Staff at new Karsh Center will reach out to community


What would you do if you were a volunteer at a social service center and one of the clients, unable to walk and without his or her own car, asked for a ride home? 

The question was one of many posed to the approximately 150 attendees at a volunteer orientation on March 13 for the new, 7,500-square-foot Karsh Family Social Service Center at Wilshire Boulevard Temple (WBT), a facility opening onto Sixth Street that is part of the expansion of the synagogue’s Koreatown campus. 

The gathering was to prepare prospective volunteers for the April 4 “soft opening” of the Karsh Family Social Service Center, according to Liz Ross, director of the new Karsh Center at WBT.

“You’re not all here this morning for the bagels and lox. You’re here because you want to help,” she said, addressing a group assembled in the historic Reform temple’s Stalford Hall. 

The Karsh Center will provide free or low-cost dental, vision and mental health care, legal and literary assistance and bereavement counseling to the primarily non-Jewish, diverse community in the surrounding Koreatown area and to anyone in need. It represents a joint effort of philanthropic donors, a small Karsh Center staff, volunteers drawn from the temple’s membership and organizational community partners who can help provide professional services.

“I have been spending the last six-plus years, seven years, really envisioning this and taking it from an idea to a reality, so, the fact that the room is full today with 150 volunteers, prospective volunteers, the fact that the facility is built, there is paint on the walls, dental chairs in the dental clinic, I have to pinch myself sometimes,” WBT Rabbi Beaumont Shapiro, who is overseeing the services center alongside Ross, said in an interview Sunday. 

The center’s opening, along with the completion of the parking structure in which the center is housed, marks the realization of the second of WBT’s three-phase restoration and expansion of its Koreatown campus. The second phase also encompassed the renovation of two schools, the Erika J. Glazer Early Childhood Center and Brawerman Elementary School East. 

The first phase was the restoration, completed in 2013, of the temple’s historic Byzantine-Revival sanctuary on Wilshire Boulevard, and the third phase will be the construction of a 55,000-square-foot events complex.

As previously reported, the three-part project is projected to cost the temple more than $160 million. The cost of the Karsh Center was not immediately available.

The official opening of the Karsh Center will take place in the fall, Ross said, adding that the website for the center launches April 1.

The center houses three state-of-the-art dental chairs, an eye-exam room and eyeglasses dispensary, office space for attorneys, a waiting area, multipurpose room, administrative offices and an expanded WBT food pantry. The congregation had for years operated a food pantry out of a garage of the temple.

When Ross asked volunteers how they might respond to a client in need asking for a ride home, congregant Hedy Vanderfluit, drawing on her volunteer experience with the food pantry, said she would turn down the request. 

“I say, ‘no,’ ” she said. “It’s my boundary.”

That answer, according to Ross, was the correct one. The work of the volunteers will be vital toward ensuring the success of the center, but the center will be successful if, and only if, the type of care offered is consistent and professional.

“It’s about being a credible organization,” Ross said.

To that end, 11 social service organizations are partnering with WBT to offer services at the new center, among them the legal services agency Bet Tzedek, Our House — a bereavement support group — and the Korean Health, Education, Information and Research (KHEIR) Center. 

Ross said attracting organizations and volunteers with experience working with diverse populations is important: 52 percent of the Koreatown’s population is Latino; 25 percent is Caucasian; 18 percent is Asian; and 5 percent is African-American.

“Language is an issue, and cultural competency is an issue,” she said in an interview at her office, which is housed at the center.

Shapiro said he expects there to be 1,000 volunteer opportunities every year at the center. Some volunteers, such as Vanderfluit, who has worked as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teaching assistant for more than 20 years, are hoping to help immigrants preparing to take U.S. citizenship exams. 

More than 100 Wilshire Boulevard Temple congregants turned out last weekend for a Karsh Family Social Service Center volunteer orientation. 

Vanderfluit said her volunteering is an expression of her Judaism. 

“[I’m here] to follow what I’m taught through my studies of Torah,” she said in an interview Sunday at WBT. “We all need to serve each other.” 

Others who turned out for the orientation included Maggie Wunsch-Scott, a member of WBT for nearly 25 years.

“God’s not primarily my thing … [so] something like this lets me live my Jewishness,” Wunsch-Scott said.

Rabbi Shapiro, whose role at WBT focuses on social action and interfaith work, said the center is part of WBT’s mission to engage congregants who want to connect with Judaism and their congregation outside religious services. 

“We want to give back; we want to engage in social justice and service work because it makes us feel good, and we want to feel like we are doing something to help mend brokenness we see in our world, and that’s wonderful. But as Jews, it goes so much deeper than that, because as Jews it’s not just about doing it because it makes us feel good — as Jews it’s an obligation we have. 

“It may not be the liturgy of a prayer service that draws us into Jewish life; it may not be Kol Nidre that draws us into Jewish life; it may not be Torah study that draws us into Jewish life, but the opportunity to be of service and to participate in social service work in a Jewish context is just as valid a way to embrace Jewish life,” Shapiro said. “It is an opportunity to bring less affiliated, for lack of better word, Jews into Jewish life and into the synagogue.”