Ezra Network, funded jointly by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (JCFLA) and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, provides casework, counseling, vocational help, legal assistance, informational workshops and more inside synagogue doors.

The Ezra Network — Ezra means “help” in Hebrew — is a partnership among several local agencies. It groups 15 synagogues into clusters of two to four based on geography, and staffs each cluster with a full-time social worker from Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) specially trained to deal with crises and familiar with the range of services available locally. A roving job counselor from Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) and a legal counselor from Bet Tzedek Legal Services split their time among the synagogue clusters as well. 

Lori Klein, Federation’s senior vice president of Caring for Jews in Need, said it makes sense to offer these services at congregations.

“People turn to their synagogue as their community — they feel a sense of comfort and affinity, whereas they may feel a stigma in a social services site,” she said.

And while some may view congregations simply as houses of worship, many operate more as community centers with a wide range of programming. The Ezra Network (jewishla.org/ezra) only furthers that role. 

“The nature of synagogues is changing because the nature of what people want from Jewish life is changing,” Klein said.  “We have the philosophy to meet people where they’re at.”

The Ezra Network launched in 2011 as a pilot program under the name Caring Community. It’s been enabled by a three-year, $185,000 grant from JCFLA and about $1 million so far from Federation. 

What began with two congregations has expanded in terms of services and synagogues. Last year, the program added its South Bay, Laurel Canyon and Mid-Wilshire clusters. There also are pre-existing clusters on the Westside and in the West Valley. All participants are currently Reform and Conservative congregations, but conversations are taking place with Orthodox synagogues about launching a cluster this year, Klein said. 

On average, there are about 100 interactions per cluster per month, including phone and in-person interactions, according to Klein. That figure includes multiple exchanges with the same person. Most are related to financial need due to a job loss or a business failure, but people are reaching out for help with virtually everything.  

In one synagogue, after seeing three people in a row with bereavement issues, a social worker started a bereavement support group. A Bet Tzedek representative arranged for a workshop on advance health care directives at another congregation, after witnessing the need. Other hot topics, Klein said, include help for elderly parents, children with special needs — especially adult children — and parents of teens.

The free, confidential services are available for anyone Jewish in the community, not just synagogue members.

The Ezra Network has become an essential — and lifesaving — part of the offerings at University Synagogue in Brentwood, according to Rabbi Morley Feinstein, whose congregation was one of the first to join the network more than two years ago.

He said the synagogue receives calls all the time from people in the community desperate for help, whether they need assistance with rent or financing for eyeglasses that Medicaid won’t cover. Recently, an Ezra Network social worker was able to help a veteran who came in looking to build his skill set to find employment. 

“It’s funny — three years ago we didn’t have this program, and now I would wonder how could we serve this congregation without it. It’s become so essential as times have gotten so difficult,” Feinstein said.  

“It makes sense for us to have this, as a synagogue that’s community-focused, to have this soft place to land.”

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