From the beginning it has been important to us at Shira Hadasha, to build a Kehilah (community) not merely a minyan. As a prayer community both tfilah and kehilah are part of our essence. Indeed if people aren’t being cared for our tfilah cannot be whole or holy.
A few years ago we decided to introduce a systemic and comprehensive approach in order to ensure that we were able to provide sustainable ongoing support systems. It was important to ensure that the services we offered were easily accessible and that we also enjoyed widespread involvement and awareness across the community. This process began with an assessment of need. We considered what are the times in people’s lives when they require the most support. What is the nature of support that people may need and that they may not easily find elsewhere? What capacities do we have to provide support and what is outside the realm of our responsibility/ability to give? Infused through this initial process was learning and study. We use traditional sources and text study along with our own experiences and knowledge to identify a path of action.
Our community is multi-generational which has both advantages and challenges. We must concern ourselves with the full range of life-cycle events from birth, to illness, eldercare, and bereavement.
Kehilah Tomechet – Supportive Community was founded in order to take a strategic approach to these challenges.
A small team was recruited to coordinate the efforts of a range of committees, each acting within a specific sphere of need. The team was in turn overseen by individuals from the gabaut (executive committee). Their role was to provide both volunteer support and encouragement as well as ensure that the direction of this project continued to be consistent with the values of Shira Hadasha as a whole. In this way a large pyramid of support and activism was constructed encompassing more than 50 volunteers.
In Israel much of the logistics of death and bereavement is taken care of by the State funded Chevre Kadisha. We therefore have not had to create a Chevre Kadisha of our own. In other places where this is not the case we would suggest forming partnerships with other synagogues in the area who can and do provide services that a small kehlilah or minyan may not be able to.
The Va’ad Tmicha B’Aveilut identified the following functions and services that they were able to provide.
- Coordination with the Chevre Kadisha, helping explain the process and navigating the logistics of the death and burial process. Being an advocate for the bereaved.
- Providing Halachic advice and information on the topic of shiva and mourning.
- Preparing the house for shiva and providing requirements such as siddurim, sefer Torah, chairs and other things that may be required.
- Ensuring that there is a minyan available for all services during the shiva as well as people to lead services, read Torah and give Divrei Torah between Mincha and Maariv.
- Providing support for the mourner to reenter the Kehilah after the shiva including Kaddish Mentoring – Pairing people who are new at saying Kaddish with others who have experience saying it and providing information on other communities friendly to women saying Kaddish at weekday services.
Sickness and Elder Care
Tmicha B’Cholim began with the intention of working with ill members, or those with ill family members offering hospital and home visits as well as emotional and practical (cooking, cleaning, babysitting etc.) support. However it quickly became clear that the greatest need was for elder care. Many members of the community are caregivers for elderly relatives. The committee has tried to provide some respite support for these members as well as volunteers for regular home visits.
However, this transition from sickness to elder care has been very challenging as providing long term support for ongoing need is much harder to supply than one-off care in urgent situations.
The team, most of whom have had personal or professional experience in this area, coordinated home and hospital visits and offered training and support for a wider pool of volunteers.
Volunteers from the community provide home cooked meals for members in need such as in cases of illness, childbirth, bereavement etc. A small team of three coordinates a larger roster of volunteers. Among the things they have to consider are specific food requirements, privacy and sensitivity.
Gmach (gemilut hasadim)
Shira Hadasha has a separate gemach bank account for interest free loans, made up of the donations received for this specific purpose. Money was also raised for the gmach though sales of a Shira Hadasha CD of tunes and tfilah. The gmach account is used for loans of up to 5,000 ₪ to people with specific needs such as mediical expenses, unexpected financial crisis etc. in accordance with pre-determined and legally governed guidelines. Anyone wishing to set up a similar program should seek legal counsel.
Because of the particular sensitivity of this area, the gmach doesn’t operate under the same structure as the rest of the Kehilah Tomechet. Only the four coordinators of the gmach (including one gabai) are aware of applications and distributions of the fund.
New Members (Panim Hadashot)
The new members committee was created in order to recognize and integrate new members; introduce new people to the range of services we offer and to identify and meet the needs of this specific group of people, many of whom have only recently moved to Jerusalem from other places.
Among the committees activities are:
- Social events during the year including community meals
- ‘New members’ Shabbat where all kibudim and parts of the service are run by people new to the Kehilah and a special Kiddush to introduce people to one another
- Follow up. Before major community events throughout the year each new member receives a personal call from someone on the committee checking in with them and inviting them to participate in the activity.
- The publication and distribution of a ‘guide to Shira Hadasha Services’ with information and contact details.
Lessons we learnt
In general this structure has proved successful but it has also been a steep learning curve and there are areas, which, two years on are still yet to perform, as we would like. Among the lessons we learnt from this process are:
- Sometimes the anticipated need did not turn out to be what was required and we were forced to adjust to different needs. A good case in point here was the illness committee who discovered that the greatest need is for elder care.
- We felt it was important for all of the volunteers in each specific area to be connected into the meta-values of the community and the larger goals of the Kehilah Tomechet. We also wanted to increase motivation and support for volunteers and enable them to share what they were doing with one another. We therefore created a regular Forum Kehilatiyut which meets four times during the year. Each meeting of the forum includes text based Jewish learning; a presentation by one or two of the committees about the work that they have been doing, during which they can also seek help and advice from others; a broader conversation about how to promote kehilatiyut in the community.
- We believe that an important part of Kehilah Tomechet is learning together. This has many purposes. We teach ourselves to better meet our responsibilities and fulfill our task. We reinforce the value of Shira Hadasha as a learning community. Learning together bonds us with one another. Finally it provides a traditional Jewish underpinning to the social services we provide and connects the volunteers with a larger purpose. In addition to Forum Kehilatiyut many of the different committees have run learning sessions for themselves or their volunteers.
- As well as teaching ourselves we have sought to engage the community at large, with our learning. We encourage the Kehilah Tomechet activists to give Divrei Torah in shul connected to, and highlighting, the work that they, and the Kehilah in general is doing. All of this contributes to drawing more people in and highlighting the holistic nature of our Kehilah tying together prayer, community, social action and learning.
We are fortunate in being a large Kehilah with many resources, which has allowed us to establish a broad range of services and activities. Though we have tried to ensure that everyone who comes through the Kehilah has his or her needs met, we are not always entirely successful. We are continually trying to shrink the gap between the services and resources that we promise and those that we deliver.
Unlike traditional synagogues we do not have a Rabbi or pastoral team and therefore we needed to create a structure based on a foundation of volunteerism and community activism. We needed to draw from the strengths, skills and professional experience of our members, rather than relying on paid employees. This has been a huge challenge of course, but has also been an opportunity to get more people involved and invested in the community.
The dependence on volunteers also forces us to be aware of our limitations. We have been forced to confront the realization that we can’t do everything we would like to do. We must consolidate our resources in order to have the most effective impact.
The complex structure that we created is both a source of strength and also a weakness. Some committees have struggled and sometimes early setbacks led to low motivation and inactivity. Some committees found it hard to recruit volunteers, especially to jobs less appealing such as ongoing eldercare. We had to contend with volunteer burnout, limited time and competing priorities.
Managing volunteers is very complex. Individualized support and consultancy together with the Forum Kehilatiyut were conceived as solutions to these problems. They have been partially successful and we continue to seek improvement.
Information versus confidentiality
We must constantly be aware of the sensitivity necessary when working with people at very vulnerable times in their lives. A community can easily become a place of gossip. On the other hand we can’t provide services without knowing who is in need, who is sick etc. We must constantly consider and monitor ourselves when discussing people and sharing information.
Creating Kehilatiyut (sense of community) is an ongoing process that requires constant and consistent nurturing. Though every activist has different reasons that brought him/her to our Kehilah, almost everyone lists kehilatiyut as one of the most important things that they get out of their involvement. This feeling is what inspires them in their own work, building the Shira Hadasha Kehilah. Kehilah Tomechet is an ongoing process and has not always met the high standards we set for ourselves. We have some disappointments but also significant, often quiet, successes. Together we have created a structure that over the last two-three years of its existence has support scores, perhaps hundreds of people, at some of the most difficult times in their lives. As a result not only the individuals have been strengthened but also the community as a whole.