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October 25, 2014 | 1st Cheshvan 5775

Why a Caring Committee is Worthwhile

by Harriet Rosen, co- author of Becoming a Kehillat Chesed

Whatever its name, synagogues with strong, vibrant Caring Committees prosper.  Members reach out to congregants to rejoice, support, and mourn life's major milestones and its smaller ones.  These committees are membership retention centers.  It's hard to leave the warm, caring embrace of a community that celebrated and acknowledged your new child or new job and mourned the loss of your health, or your child's divorce.  So whether the committee's name is Mitzvah Corp, or Beth Tikvah Caring, or Helping Hands, its existence is an asset  that supports synagogue involvement.

Steps to building a Caring Community

  1. Partnering-Building a community and not just a committee

    The goal is not just a committee but to engage the whole congregation in this mitzvah of reaching out to others.  There are many ways to engage and enlarge the participation from simple acts of kindness to larger projects.

    Within a congregation, it is critical for a committee's success to engage professional staff.  The active support of the rabbi(s), cantor, executive director, religious school director and any other  individuals who are or are filling the role of professional leadership within a congregation all need to agree that this goal and role are important.

    Once the professional staff is clear about the responsibilities and time it can provide, the next step is to find lay leadership and engage existing synagogue committees. Turf wars are a reality and if this is a synagogue-wide endeavor across "party" lines, with real and open discussion in the establishment of objectives and the sharing of responsibilities and credit, those boundaries can be breached. Modeling cooperation promotes it.

    Once there is an established committee, drawing from the larger community (both Jewish and secular) for resources, for partnering and for cooperation help to make the synagogue a positive, contributing and collaborative member of the larger community.

  2. Finding Leadership 

    1. Identify an initial committee chair or co-chairs:
      Create a job  and ideal personality traits for the person/people who will fill that role;   The ideal is someone who is flexible, able to delegate, works to bring in new people, " non-turf" person-passionate about this mission and also responsible-somone who thinks this is important enough to give his or her time to creating a viable committee. Think carefully about who can fill a role best filled by someone fit for sainthood and who will ask that person to accept the position. Try not to go to the same three people in the congregation who are  asked to do everything. Best is to ask them to be part of the search.

    2. Divide up leadership roles to spread out responsibility.
      The new chair should acknowledge the importance of sub-committees and give autonomy to each leader.

    3. Find and train new leadership-succession planning is critical.

    4. Encourage changing leadership

    5. Create an evaluation system-what works, what's needed,  tools to reflect on changing needs and addressing them.  Committees should examine the goals established on a regularly basis


  3. Recruit, Train and Honor Volunteers
    1. Critical issues
      Screen for appropriate involvement-not everyone is good for every role.  Certain programs need training and screening to protect the volunteer and the recipient. Confidentiality is critical.  Most congregations have a volunteer sign an agreement with specific do/don'ts for any program that involves personal information. Clarify role and limitations of volunteers.  There are lines drawn between professional training and lay involvement and they need to be clear.

    2. Spread out and limit tasks for volunteers

    3. Develop a solid training system

    4. Communicate limitations by helping volunteers evaluate situations

    5. Create a support system for volunteers: buddy system, debriefing process, opportunities for additional learning, networks

    6. Create an effective communication system-among professionals, organizer/chair and volunteers. 

    7. Find ways to honor volunteers: communicate pride in what they're doing and the ways they and the community benefit

  4. Programs and Projects

    1. Who makes up your congregation's membership?  Don't decide what your congregation "needs" or "wants" without asking the professional staff members what they've observed and encountered.  Another way to find information is by asking:

      • Surveys -work if there's a "carrot" for getting responses
      • Demographic realities - find out about who really makes up your synagogue's population
      • Temple Networks - talk to the formal and informal groups

    2. Set realistic goals-the problems will always be more than the ability to solve them.  Start small and build on your success.

    3. Plan for a successful project - think about goals, costs, time, people and need

  5. Accepting Help
    Many people are embarrassed, reluctant, or fear public exposure if they ask for help.  By establishing a culture of helping and accepting help, the committee creates an environment of caring.  To help initiate and support this level of acceptance you need everyone's commitment.

    1. Role of religious professionals-from the bima, in newsletters, in interactions-they can reduce stigma and encourage participation

    2. Create a Caring synagogue community by asking for wide participation

    3. Role of this committee and other congregational committees in bringing their skills and members into projects

    4. Encourage all congregants to be involved in encouraging, celebrating and consoling one another as situations warrant these responses

    5. Use congregational PR to offer help and to make helping and accepting help visible and make clear that  each act of loving kindness clearly an expression of core Jewish value

Many congregations across North America, in Israel and in South America have initiated and maintained successful Caring Communities with limited resources and with  time-challenged volunteers.  The benefits are visible.  When you walk into a congregation with a warm feel, read its newsletter celebrating its congregants and it feels as Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman says, "like you've come home," chances are excellent that this congregation has some form of a Caring Committee.

For more information  about starting or expanding the Caring Committee of yur congregation please contact Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, LCSW Specialist on Caring Community and Jewish Family Concerns at emencher@urj.org or 212 650 4296

To read more about starting and building a caring committee and congregation:

Becoming a KehillatChesed: Creating and Sustaining a Caring Congregation (Revised Edition)  ByHarriet Rosen with Rabbi Richard Address, Marcia Hochman and Rabbi Lisa Izes  available from the URJ Press

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