What Makes an Organization Jewish?

What special expectations should there be of an organization when “Jewish” is a qualifier? What demands should there be on the leaders of such Jewish organizations to fulfill these expectations? As I have learned about Jewish Family Service (JFS) through my service-learning fieldwork there, I have wondered how a leader or group of leaders integrates a moral principle into the infrastructure of an institution.

JFS serves disadvantaged populations, enacting the Jewish value of caring for vulnerable members of society. A helping organization like JFS lives out its values by offering aid to the community in whatever ways it is capable. But through my exposure to the agency, I have seen that JFS also treats its own employees with the same rachamim (compassion) that it does its clients.

Several months ago one of the clients of a JFS social worker died—an occurrence not unusual in an organization that cares for seniors and other vulnerable members of the community. As is not uncommon in this situation, the employee found that dealing with her grief over the death was extremely complex, and she struggled to mourn the loss. When we think of the grieving people touched by a death, we might not first think of the individual’s social worker. But why not? The social worker’s job is to involve him or herself in a person’s life and be concerned for his or her well-being.

Members of the JFS community decided to take action and create an outlet for those grappling with the death of a client. After discussing the possible ways to design and implement this project, staff members decided to involve me in the process. I was flattered and surprised to be called upon in a rabbinic capacity even though this kind of work was not previously included in my job description. Ultimately the decision was made to create a permanent ritual, whereby employees can acknowledge their grief whenever they experience a client’s death, as well as to institute an annual memorial service. We set up a vase in a convenient location in the office with the word “remembering” written on it. Any JFS employee can take a stone, write the initials of their deceased client on the stone, and then place it in the vase.

We also compiled a set of readings from prayer books that are meant to offer comfort and reflection to those dealing with death. When the staff member places their stone in the vessel, he or she is also welcome to take one of these printed readings with them. The ritual was officially introduced in a short ceremony at the next monthly staff meeting. The ceremony will publicly acknowledge the legitimacy of JFS employees’ experiences when they face the death of their clients.

This experience reminds me of a text we studied in a Talmud course taught by Dean Jonathan Cohen about why giving tzedakah (charity) is required of the entire community. The Rabbis teach us that everyone is deserving of a certain standard. We tend to think of this concept in relation to fair treatment of marginalized members of our society, but it remains true for everyone, including employees in our institutions. The responsibility falls on the leaders to ensure such standards are met.

At JFS this meant introducing a ritual to help case managers mourn the deaths of their clients. The creation of this ritual represents that JFS values its staff, acknowledging the pain of this kind of suffering. At this stage in my education I am learning and exploring how to be a leader. My experience with Jewish service-learning has instilled in me the importance of creating a standard and constantly striving to meet the standard that the Jewish qualifier demands.

In the future, when I hope to be the rabbi of a synagogue, in some ways I will be responsible for how staff members are treated, both in terms of their salary and benefits as well as in terms of how they are treated by other members of the synagogue’s leadership and the congregation itself. My example and my decisions will both contribute to determining the culture of the synagogue. The decisions of the leadership reflect and determine the character of the institution itself and all who are associated with the institution. I must remain conscious of this dynamic if I hope to maintain the congregation’s and my own moral integrity.

Andi Feldman is a TJF Fellow working at Jewish Family Service.

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