By Jessica Hanewinckel
When Sharon Kalish moved to San Diego in October 2007 with her nearly 1-year-old son, Elliott, she didn’t have a single connection in town. Additionally, she was raising her son as a single parent with 100 percent custody. But, says the Encinitas resident, she moved here with the intention of finding and becoming active in a Jewish community. She’d been here just days, she says, when she happened to meet some members of Temple Solel who were planning a new havurah for single parents. From there, she learned about Supporting Jewish Single Parents, a program of Jewish Family Service, and became a client.
“It takes a village [to raise a child],” Kalish says. “I never really understood what that meant, but now I’m living it. Between Temple Solel, [SJSP] with JFS, my havurah group and some of my neighbors around here, it’s a village. [The community support] is so amazing.”
In 2003, following the Jewish Federation of San Diego County’s Jewish Community Study of San Diego County, it was evident there were many Jewish single parents in the area who needed support is one form or another.
“There was a large percentage of Jewish single parents, and there weren’t programs to connect to them,” says Debra Stern-Ellis, JFS director of community services. “[In follow-up focus groups] they found out that people who were Jewish single parents really felt disconnected to the Jewish community. They talked about how they felt when they went to Jewish events, how everybody was in couples, and that people didn’t really welcome them as a single parent. That they felt like a lot of Jewish activities require money, and that they didn’t have the funding to be able to make that happen and participate fully like their coupled counterparts. They talked about needing a place to go for support and connection. The fear was that we’d really lose Jewish continuity for these families.”
Soon after the survey results came in, the Jewish Women’s Foundation, at the time a newly created subset of the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego, asked for grant requests that would help underserved populations. They chose as their very first project to fund SJSP as a pilot program, with JFS as operator. Says Stern-Ellis, JWF funded the program in full for the first three years, then a decreasing amount for the next three. After those six years, SJSP received a Federation Strategic Initiatives Grant, another step-down three-year grant that’s up this month.
While JFS is busy looking for new sources of funding, Stern-Ellis and SJSP Coordinator Stephanie Rogart haven’t slowed their efforts in the least to serve the approximately 230 families the program has grown to include. With a slow economy that makes getting by on one income tough, and a rising divorce rate, Rogart says, SJSP’s numbers are growing (though, she adds, other members are single parents by choice, widowed or simply never married).
“Our numbers are rising each year,” Rogart says. In fact, they’ve added 28 new clients just since last July.
“I think San Diego is very unique in that we have this program, because there are many other communities that don’t have one,” Rogart adds. “We’re very lucky we’re able to meet the needs of Jewish single parents.”
Of course, “needs” varies from parent to parent and can include anything from monthly support groups, an annual retreat at Camp Mountain Chai (this year’s took place last month and saw the largest turnout in its five years, with 35 families and 86 people total), referrals to other JFS programs, social and spiritual events, and advocacy for reduced fees for things like synagogue membership or preschool tuition.
“The beauty of our program is that there are so many different aspects to it,” Rogart says. “And you don’t have to take advantage of any one of them in particular. You use the program in the way that best fits your family.”
Says Kalish of her main reason for joining, “It’s for the community. That’s really what it’s about. I didn’t even dream of having a place to go to for Passover. I had no family [here]. Now I have options.”
Adds Kalish, she had never anticipated having any real needs besides a network of supportive Jewish friends, but when she was injured last year and needed to be hospitalized, she saw the power of SJSP — and her network of other Jewish single parents — in new ways.
“Between the hineynu group at my synagogue, [SJSP] and my havurah group, these people are amazing,” she says, tearing up. “One of my havurah group members took [Elliott] for three days and took care of him. It’s amazing. The hineynu group called me every day to ask if I needed food, or if they could take me to my doctors appointment.”
Says Rogart, she was able to advocate for Kalish for reduced fees for before and after care for Elliott, now age 4, so Kalish could make those appointments. Additionally, Kalish says, Rogart advocated for her so she could afford synagogue membership at Temple Solel and a spot for Elliott in the synagogue’s preschool when she was still new to the area.
“At one point I was thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can afford to join a synagogue,’” Kalish recalls. “Having this experience, I don’t think I could afford not to. Stephanie has been a real advocate in working with my synagogue, and Temple Solel has been so supportive. I feel very grateful to have the village I have between Stephanie’s SJSP group, my havurah group and Temple Solel. I feel so fortunate.”
Advocacy is a large part of SJSP’s work, as are the many positive relationships the program has with other community organizations.
“What this program does is it not only connects Jewish single parents to one another, but also to the Jewish community,” Rogart says. “Jewish single parent families feel safer to go to [Jewish services and holiday events] because…they feel safe in numbers and excited. They go as a group with us, and we expose them to Jewish events, to these different synagogues, in a safe way, and then it snowballs. Maybe they want to join a synagogue, or maybe they want to send their kid to Jewish summer camp, or to a Jewish preschool. And what we do then is we collaborate and advocate on their behalf to make that happen.”
In April, Rogart adds, SJSP clients attended Passover Seders at Beth El and Beth Am as a group at a reduced cost. In May, they attended their annual camp retreat thanks to the great relationship they have with Camp Mountain Chai and because of a grant from the Leichtag Family Foundation (which is also providing scholarship money to help kids go to Jewish summer camp this year), both of which made the weekend affordable for all the families in the group.
“The Jewish community is so warm and welcoming of SJSP clients,” Rogart says. “We are so very fortunate and thankful that we have such great collaboration with so many different organizations, because we realize we can do a lot, but what better way to show our clients the Jewish community is warm and welcoming than to show them we all help each other out, which is what we’re supposed to do as a society, being Jewish.”
In addition to giving clients access to other community organizations, SJSP also serves as the gateway to the myriad other programs available through JFS.
“We’re the entry point for [clients] at SJSP,” Rogart says. “They might need food, employment, mental health services, counseling, emergency help with their rent. JFS has all of those programs, but [clients] often tell me they don’t feel comfortable directly contacting [JFS] asking for that kind of help. Since they do feel more comfortable coming into SJSP, and when I first meet them I assess for all these things, and then I can refer them…I’m able to be in that unique position that I’m able to identify their other needs and help them feel comfortable to receive that help and normalize it…And that’s one of the beauties of working for JFS. Since JFS does so much in so many different areas, that means my clients can be helped in so many different areas above and beyond what SJSP does.”
It’s common, Rogart says, for clients to enter the program feeling the stigma associated with being a single parent, or for their kids to feel isolated because they don’t know other Jewish kids, or kids with one or separated parents.
“You can see a shift in clients from the time they come into the program to later on,” Rogart says. “They’re proud to be a single parent family. They start feeling that stigma lifted off them and realize there’s nothing missing. As time goes on, they’re proud to be Jewish, to be part of this wonderful community.
“As kids get older and have a greater developmental level, they can say, ‘You know what, I’m not the only kid who comes from a single parent family, who goes to see mom or dad every other weekend, or who doesn’t have a dad at all.’ Or, the way San Diego is, many of these kids go to school and they might be the only Jew. Some kids say, ‘There are other kids who are Jewish just like me!’ So it really takes a lot of the stigma out of single parenting, and instead of being ashamed or embarrassed or a little apprehensive about the label of a single parent, they get excited about it.”
Something that’s excited Kalish is how the program has allowed her to raise her son in such a Jewish environment, which has in turn enriched her own Jewish identity.
“Elliott’s preschool is awesome,” says Kalish, who adds that when Elliott is older, she’ll register him for JFS’s Jewish BigPals program, which sees a lot of interconnectedness with SJSP clients. “The artwork he comes home with, and the sense of Jewish identity he has, are great. When he’s singing to himself, it’s in Hebrew. It’s very engrained, and it’s really renewed my Jewish spirit as well having him be involved in that.”
SJSP means something different to each of its clients, but one thing it is unequivocally not is a dating group, and SJSP’s clients are just fine with that.
“There are JDate and YAD for dating,” Rogart says. “I’m really careful about that, because the majority of our families don’t want to date through this program. They really want to strengthen the family unit in the Jewish community. It’s really all about the kids and the family.”
And the families (about 84 percent of the 230 parents are women, and 16 percent are men) who are active in SJSP are a big part of what makes the program so great, Rogart says.
“Something I love about the program is that our clients’ socioeconomic levels vary,” she says. “How religious they are varies. You don’t have to be a super Jew to be part of our program [but you can be, and that’s great too]. There are all levels of Judaism and all socioeconomic levels, and that’s wonderful. It’s not just me or JFS or Debra that makes this program what it is. It’s these families. They are so warm and welcoming toward each other and non-judgmental of circumstances. And really it’s such a special program and very special to my heart, which makes it very easy to work hard at continually making it better and better and better. Our families are special people for sure.”
For more information on JFS’s Supporting Jewish Single Parents program, call (858) 637-3080 or visit www.jfssd.org and search for the program by name.