A Vision of Extraordinary Care and Service: The VBS Counseling Center

Mentalhealth Counselling
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Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California has a sense of purpose that goes beyond its own survival. Within its walls you will find the expected daily minyan, youth programming and Brother- and Sisterhood meetings that are hosted at many Conservative synagogues. However, on the lower level, an nontraditional communal need is being met. There, you can find the VBS Counseling Center.

The VBS Counseling Center was first conceived in 1972 by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis. His compelling vision came out of his real pastoral counseling experience. He found that he had more demand than he could handle, and this led him to understand that there was an unmet need in his congregation and his community when it came to mental health services.

In order to make his vision a reality, Rabbi Schulweis partnered with Dr. Art Sorotsky, a practicing psychiatrist. Dr. Sorotsky created a curriculum and trained the first class of volunteer counselors. Thanks to Rabbi Schulwie’s influence in the community, Dr. Sorotsky’s knowledge of psychology and the willingness of several newly-trained volunteers, the counseling center opened its doors to patients in May, 1975. It has been running ever since.

Today, The Center is a registered non-profit organization separate from VBS itself. Although it is housed within the synagogue, it has its own set of bylaws and obligations. It carries malpractice insurance for each counselor and follows the laws and ethics dictated by the California Board of Behavioral Sciences, as well as HIPAA. The staff includes 24 volunteer counselors, all of whom are adequately trained by The Center and many who are licensed mental health professionals.

All of the volunteer counselors at The Center are VBS members, and therefore offer advice from a Jewish perspective and based on Jewish values. However, its services are open to the community-at-large, regardless of religious affiliation. Interestingly, many non-Jews have sought The Center’s services because they desired the moral and ethical perspective Jewish counselors represent. It also has a policy of never turning someone away due to lack of funds, so it can be the most feasible option for many people.

The Center offers 50 minute counseling sessions for individuals, families and couples that offer help for things such as anxiety, depression, loneliness, marital issues and aging. It also offers 90 minute support groups for those experiencing a divorce/separation, widows, caregivers and others.

The VSB Counseling Center is an example of both successful vision-building and inspired volunteerism, which often go hand-in-hand. Rabbi Schulwie had a vision that was based on both Jewish values and real-world experiences. He was then able to articulate this vision in a way that inspired volunteers to get on board. According to USCJ’s Volunteer Development Plan, successful volunteer recruitment requires that key questions be answered for the volunteer prospect, such as “will this project make a difference?” and “what will I learn from it?” A well thought-out vision makes these questions easier to answer.

Now, decades later, volunteers are still passionate about The Center’s mission. It would not be able to still run without them. “Others may find it difficult to comprehend that there are volunteers who agree to meet the ethical, educational and scheduling demands of being part of our Center for as many as 47 years,” said Judie Cotton, the programming director at The Center. “We are very proud of our service and that we have consistently maintained the privacy and confidentiality of our clients.”

The benefit of offering such a service in the community is apparent due to the fact that The Center has been running successfully for almost a half a century.

“Such examples as the VBS Counseling Center show the potential for synagogues to become places that reduce stigma of mental illness,” said Carolyn Reinach Wolf, a lawyer who specializes in mental health law and writes about the challenges of serving the mentally ill. [Synagogues can] provide a supportive community for individuals and their families and can be a network to other service providers.”

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