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Jewish Journal

Shuls Step Up Too

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

July 23, 2009 | 2:14 am

Congregants come into Rabbi Laura Geller’s office at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills on a regular basis nowadays to share their struggles of lost jobs, homes on the brink of foreclosure and families under unprecedented stress. And she is determined not only to help them, but to make them understand that they are not alone.

“I think the real job of the synagogue is to help transform their personal shame into public action, because this is affecting everybody…. We need to be the good community this bad economy demands,” Geller said. “This is an opportunity, and I do believe that this moment is why synagogues were created.”

Rabbis across Los Angeles are combining practical help with psychological and spiritual support to usher people through some of the toughest times anyone has seen.

Some rabbis have limited the help to private counseling, quietly tapping into discretionary funds and connecting congregants to community resources.

But several congregations — most of them large — have chosen to make economic struggles a programming priority and a focal point for communal discourse through sermons, classes and publications.

Not just rabbis, but congregants have come forward to help each other. Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, Adat Ari El in Valley Village and Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air have all created programs where members in fields such as law, finance, mental health or even physical fitness offer fellow members their services, either as consultants, sounding boards, or in reduced-rate or pro-bono sessions.

Temple Emanuel is launching a time bank in the fall, where congregants can put in and take out hours of service — everything from medical consultation to gardening advice or babysitting — and Beth Shir Sholom in Santa Monica is working on a similar program.

Synagogues, especially large ones, also have the benefit of built-in networks job hunters can tap into.

Temple Judea in West Hills brings in more than 100 people the first Tuesday of every month for a speed-dating-style networking meeting. It recently paired up with Valley Beth Shalom in Encino to expand the networking base.

The synagogues connected with each other through The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Valley Alliance, which held meetings to promote collaboration among those providing programs and services.

“One of the things we needed to do was let other people know in the community what everyone is doing so we can try to build on what is already happening,” said Carol Koransky, Valley Alliance executive director.

Richard Banks, a member at Temple Judea, turned to Temple Judea’s Rabbi Dan Moskovitz for support — and to volunteer — when his hours working in human resources were cut and his wife lost her job. He now runs — and uses — Temple Judea’s networking program.

He’s been working closely with Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) in his job search, and also helped set up a program where JVS sends counselors to synagogues, a program recently funded by the Valley Alliance.

“Had it not been for a guy like Rabbi Dan and his positive nature and the fact that he worked hard to put this together, and had it not been for the people at JVS, where would I be?” Banks said. “At least now I have this real feeling that people are out there looking out for me.”

Stephen S. Wise and Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood have both equipped offices in the synagogue where people can search for jobs in good company. Several synagogues are also authorized to submit applications on behalf of congregants for Emergency Cash Grants from Federation. 

Hoping that struggling members continue to turn to the synagogues, most congregations have committed to more dues relief.

“I think the biggest issue for people is how it feels when all of a sudden your very delicate and fragile sense of self-worth gets translated into cold hard numbers in terms of money,” said Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Sholom.

“I think the message from the Jewish community has to be that you are not what you do for a living, and you are not how much money you make. You are, most importantly, a human being, and in the case of Jewish human beings, we have chosen for ourselves the role of being fixers and healers. How much more so should we be fixing and healing ourselves, so we can fix and heal each other.”

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