New Outreach Initiative Hopes to Re-Engage Unaffiliated Jews

The new Center for Spiritual Well-Being at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park is hoping to bring wayward Jewish souls back into the fold.

Like a shepherd trying to round up sheep that have strayed too far from the rest of the flock, the new Center for Spiritual Well-Being at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park is hoping to bring wayward Jewish souls back into the fold.
The center’s mission officially begins March 13 when renowned psychologist Dan Gottlieb helps launch its initial program, “Normative Crises: Growing Through Life’s Changes and Challenges.”
As far as Gottlieb is concerned, the center is something both needed and long overdue. “I love the idea,” said Gottlieb, host of the radio program, Voices in the Family, heard on WHYY for the past 30 years, and author of six books. “I’ve heard so many people say they dropped out of their synagogue — or any other house of worship — because it was not a spiritual home. It’s important because people feel a lack of community — a place where they can explore what’s deepest to them on a spiritual level. I keep hearing that they feel no spiritual connection. What we’ll be doing is not text-based — no rules or constraints — it’s ‘Let’s just talk about what’s important to us.’ ”
While the center actually has been in operation for a few months, hosting such events as weekly yoga sessions, a Wednesday Nar-Anon family support group for those dealing with addictions and a monthly Healing Service, this is its first community-wide event.
To help promote it, they’ve hired a public relations firm and also gone on a media blitz, which includes radio ads on KYW1060 AM and WHYY-FM, as well as placing ads in the Jewish Exponent and Philadelphia Inquirer, in addition to maintaining the center’s Facebook page. Those and other costs are being funded through an anonymous donor, who has pledged several hundred thousand dollars over the next four years. In less than a week, the campaign boosted the projected turnout from 125 to 223, with some 300 expected by Sunday.
According to Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin, regardless of a person’s reason for leaving organized Jewish life — financial, a disconnect in age or circumstance, or other personal issues — this may be the vehicle that brings them back. “We think there are lot of people not yet being touched by synagogues and the religious community,” said Glanzberg-Krainin, now in his 12th year at Beth Sholom. “It means a lot to me; we could have chance to impact the community. Having an impact and creation of community are what moves me being a rabbi — a new vehicle that is essential to the work of what I want to be doing as a rabbi.”
His colleague, Rabbi Andrea Merow, feels much the same. “We realize everyone has issues with their mental health, and that’s often connected with spiritual health,” said Merow. “We think our physical and mental well being are always affected by the spiritual. People can improve their overall well being by engaging in programming that speaks to their heart.”
The program will open with Gottlieb, before breaking out into individual groups on specific topics. Each breakout group will be led by a trained therapist. The fact that the event is free  should lead to even more people attending, according to Glanzberg-Krainin.
“We want to try to welcome everyone, and we’re prepared for the possibility of a large turnout,” said Glanzberg-Krainin. “We know there are people who don’t walk through synagogue doors for any number of reasons. We think they can be moved and touched by what synagogues are at their best doing: educating and providing inspirational support. Sometimes there are difficult issues people are struggling with, but they don’t necessarily feel synagogues are where they can get that kind of support. We’ve always had a desire to do this work, but not the means.”
Gottlieb, a quadriplegic who has battled health issues and other personal problems, says this kind of outlet was never availability during his time of need. “Who knows what I would’ve done with it, but today, people are just aching to explore and develop their own spirituality,” said Gottlieb, who’s reduced his broadcast schedule to doing specials every other month. “You can blame the Internet in part because people start to believe their Facebook friends are their real friends. Times have changed. We have more focus on ourselves and our personal growth and achievements, so our gaze has turned inward. That’s a very lonely place to be.”
That’s just one reason Gottlieb believes it’s so critical for people to share their feelings, especially if it’s with those going through something comparable.
“I’ll be addressing specific issues and major traumas,” explained Gottlieb about his role in the proceedings. “These are everyday traumas. What all of these events have in common is, we experience a kind of loss and we withdraw when we’re confused, shaken and vulnerable. However, when we suffer, we need each other to help the healing process; it’s the only cure. We need compassion from other people, from a higher power and, especially, from ourselves.”
Following its launch, the plan is for the center to have a series of smaller events and get-togethers on topics that may come out of Sunday’s initial program. They also plan to hold one major event each year.
So how will they know it’s working? “For me, success will mean some of the people who come to this opening will come back,” said Glanzberg-Krainin. “We’re not expecting every person to come back, but for those who do, we’ll know we’ve touched a nerve.”
Contact: 215-832-0729


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