An Extremely Wonderful Job, and How It Impacts My Work Now As a Therapist

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SaraKay Smullens
SaraKay Smullens (Photo by Sharon Wohlmuth Teacher.)

By SaraKay Smullens

My favorite place of employment, by far, was Jewish Family Service of Philadelphia. Please bear with me for a moment of this history, as I introduce myself. You see my name in my byline, but I am so happy and proud to tell you that I worked at JFS as both marriage and family counselor and Director of Family Life Education before the merger of Jewish Family Service and the Association of Jewish Children (AJC), creating the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia (JFCS). This article is a reflection on the great privilege of working at this agency, and the enduring gifts of activities and reflection it brought me. What follows is, in truth, a love letter of gratitude. 

Several trusted relationships with rabbis throughout the Delaware Valley developed during this period of employment. However, the closest relationship was with Rabbi Gerald Wolpe and his wife, Elaine, each of blessed memory. After leaving JFS, I kept in touch with several rabbis, but Rabbi Wolpe and I each taught in Hahnemann Medical School’s graduate programs at a time when a compilation of many various sad circumstances occurred, which eventually led to the closing of this important, vital institution. 

Rabbi Wolpe, who also trained as a marriage and family therapist, was instrumental in extending an invitation to present my findings to the Board of Rabbis, where I was able to share data and examples showing that clergy were “a missing link” in addressing the pervasive epidemic of domestic violence. Without the resulting engagement of the Board of Rabbis, a growing initiative in the 1990s, The Sabbath of Domestic Peace Coalition, with the mission of involving clergy of all denominations in understanding that prayer alone will not end emotional, physical and sexual abuse, would never have gotten off the ground and could not have succeeded. Innumerable individuals and institutions supported this initiative, including Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, Mayor Ed Rendell, social workers, physicians, attorneys, professional volunteers and representatives from the police department and various clergy groups. Now individual faith communities and houses of worship address this issue through their individual communities. 

How very special it was last year to be invited back to my professional home. I had been a consultant to Jennifer Fox in the development of her groundbreaking film, The Tale, in which Jennifer bravely confronted the truth about her sexual abuse by trusted mentors when she was 13 years old. When Jennifer was invited to discuss her film following its showing in a program sponsored by JFCS, FLE Director, Sarah Waxman, graciously invited me to participate in the discussion.

This extremely meaningful experience led to reflection of the many gifts of my employment at JFS — in many ways a reflection of “and this too” that brings us joy at seders…

Not only did I work with motivated clients who lived throughout Philadelphia. Not only did I have a great boss, Ben Sprafkin, who let me work from home whenever possible, as well as bring my infant to work, where she was cared for by my wonderful assistant, Roz Blanton, or slept in her basket in my office. Not only did I meet wonderful rabbis and have the opportunity to work closely with JFS’ superb board and beloved Board Chair Bill McKenna. Not only did meeting rabbis lead to meeting clergy leadership from most of our major religions, including my forever friend, Sister Josephine Kase.

But also I was privileged to visit most of our synagogues, meeting and sharing with members through family life education programs. These programs often occurred on Friday evenings following services. Some programs were also offered on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. The discussions of Torah portions during services have always been a highlight in my life. Growing up in a Modern Orthodox family in Baltimore, I was inspired by biblical interpretations made by our extraordinary rabbi, Dr. Uri Miller. Later, as a clinical social worker, family therapist and family life educator, I have, with constancy, called on biblical stories to encourage clients to look inward, and in doing so examine the direction of their lives and their choices. Unlike Greek tragedies, in which the human condition is also addressed — but a road to disaster is ever fated — our biblical stories offer opportunity for self-reflection and awareness of choice in direction, leading to our ability to develop what I consider essential: an “emotional and spiritual sense of direction.” 

As we face today’s pandemic, I offer some of the framing of our stories and Jewish life that my young clients, whom I am now meeting with online, are finding meaningful:

As we approach Passover, we now, due to a pandemic, are experiencing a true plague, such as those brought on in the Jewish plea to escape slavery, told so meaningfully in the book of Exodus, and brought home to us yearly at our seders. Personalizing this experience helps our young to examine their feelings as well as what a country can expect in leadership to protect us from danger. And of course our ties to a worldwide community.

A metaphor of feast and famine is also an important focal point, examined through Joseph’s dream interpretation for a distraught Pharaoh. Isn’t this also a warning about each life, each community, each country and our world? Now we surely are in a time of crisis, which can be accurately called a time of famine. But, as our Books of Moses tell us again and again: With each crisis comes opportunity. Discussions on how we can best address our present reality, and what choices and directions lie before us are meaningful to our teens and preteens.

The story of Anne Frank has also been an effective focal point: Anne and her family had to live in isolation — in fear and terror — in order to do all possible to preserve their lives. Several of the young I have worked with have visited her family home in Amsterdam. For those who have visited as well as those who have not, posting photos of how small quarters really were, and how vulnerable to capture all living there were, has proven relevant at this time: All of our activities have been impacted by the pandemic, and some of us are quarantined. An important focus then becomes: Do we have more empathy and compassion for all whose lives were endangered by the Nazi threat? What can we do about growing anti-Semitism, and what can we do about the pervasive health threat upon us now? Is a call to action — the necessity to become more involved — necessary? Is this calling essential to being a Jew?

All such discussions end with the determined belief that this time of famine will end. Hope must prevail. We have it in our power to bring necessary change and direction. We will emerge stronger, more aware, more determined to confront problems and prepare for the future — with eyes wide open. This belief is the essence of being a Jew. 

Of course, these discussions, based on the eternal genius found in the Old Testament, are wonderful to hold around family dining tables. Or wherever is right for you. I am sure you and yours can think of far more. And there is no greater time to do so than the present. 

SaraKay Smullens is a certified group psychotherapist, family life educator, best-selling author and award-winning writer. She also blogs regularly for The Huffington Post, Broad Street Review and Your Tango.

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