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Jewish Family Services addresses people’s emergency and social needs

Neal Schindler, director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services (SAJFS) for the last two years, shifted his goals from journalism and media to counseling so he could spend time meeting with people and addressing their needs for food, socializing, emergency services and culture.

Neal Schindler stands beside a shelf with food bank food.

SAJFS originally started to pick up some of the rabbi’s pastoral care responsibilities, particularly visiting seniors.  For a while, volunteers did that.  In 1999, Temple Beth Shalom established it as a nonprofit to serve seniors.

After graduating in 2001 from Oberlin College with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and creative writing, he worked for a newspaper in the Detroit area, where he grew up in the Jewish suburb of Huntington Woods.  In 2002, he moved to Seattle to work for weekly and daily newspapers.

Deciding he wanted to spend more time with people, he moved to Spokane in 2011 to do graduate studies in counseling at Eastern Washington University.

He met his wife Elizabeth, who grew up in Spokane and had a friend in Neal’s graduate program.  After earning a master’s in 2013, he worked for a year with families involved with child protective services and then at the EWU counseling center.

Since beginning with Jewish Family Services in 2014, his role has involved visiting people, primarily seniors, in their homes.

Neal advocates for and transports a growing number of low-income, non-senior, non-Jewish clients.

SAJFS offers cultural programs, such as a monthly senior luncheon on second Thursdays at Temple Beth Shalom and the Jewish Cultural Film Festival. 

The lunch is prepared in Temple Beth Shalom’s kosher kitchen. The program is usually a speaker or music performance.

Most who come are Jewish, but the lunch is open to everyone, Neal said.  Attendance varies with 10 to 15 in the winter when many go south and 25 to 35 the rest of the year.

There were also some off-site events last year, such as going to the Jundt Museum at Gonzaga or Spokane Community College’s Inland Northwest Culinary Academy.

“We do home visits with seniors who do not have family in town, are socially isolated or home bound,” Neal said. 

Some just appreciate connection with the community. At Rosh Hashanah, volunteers deliver homemade challah bread and honey, and during Purim they deliver homemade “hamantaschen” cookies.

Volunteers also visit seniors to learn how they are doing.

Jewish Family Services has a small food bank, a cabinet and shelves on a stairway landing.  They store nonperishable items for non-senior, low-income clients.

“Some individuals or families come for several months, and some just need temporary help,” he said.  “We have also helped some low-income people with a utilities bill, up to $75 a year.

“It helps in a pinch,” he said.  “We are not the only place people can turn.”

In addition, Jewish Family Services directs people to other community services, such as no-cost legal services at the Gonzaga Law School Clinic or energy assistance at SNAP.

SAJFS also provides books at the temple and manages subscriptions for PJ Library, an international program that offers free Jewish themed children’s books and CDs.

Jewish Family Services puts on themed programs for families with young children, and sponsors story times at the South Hill Library with grandparents reading books and doing crafts. 

They also co-sponsored children’s activities as part of the Global Day of Jewish Learning Nov. 20 at the temple.

“It’s hard to engage families because many live far away, so the PJ Library puts Jewish education resources in homes.  In larger cities, there are larger Jewish communities with activities outside the temple,” he said.

The Jewish Cultural Film Festival will be held in January.  It reaches within and beyond the community to provide understanding of Judaism, Jewish culture and global community.

“It’s important to have visibility in media,” Neal said.  “We want it to be meaningful for the Jewish community and to people who do not understand the Jewish community and come to be informed.

“I was raised to not forget the poor just because we were an affluent family.  My parents modeled charitable giving and concern for the homeless,” he said.  “While our Jewish suburb of Detroit was affluent, the city was poor.  There was a big disparity.”

Deciding in Spokane to be connected with people living in poverty, the Schindlers live in West Central Spokane.   Elizabeth, who grew up near Mead, visited West Central Spokane as a child when her mother volunteered with Christ Clinic.  Later she was an intern with Project Hope.

“I’m not very religious but this is a meaningful way for me to be involved with the Jewish community,” Neal said.  “It connects me with people’s lives.”

In the process, he has learned that some people feel there is inadequate response when they reach out for help. 

Many feel shame about asking for help, but they humble themselves to ask because it’s for their families.

“Many are thankful for the smallest amount of help,” he said.

Neal grew up in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation, a newer, smaller Jewish movement founded in the first half of the 20th century.  It incorporates elements of Conservative Judaism—more Hebrew than in Reform services and more emphasis on traditional melodies. 

“Like Reform Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism is progressive and inclusive of LGBT individuals and couples, and embraces interfaith families.  It is also politically progressive and social justice oriented.

“My Reconstructionist background informs my political and religious views, and my commitment to help people,” Neal said. “People are important to me and social services need to help them when they do not have family or friends to turn to.”

Neal’s wife is Lutheran.  They attend both Congregation Emanu-El and Salem Lutheran Church in West Central Spokane.

“I am part of the community at Salem, not as a Christian or a member, but I feel accepted.  There are many parallels with Emanu-El,” he said.

Now parents of a baby boy, they will expose him to both faith traditions.

We are in each community as a family,” he said.  “We seek to be models.”

For information, call 747-7394 or email

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