It’s been a long time since it’s made sense to have two Jewish Family Services operating in the densely populated but geographically fairly small area that’s home to the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
The federation itself is the result of a merger — the 2003 move that brought together two smaller groups, one centered around Fair Lawn and Wayne, the other to its east, in Bergen County, with its headquarters in Paramus. That merger was both necessary and important for the community’s future; at times it was somewhat bumpy, as such a melding of fiercely independent organizations with shared goals but separate histories inevitably are. But now, more than a decade later, all the agencies that both federations funded are under the federation’s aegis. The last two to come together — the Jewish Family Service of North Jersey (that’s the one in Fair Lawn and Wayne) and the Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson (the Teaneck one) — have agreed to join under a slightly new name.
Starting on January 1, the community will be able to get the services it needs from the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey. It will retain all three offices and all the services both precursor agencies offered.
In some cases, both agencies offered strikingly similar services.
Take, for example, Café Europa.
It’s a program for Holocaust survivors, all of whom are fairly old by now, and some of whom are very old. They suffered unimaginably when they were young; for decades many of them got by in this country without ever talking about what happened to them, except perhaps if screaming nightmares count.
Some of them were financially successful, and others were not. Some built very full lives. All were haunted by the past.
Now, through funding contributed in part through the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, both the Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson and the Jewish Family Service of North Jersey welcome those survivors to Café Europa. There, they can talk to each other with the sort of understanding that no one else can share; they can also meet their friends, eat lunch, relax, listen to music, and even sing along.
So “when we went to the other JFS Café Europa last month, we saw that we both were doing the exact same program,” Allyn Michaelson of Fair Lawn, the president of the North Jersey JFS, said. “They’re eating the same food from the same caterer, it’s almost exactly the same entertainment, and they’re even singing the same songs. And about between a third and a half of the people were the same people who had been at ours.”
But now, she said, “on December 20, we will do a joint Chanukah party, and we expect about 150 survivors. For them, it’s all about interacting with one another, and seeing their friends. This way, they also can meet people they hadn’t known. New people. That’s exciting. And eventually, we hope, we can expand.”
But according to just about everyone, the two nearly identical Café Europas are an exception. In general, the two JFSs developed specialties in different programs. Bringing them together will allow everyone in both catchment areas — as well as the people in the towns that were covered by neither JFS — access to all the services both offer.
The point is not to save money, but to spend the same amount of money on expanded services. It’s also to complete the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle that was put together when the two federations merged.
“We have made a commitment to keep allocations the same for at least the next five years,” the federation’s CEO, Jason Shames, said. “It’s always been about the JFS’s clients.”
Both of the JFSs are independent organizations, he explained. “They both get allocations from the federation, they both raise money, and both get government funding. This year, we allocated a little over $1 million; together, they get about $4.5 million.
“Their five main sources of funding are the federation, the government, insurance reimbursement, fees, and donations,” he added. Government money is federal, funneled through state and county programs; some clients, who are able to pay for the services they receive, do so. The federation, therefore, is an important source of funding for both JFSs, although it is far from the agencies’ sole source.
“They also get claims conference money, which is significant,” Lisa Harris Glass, the federation’s chief planning officer, said. So all in all, the federation could influence the JFSs’ decision to merge, but it could not force the move. And it did not.
The two JFSs “have the same mission, and there was a lot of confusion,” she continued. “People didn’t know which JFS was theirs. It wasn’t intuitive. Fair Lawn is in Bergen County, but not in the Bergen County JFS.”
One of the main problems the two JFSs faced was that often people had no clue about which JFS to call when they needed counseling, or meals on wheels, or support groups, or referrals, or any of the many other support, mental health, and other services JFS provides.
“They both offered excellent services, but not the same services, and there has to be equal access to equally excellent services,” Ms. Glass said. “It was complicated for synagogues and schools when they made referrals. We want it to be clear. When people need JFS, they really need it.
“I feel that we all have just fixed a 13-year-long communal challenge.
“We also believe that the idea is to use as much of the communal dollars toward the mission as possible,” Mr. Shames said. “When the two federations merged, we were able to eliminate redundancies, and then we had more money to use toward the mission. We didn’t need two accounting departments, for example. This JFS merger is not at all about saving money, but we do believe that efficiencies will give us more for the mission.”
This is not the first time that there has been an effort to merge the JFSs. It is, in fact, the fourth time. The first was in 2003, as part of the federation merger. That went nowhere; two subsequent efforts also stalled.
“Now, enough time has gone by,” Ms. Glass said. “And the board determined that Jason had a mandate to do it. It was a high priority.
“We were trying to further unify the community, and the outcome is going to exceed everyone’s expectations,” she concluded.
“We are not putting the two JFSs together,” Mr. Shames said. “We are making a new one.”
Mr. Shames and Ms. Glass did a great deal of research as they hunted for a consultant who could work with them on shaping the new organization. “We wanted someone who had both business and organizational development background,” Mr. Shames said. They found their ideal in Debra Brosan, a Pennsylvania-based management consultant who specialized not only in organizational and leadership development but did a great deal of work in the Jewish and nonprofit sectors.
In the end, all the planning and the waiting and the strategizing worked. The new JFS will have a board of 30 people, 15 from each of the two predecessor agencies. The new president will be Shira Feuerstein, of Alpine, who is halfway through her term at JFS of Hudson and North Bergen; JFS of North Jersey’s president, Allyn Michaelson, is coming to the end of her two-year tenure. “Both of the boards voted on the merger,” Ms. Glass said. “One vote was unanimous, and the other was unanimous except for one abstention.”
“All the members of the new board are from one of the two old boards,” Mr. Shames said. “We need continuity and institutional memory. That’s the challenge of creating something new.
“You want to start with a clean slate, but you don’t want to erase everything that has come before.”
It was hard for some of the people who had been on the boards of the predecessor agencies to accept that they would have to give up their active status for a position on an honorary board, “but you always have to keep your eyes on the prize,” Mr. Shames said.
“The leadership volunteer their time because they care so much,” Ms. Glass said. “Sometimes that got lost in the process, but it came through in the end.
“I have met some of the most extraordinary laypeople,” she continued. “I am amazed by their altruism, their philanthropy, their willingness to do hard work. Transcending work. It took a lot of angst and time and energy to get to where we are now, and I say kol hakavod to them.”
Convincing everyone of the need for the merger was hard work for all, including the federation’s top professionals, and at times it seemed that the goal was unreachable. When it finally happened, “I felt like Rocky Balboa at the end of ‘Rocky II,’” Mr. Shames said. Bloody but unbowed. And happy.
Susan Greenbaum is the executive director of the JFS of Bergen and North Hudson, and Leah Kaufman holds that position at the JFS of North Jersey. Ms. Greenbaum will become the director of the new JFCS of Northern New Jersey.
“It’s been an amazing process, and I have gained an enormous appreciation for the leadership of our community,” she said. “The fact that we’re arrived at this spot is really remarkable. Not because it was rocket science to see that we should do this — objectively, from a financial and social service standpoint, it makes perfect sense — but we were working with boards of directors and trustees that have evolved over decades in different ways. Both the agencies are really quite different from each other, so their coming together is a task that everyone involved should take enormous credit for. It really required commitment and dedication.”
The system was confusing and seemed unfair, she said, echoing Mr. Shames and Ms. Glass. “It’s schizophrenic. People would call and say, ‘I live in Fair Lawn and it’s not fair that I can’t get what my friend in Teaneck gets.”
It wasn’t all one way, either. “The agencies developed differently, with different strengths and weaknesses.” To have the community split as it was — well, she said, she didn’t use the word schizophrenic lightly. “For a community mental health service to behave this way…” she said.
The North Jersey JFS had a grant that allowed them to put social workers in synagogues and schools; now both JFSs can use that grant, she said. “And we have a program we call school-based services. Basically we do afterschool care in four public schools — lower schools and middle schools in Fort Lee, Cliffside Park, Fairview, and Palisades Park — for children whose parents are working.
“This work helps support our agency” — it’s done using government grants — “and it generates a lot of mental health service work,” she said. “We are doing a lot of psychotherapy for these kids and their parents.”
“These aren’t Jewish kids,” Ms. Greenbaum said. In fact, the agencies work for anyone who calls them; they specialize in the Jewish community but are in no way confined there. “We serve everybody, and we receive county funding for a lot of our senior services,” she said. “Our philosophy is that by serving everybody, we are able to offer a total safety net for the Jewish community. We can be robust in what we do.”
Allyn Michaelson is excited about the merger, and glad that she could oversee it from her agency’s side. “Everyone in the federation catchment area should have equal access to our services,” she said. “Our hope is that the new agency will make one plus one equal three.”
It’s wrong to think that there are no real needs in the Jewish community of Bergen, Passaic, and Hudson counties, she said. Unemployment, illness, or emotional setback can strike anywhere. “Anyone of any age could wake up and need our services,” she said. “That’s why both agencies have used the tag line ‘We’re here when you need us.’
“Our expectation is that the new agency will exceed the excellence both agencies have provided for over 70 years and continue to be the safety net for our community.”
Shira Feuerstein is “looking forward to working with the combined board and helping to support this new, larger social service agency,” she said.
The guesswork about who to call will end, she said. “We plan to have one central number, and the person who answers it will be able to direct it.”
She remembers beginning her volunteer work delivering meals on wheels. “I had one woman who always had me sit with her for 10 minutes or so, because I was her only contact to the outside world that day,” she said. “She would talk to her family on the phone, but no one lived nearby. I went about once a week; other people went other days, and I assume she did that with all of them.
“‘Sit down for a few minutes, rest your feet,’ she’d tell me. ‘I know you’ve been running around.’
“I knew that she was looking forward to people walking through the door with a meal and a smile.”
JFS “adapts to what’s needed in the community,” she said. “Every month the food pantry seems to be serving more people. You think that there isn’t a need for it in Bergen County — but there is.
“And the breadth of our service grows constantly. We have Re-Launch, to help people get back in the work force, helping them with resumes and interview skills. I personally have had friends who used that service and found it really valuable.
“We offer mental health counseling, family counseling, bereavement counseling; a group for people who have suffered miscarriages, a group for people who have lost children. When people call us, we say, ‘How can we help?’ We don’t say, ‘We don’t do that.’ Our professionals try to identify how they best can help.”
David Goodman is a former president of the JFS of North Jersey and of the merged federation.
Mr. Goodman lives in Paramus, and so logically should have been affiliated with the other JFS, but because he grew up in Fair Lawn and because his parents, Roz and Larry, both were active in the federation and JFS there, his heart was there. (Although the main reason for the merger was not to clear the emotional confusion that people like Mr. Goodman feel about where they really belong, it’s a very useful side effect.)
Mr. Goodman knows how merging two organizations to create a third new one feels because he was an integral part of the merger that formed the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
“I was part of that process, and the idea was that once the federations merged, to be able to serve the entire community better, the next step would be to bring together those organizations that provided similar services so the entire community could benefit,” he said.
“That took time. There were issues with the federation merger that had to be worked out, and there were leadership changes in both the professional and the lay sides,” he said. But eventually “federation said okay, now it’s time. The two agencies have to put aside whatever cultural differences might have existed for the good of the community.”
North Jersey specialized in counseling and social services, particularly for divorced families and children. Bergen focused more on social programming, abuse victims, afterschool programs, and the food pantry. There was some overlap, but “there were a lot of things on each side that could have been offered in the other agency, and now it will be, now that it’s one agency.”
Also, he added, “there was part of the community that was not getting access to services at all.” It’s the part of Bergen County he called “between the lakes,” as in Woodcliff and Franklin. Now everyplace in the federation’s catchment area will be in the JFS catchment area as well.
“It’s a very good thing,” Mr. Goodman said.