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Social worker to join Orthodox synagogue staff
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Social worker to join Orthodox synagogue staff

Jewish Family Service program adds range of counseling options

At the April 27 meeting of synagogue leaders and JFS social workers are, from left, standing, Beth Sandweiss and Lisa Sturm, and, seated, Wendy Sabin, Beth Berns, Ilana Mazur, Ann Hicks, and Judie Gerstein. Photo by Robert Wiener
At the April 27 meeting of synagogue leaders and JFS social workers are, from left, standing, Beth Sandweiss and Lisa Sturm, and, seated, Wendy Sabin, Beth Berns, Ilana Mazur, Ann Hicks, and Judie Gerstein. Photo by Robert Wiener

Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David in West Orange is about to become the first Orthodox congregation in the area to welcome a social worker to its staff, joining a two-year program run by Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, a beneficiary agency of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.

The social worker will be available for consultation on a range of sensitive issues.

Although the synagogue’s rabbi, Eliezer Zwickler, is a licensed social worker himself, he acknowledged that the new staff member adds another level of pastoral care to the congregation.

“There are times when a congregant may not feel comfortable sharing something with the rabbi, and the role of the synagogue social worker becomes very important,” he said.

That added dimension is the goal of the program, which is now offered at seven other synagogues in the community.

Social workers there are helping congregants and staff members deal with such issues as unemployment, grief, marital discord, substance abuse, parenting problems, and children with special needs.

The social workers — all JFS employees — have been running private consultations, seminars, and support groups in conjunction with clergy at three Reform, three Conservative, and one independent synagogue.

Their 12-hour-a-week services are subsidized partly by the participating synagogues and partly by a $100,000 grant from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey.

On April 27, the social workers now assigned to synagogues joined JFS officials at JFS headquarters in Florham Park for their monthly meeting, where they discussed AABJ&D’s particular needs.

“I think it is necessary that the social worker be Orthodox,” said Judie Gerstein, director of JFS clinical services. “The social worker needs to have the understanding of the congregation in a way that will be beneficial. Certainly an Orthodox social worker would be most appropriate.”

“There is a difference and an awareness you need to have to work in an Orthodox shul with Orthodox families,” agreed Wendy Sabin, the social worker at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell, a Conservative synagogue. “So I think there is a cultural understanding that needs to be respected to a different level.”

In a telephone interview, Zwickler noted that Orthodox synagogues in other communities have social workers on staff. “The important thing is to establish a relationship between the rabbi and the social worker and shul leaders to make sure the issues that need to be addressed will be addressed,” he said.

JFS executive director Reuben Rotman said different congregations face similar challenges.

“Having a social worker on site helps to manage and mitigate conflict, work through problems, and be an on-site resource for congregants,” he said. “Putting a social worker in a synagogue helps to do that for the staff of a synagogue, as well as the members and certainly the rabbi, who has to do this all by himself or herself.”

Beth Sandweiss, who works at the Conservative Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield and the Reform Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, developed a series on death, grief, and loss in conjunction with the rabbis at both synagogues.

“People are really interested in Judaism’s views of the afterlife and dealing with loss and grief,” she said.

The economy has also shaped the services provided.

“With the economic downturn a year and a half ago, we started a job bank,” said Ilana Mazur, who is stationed at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, a Reform synagogue in Short Hills. “We kept it confidential. It went through myself and the executive director. People who would not normally have gone to JFS because of stigma can be assisted.”

Sabin said she spends a lot of time on parenting issues.

“Parents are very anxious about their kids getting into college. They are pressuring them with sports, with academic achievements, and then the kids start developing problems,” she said.

Also attending the meeting were Ann Hicks of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, an independent congregation, and Lisa Sturm from the Conservative B’nai Shalom in West Orange.

“Ilana complements what we do,” said Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of B’nai Jeshurun in a phone interview. “If she feels the rabbi or the cantor needs to be involved, we are made aware at once. If we feel like it passes the line where we can be helpful, we will pass it on to her. There has never been any competition. She has been such a help to me.”

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