East Bay rabbis get problem-solving help from JFCS

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Where does a rabbi go for counseling?

An innovative program now lets East Bay rabbis consult with a counselor at Jewish Family and Children's Services, getting suggestions on how to deal with the heavy demands placed on them and how to help congregants.

"Being in the pulpit rabbinate is very stressful and demanding, and sometimes rabbis want an opportunity to discuss some of those stresses and demands in a safe place," says Ted Feldman, executive director of Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay.

Also, in counseling their congregants, rabbis occasionally need additional resources. The program helps rabbis connect their congregants to JFCS' case-management services as well as with Project Ezra, a JFCS program that provides emergency financial assistance.

"The results have been fantastic, forging a strong bond between our agency and the East Bay Jewish community," he says.

The consultation service rabbis get isn't of a run-of-the-mill variety. Esther Brass, a senior consultant clinician at JFCS who works with the rabbis, has a bachelor's degree in psychology from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a doctorate from Duke University, and she interned at Harvard Medical School.

Brass says the East Bay rabbis she has dealt with are comfortable seeking assistance.

"East Bay rabbis get along with each other and are very open to new ideas," she says. "It's a real collaboration and has opened the door to lots of special new ideas here."

Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman, of Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, has often used the service. "I've had lots of opportunity and a real need to talk about problems I'm trying to solve. It's wonderful to have the backup support…to think through a problem and to get another opinion.

"First I look to the Torah and other holy books when someone in my congregation has a problem with things like marriage or if they are facing a grief situation," he says. "But not all of today's problems are simply questions of halachah [Jewish law]."

As a result, Finkelman often turns to JFCS to look at additional approaches. "Solutions are usually a combination of both the ancient texts and this rabbi consultation service," he says.

Originally funded by a Koret Foundation grant, the program has now become part of JFCS' operations. "We suddenly had the money to have a staff to reach out to East Bay rabbis and really find how we could help with their congregations' problems," says Brass.

In fact several new JFCS discussion groups have grown out of needs identified in the rabbi-consultation sessions. They include Why Be Jewish? (an interfaith support group), Intimate Connections (premarriage discussions), Widow/Widower Needs and Our Child's Consultation (to discuss schoolchildren's needs and problems with parents and teachers).

"This has been incredibly successful, so we're continuing with it," says Feldman.