Jewish Journal

The Many Hats of a Community Rabbi

by Wendy J. Madnick

Posted on Apr. 10, 2003 at 8:00 pm

It's 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, and Rabbi Jan Offel has hit a snag: she forgot to bring her kippah to work. It's not surprising that Offel left home minus an essential piece of rabbinic equipment; she was up until midnight the night before, creating materials for one of her hospital clients, and will likely be up that late again tonight.

Fortunately, she is able to buy a new head-covering at the gift shop in her building, the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus, home of the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance -- but then she realizes she has no way to secure it.

"Does anybody have a bobby pin?" she asks a few of her Federation co-workers. No one does.

"Use a paper clip," several suggest. She smiles and shakes her head. It's just one tiny challenge in a day of challenges, big and small.

As the community rabbi for the West Valley Rabbinic Task Force, Offel has a wide range of responsibilities, from standing in for members of the task force when a visit from a rabbi is needed, to discussing end-of-life issues with families, to running programs for local hospitals -- helping to familiarize their staff with Jewish customs.

Today she is doing just that, a Passover seminar for staff members at Kaiser Permanente in Woodland Hills. Only four staff members attend, including the medical center's chaplain, Fred Martin, but two of the attending licensed clinical social workers -- Cipora Zysman and Marsha Saylor -- are Jewish and pleased that the holiday and the needs of Jewish patients are finally getting some sort of attention.

"Before Rabbi Offel started coming here, the only time Marsha and I have been able to get a rabbi [to come talk to a patient] is by calling our own," Zysman said.

Offel has prepared a list of "Passover Talking Points" for Kaiser staff that explain the importance of the holiday and of the seder. She suggests that Martin speak to the head of food services for the medical center, to see if a miniature seder plate can be provided for each Jewish patient the first night of Passover.

"According to sociologist Steven M. Cohen, participating in a Passover seder is the most important element on the Jewish ritual calendar for American Jews," Offel tells the staff. "This means that when patients are in the hospital for the first night of Passover, it is very difficult for them -- even more so than on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur."

Making holidays more meaningful for those who are ill or in pain is just one of Offel's many roles -- all of which she is expected to squeeze into the 18 3¼4 hours allotted her position. A joint venture of the Board of Rabbis, the West Valley Rabbinic Task Force and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the position of community rabbi was launched in 2002 to assist rabbis in the West Valley in meeting the needs of both their congregants and unaffiliated Jews in the area.

It was the unmet needs of the many unaffiliated Jews in hospitals and nursing homes that most concerned local rabbis, according to Rabbi Paul Kipnes, leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas and liaison for the West Valley Rabbinic Task Force.

"Synagogue rabbis get out as much as we can to offer help beyond our congregations, but it is tough," Kipnes said. "With a community rabbi, there is someone to turn to."

Kipnes has high praise for Offel, whom he credits with establishing positive relationships and acting as the Jewish community's ambassador to area nursing homes and medical centers.

Offel entered the rabbinate following a career in helping rebuild troubled small businesses in the Bay Area. She met her husband, Century City attorney Michael Nebenzahl, when she was in Los Angeles attending Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. The family (including her stepson, Josh) live in Woodland Hills.

"What gets me through the day is I feel like I am able to have an impact on people's lives," she said. "It's the reason why I went to rabbinical school and made the mid-career change that I made -- because I wanted to be in people's lives in a personal way, in a way that had real meaning for them and for me."

The only problem with the program seems to be the funding. Both Kipnes and Rabbi Mark Diamond, vice president of the Board of Rabbis which co-sponsors the program, say the job really requires a full-time position and support staff, and hope the community will see the necessity for the community rabbi program and donate generously.

"In Los Angeles, there is a critical need for more resources to be devoted to that area [healthcare chaplaincy] in general," Diamond said. "Although there is a role for paraprofessionals and volunteers, clearly there are times when people need and want to see a rabbi."

Diamond said that, in the past, hospitals and nursing homes would contract with the Board of Rabbis to have Jewish clergy visit on a regular basis. However, the present crisis in healthcare -- including substantial budget cuts -- coupled with the shorter stays allotted to patients, have resulted in fewer of these contracts.

"What we are also seeing is that they [hospitals and nursing homes] have a priest or minister providing those services for free and want to know, why can't the rabbis do the same?" Diamond said. "That is why we need the community rabbi. We must step up, as a community, and say we care enough about people, both affiliated and nonaffiliated, to provide this service."  

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