One of the privileges of synagogue membership is that, in addition to vibrant services and life-long Jewish study, the synagogue is a place members often turn to with personal problems. In any given week, congregants sit with me and talk about their relationships, mental illness, struggles with depression, unemployment, anti-Semitism and bias against Israel in their children’s classrooms, impending divorce, their children’s learning disabilities and emotional challenges, spousal abuse, painful grief, and many other issues.
I am a rabbi, not a social worker or therapist. Yet, I believe that Judaism offers spiritual and religious tools for confronting life’s challenges. Jewish practices such as daily prayer, heightened sense of appreciation for all of God’s creation, performance of mitzvot and awareness that each one of us is a vessel that carries the divine spark of God within us all have the power to transform us and our perceptions of the vicissitudes of life.
I know this is true because, in addition to being a rabbi, I am a regular person. I have a sister who is schizophrenic. My brother-in-law’s bipolar brother, whom I met once 18 years ago, keeps trying to sue me for $20 million. Recently, my beloved mentor, Rabbi Jack Stern, died and I continue to grieve his loss. I so deeply want to call him on the phone one more time! Daily prayer, performance of mitzvot, and intense gratitude for all the good things in my life get me through a lot of internal tzuris.
The synagogue provides a surprising amount of support of all kinds to an astonishing number of people. Upon reflection about how our very small staff helps so many hundreds of people, I have come to realize that we can only be as effective as we are because of some vital partnerships with other Seattle Jewish organizations and individuals. At the risk of not mentioning a worthy partner, I want to highlight three community-based institutions that have helped us immeasurably at Beth Am to help our congregants.
One of our most unsung heroes is Gary Friedman and Jewish Prisoner Services International. When I first arrived in Seattle, I had the privilege of serving at Temple De Hirsch Sinai for two years before joining my husband, Rabbi Jonathan Singer, at Temple Beth Am. From my experience at both synagogues you would be shocked to know the number of times in a year that a synagogue must weigh safety and Jewish values as recently released convicted felons seek to find a synagogue community.
You might be even more surprised to know that yes, sometimes our own members do land in jail. Gary Friedman has been a constant source of support, a knowledgeable man who also balances the Jewish value of welcoming guests and strangers with keeping everyone in the community safe. I call him with increasing frequency. He visits Jewish prisoners and guides us when we are contacted by some pretty unsettling characters.
Michelle Lifton, head of Project DVORA in particular, and Jewish Family Service in general have been invaluable partners. There was life in Seattle before Michelle Lifton and life in Seattle after Michelle Lifton. Now that we have her, I can’t imagine doing my work without her. She provides comprehensive resources to Jewish women (and men) in Seattle who are survivors of domestic abuse. We now all know that there is more domestic violence in the Jewish community than we realized.
Between her availability to every rabbi in the Puget Sound, one-on-one counseling services, and the numerous Project DVORA programs, she and her team provide incalculably valuable resources that strengthen our community. I have yet to meet a JFS program that has not augmented our work at Beth Am and so many other synagogues in the region. We refer our congregants regularly to JFS emergency services, counseling services, elder services and an array of other helpful programs that they provide.
Finally, in this time of great concern for the corrosive effects of hard-core anti-Zionism that goes beyond helpful criticism of Israeli policies, we are continually aided by Rob Jacobs and StandWithUs Northwest. While we are also grateful to AIPAC, J Street, Rabbis for Human Rights, and other strong voices for peace, Rob is on my speed dial for advice in dealing with situations when the local rhetoric crosses a line into hatred. Rob is always available to walk us through reasonable responses to hard issues. He is open to a variety of perspectives — left, right and center — and is amazing with students dealing with virulent anti-Zionism in the classroom.
The truth is that there are dozens of organizations that augment our work at Beth Am and at the other wonderful synagogues in our area. Thank you to everyone of you who supports not only your local synagogue, but also the many agencies who help us ease life’s sorrows and sweeten the hopes of a better day.