Jewish Family and Children’s Service: A Sacred Obligation

Sermon given November 21, 2003, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

It was my first “wake up call” from Temple Beth-El. It was my day off at my previous congregation, a few weeks before I moved to San Antonio. I was sleeping in that morning. The hour was early. The phone rang. The voice at the other end, the peppy Robstown drawl of Prissy Kaufman: “Barry, you don’t know me; Rabbi Stahl gave me your number. It sounds like I woke you up, and I’m so sorry. I could call you back later, but I want to ask you if you would join the Board of our Jewish Family Services.” Mind you, I didn’t even live in San Antonio yet. Did I mention that I was in bed? I said “yes.” It didn’t occur to me that the JFS Nominating Committee must be desperate. These folks hadn’t even met me.

Be all that as it may, I enjoyed some years on the Board of Jewish Family Service, including time on the Executive Committee. Those years seemed difficult for the agency. We went through different Executive Directors. Board meetings could be contentious. Folks facing the challenges of today may be comforted to know that the early to mid 1990s were scarcely any easier.

Even in those tough years of my own Board service, every frustration was balanced by the dedication and excellence of the staff. Jewish Family and Children’s Services is driven by a mission, to provide counseling, family life education, support and social services to the men, women and children of the San Antonio area, regardless of religion or ethnicity. As a Board member, I lived with confidence that the therapists were both competent and compassionate, that support groups were led with skill and caring, and that people in crisis could turn to Jewish Family Service for assistance. I was inspired that our Jewish community would offer much needed services to whomever would walk in the door, on a sliding-scale fee basis, affordable to all, in our poverty-stricken city.

Back in those days, members of the Board, as well as other leaders of our Jewish community, were of different minds, with respect to the Jewish character of the agency. Some were aghast, that a relatively small percentage of the clients were Jewish. Why, they asked, should the Jewish community fund an agency which is not primarily serving Jews? On the other hand, I recall discussions about a mission statement, in which the word “Jewish” was not to be found, except in the agency’s name. Some felt that any hint of sectarianism would harm the wider mission.

Illustrative, perhaps, was a disagreement that arose when the agency took up residence in the Campus of the San Antonio Jewish community, after I had left the Board. A couple of folks objected to the Campus requirement that a mezuzah be placed on every door. They wondered how a non-Jewish client would feel, walking into a counselor’s office, passing a religious symbol of a faith other than their own. Soon, though, all came to see the powerful, positive message of the mezuzah on every counselor’s door. Non-Jewish clients would be increasingly aware that these services were offered to everyone in need, as a gift from our Jewish community. A Jewish agency, serving people who may or may not be Jewish, is vital to our relationships with our fellow San Antonians of every walk of life.

More importantly, providing for people in need, Jewish or otherwise, is a mitzvah. Judaism imposes upon us a religious obligation to care for the poor.

Let us consider the words of Hillel, engraved in the cornerstone of our Philips Community Building, the edifice that houses the Barshop Auditorium and Beldon Foyer: Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur, “Do not separate yourself from your community.” Admittedly, Hillel almost certainly was thinking of the Jewish community. The commentary of later Rabbis, though, is instructive. Both Rashi and Bartinoro interpret Hillel’s dictum as admonishing us not to separate ourselves in difficult times, lest we be left out of others’ joys as well. Applying this advice to our modern situation, we reach out to the needy, with the prayer that we may look forward to celebrating with them when they are in a better place, at the happier times that are to come. Serving the poor of every walk of life in San Antonio validates our sharing in the prosperity of our wider community.

Since those early days when I was on the Board at Jewish Family Service, I have been blessed to become involved with other organizations. The lessons I have learned from Methodist Healthcare Ministries are most applicable to the question of Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

Half-owner of the better-known Methodist Healthcare System, Methodist Ministries has expended tens of millions of dollars in its mission to improve primary health care to the men, women and children most in need throughout a 72 county area of South Texas. From dental clinics to school based health care and parenting programs, Methodist Ministries serves our poorest neighbors, in San Antonio, along the border, and in all the impoverished communities between here and Mexico. With tens of thousands of clients a year, maybe hundreds of thousands, I have never heard any Board member ask: What percentage of our clients are Methodist? Or even, How many of the people we serve are Christian?

The blessing of serving on this Methodist Board has permitted me to come to know the hearts and minds of the Methodist folks who make up the majority of that Board. They understand their Christian mission to provide service to every human being in need. Like the mezuzot on the doors of the counseling rooms at Jewish Family Service, the Methodist Ministries logo includes a cross: Nobody shies away from proclaiming the service as a Methodist outreach. They feel, as we, too, understand: God has commanded us to heal the sick, to free the captive, to house the homeless, to feed the poor, to comfort all who suffer pain, whoever they may be.

Sadly, Jewish Family and Children’s Services has been going through some rough times in the last couple of years. My friend, Temple member Jenn Rosenblatt, who chairs the agency’s Board, repeatedly assures me that things are getting better, and that Jewish Family and Children’s Service will be there for our entire community for years and decades to come. We all know of the tireless dedication of both Lynn Stahl and Arlene Dryer, beloved to our congregation and valued members of the Jewish Family Service staff. Other Temple members serve on the Board and have done so in years past, and still more are former staff members, ever dedicated to the Agency’s mission. The agency’s commitment to the future was recently signaled by the engagement of Betty Schwartz, a long-time Temple leader, particularly in our Sisterhood, and a seasoned professional, who will surely be key to the long-term future health of Jewish Family and Children’s Services. I have been privileged, as well, to work with Lamar Elliott and many other agency staff who are not Jewish, and who also contribute significantly to this mission.

The agency’s tough times seem to make the difficulties of my own years on the Board look like child’s play. The causes, to the extent I understand them, are multi-faceted and complicated. And yet, the crossroads at which the agency finds itself does present an occasion to examine the moral imperative that Jewish Family and Children’s Service continue in its mission.

Some in our Jewish community have questioned whether Jewish community resources should be allocated to an agency whose primary outreach is to needy folks who aren’t Jewish. The argument has not carried the day, and therefore is not a primary cause of the agency’s current challenges. Moreover, the folks making this claim do have a point, even though I disagree. They say that Jewish philanthropy ought to take care of Jews, first and foremost. They remind us that these times are difficult for Jews. In our hour of crisis, they ask if we really have the resources to reach beyond our own community.

Two weeks ago, at the Biennial Convention of our Union of Reform Judaism, our Reform Movement’s President, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, offered an important retort:

“[We] know that our community is ill served by the embrace of narrow tribalism. We will not withdraw into a ghetto of our own making. The best way to combat anti-Semitism and to defend Israel is to build more and better bridges. As our enemies construct coalitions of hate and terror, we will construct the broadest possible coalitions of decency. And this work must begin now.”

Not long before I heard Rabbi Yoffie utter these words, I was present to turn a spade of earth at a groundbreaking for the construction of such a bridge. Jewish Family Service, in cooperation with Bexar County, the Sisters of Blessed Sacrament, the City of San Antonio and others, is building a counseling center on Mission Road, in South San Antonio. There, very few if any clients will be Jewish. There, people who otherwise would have little or no contact with Jews will come to know the Jewish community as one that reaches out, in partnership with others, to help every person in need. There, our Jewish community will perform countless mitzvot, through the work of this agency whose mission is a blessing to us every day.

Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur, let us never separate from those who share our community at their time of trouble. Then, may we remain united in friendship, Jew and gentile alike, building bridges to a better tomorrow.