October 22, 2019

Shul counseling center costs little, does much for many

Even a rabbi needs a little help sometimes, which is why Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) was inspired decades ago to promote the creation of a counseling center run by temple volunteers.

“When I first came to this community, I realized that many of the problems that came to me were disguised. That is to say, the presenting problem appeared to be religious, but in fact it was emotional,” Schulweis said. “I recognized that I was one rabbi, that I could not possibly sustain that kind of a therapeutic relationship.

So he asked himself: If there are paralegals and paramedics, why not highly trained paraprofessional counselors who could offer confidential help? The answer took form as the VBS Counseling Center, established in 1973. It will be honored by the synagogue this weekend with the inaugural Harold M. Schulweis Humanitarian Award.

Also receiving the commendation on Sunday for their lifetime individual commitment to conscience and compassion will be congregants Elaine Berke, Faith Cookler and Janice Kamenir-Reznik.

The counseling center — secluded on the lower level of the Encino congregation with a separate entrance — currently has about 20 volunteers who meet with at least 40 Jewish and non-Jewish people from around the community every week, according to Charlotte Samuels, its clinical director.

Issues dealt with include depression, anger, grief, divorce, marriage counseling, unemployment, aging parents and more.  It operates on a “low fee/sliding scale” structure where people pay what they can, often between $15 and $50 per session.

For those lay volunteers who devote their time, this is no mere hobby. Samuels has been a counselor since the program’s inception, and she remembers the rigorous training that she and others had to go through over a period of two years.

“We had a reading list of required books. We had a supplementary reading list of recommended books. We went to class every week, Sunday morning, for three hours. We made visits to a great many of the mental health auxiliary facilities in the city and the Valley at that time,” she said. “For a six-month period, we paid for our own group therapy under the auspices of another psychiatrist,” learning how the process worked by participating in it.

Fourteen people completed the training as part of that initial cohort, and four continue to work for the center, Samuels said. The intensive curriculum was created by the late Dr. Arthur Sorosky, a VBS member and child psychiatrist who enlisted the help of many of his colleagues.

“He was a man who was really touched by the idea of training lay people from within the congregation,” Schulweis said.

For some, this training wasn’t the end.

“We were encouraged to go back to school if that’s what we wanted to do, and a number of us did and continued to volunteer going forward,” Samuels said.

She was one of them. Not a college graduate previously, Samuels was inspired to pursue higher education as a result of her involvement in the center. She studied her way through a master’s degree in counseling psychology before becoming licensed as a marriage and family therapist. She volunteered at the center for her training hours.

Now retired, Samuels said there is a special pleasure in helping the underserved who are attracted to the center — sometimes taking several bus lines to get there.

“They don’t come to us without having a great deal of pain. My empathy in helping them work through the pain and come out better able to deal with life, it’s humbling,” she said. “Private practice offers financial rewards. This offers a different kind of satisfaction even though you do the work in a similar kind of way.”

Schulweis, 87, said it always was his vision that the center cater to the entire community and people of all faiths, not just VBS congregants or Jews.

“This is my general understanding of Judaism: that it is called upon to serve the community,” he said. “My small role in this was to introduce from time to time some Jewish aspects of therapy. The idea behind it is that the synagogue has to become … a therapeutic, helping institution.”

As such, it might serve multiple roles for a multitude of peoples.

“The synagogue [isn’t] simply a place to pray for health but also a place in which people could have a shoulder to lean on and an intelligence to relate to,” Schulweis said. “It’s been remarkably successful.”

VBS Rabbi Ed Feinstein said that the synagogue of 1,600 families was one of the first — if not the first — Jewish congregations to offer such services, although there were pre-existing church models.

“We’re very proud of this, and we’re very grateful to the counselors who have given of themselves to do this,” he said. “The counseling center is an example of Rabbi Schulweis’ idea of a synagogue that must be bigger than its walls. … It’s about being a center of Judaism that reaches into the community and to the world to bring healing, to bring help.”

The center, which has served as a model for other organizations, has found its target audience, according to Sylvia Bernstein-Tregub, co-chair with Linda Volpert Gross of several celebratory events this weekend in conjunction with the awards.

It has served hundreds of people since its founding and offers something extra that people can’t easily find elsewhere, Bernstein-Tregub said.

“The fact that people reach out to a religious institution means that they are also looking for some spiritual component,” she said.

Gloria Siegel, who began volunteering at the center within the last year, said her experience dealing with others has improved her, too.

“In my helping other people, I’m growing at the same time,” she said.

She remembers one woman in particular whose improvement had a profound effect on her.

“She said to me at the end of one session: ‘You have given me the courage to believe in myself.’ And to hear that from anybody is such a tremendous gift,” Siegel said. “It doesn’t get more gratifying than that.”