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Community service

There are times when a person’s background, training, aptitude, and passion -in fact, her entire life – make her a perfect fit for a job.

And there is a time when an agency has to reevaluate, reorient, and perhaps even reinvent itself.

When the person and the agency come together, the future beckons.

In this case, the person is Susan Greenbaum, and the agency is Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson.

As of March 5, Ms. Greenbaum, who lives in Teaneck, is JFS’s new executive director.

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Susan Greenbaum

The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Ms. Greenbaum grew up in Lynn, a crumbling industrial town north of Boston. Her parents sent her to a “tiny little day school, which is now called the Eli and Bessie Cohen Hillel Academy, in Swampscott,” she said. And it really was tiny – her grade at its peak had eight students, and it was the school’s largest. Once she had graduated and moved to the local public high school, she went to the Prozdor afterschool program in what was then called Hebrew Teachers College. Growing up in a town with few Jews, she made her deepest Jewish connections at camp. “Camp did it for me,” she said.

Her next stop was Brandeis University. “It was like going to camp,” she said, fondly. (To be fair, many students say that. Many say it with great fondness. Others don’t.) Junior year was at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. When she graduated from Brandeis, she went to Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work on a full scholarship. The terms of the scholarship called for two years of work at a JCC.

Instead, she spent 36 years in JCCs.

Her experiences include a stint at the Jewish Family Service agency in Boca Raton in Florida ““ foreshadowing! ““ training at the Karen Horney Institute in Manhattan, and a private practice as a therapist. She worked at the JCC outside Hollywood, Florida, and then “moved back to civilization” – to Bergen County – in 1996. She now lives with her daughter, Sarah, who is a junior at Muhlenberg College, and her son, Yoni, a freshman at the Frisch School in Paramus. “I did not know what was on the other side of the river,” she said. She loved what she found there, she added.

Her move was to take the job of assistant executive director, in charge of programming, at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. (Her name then was Susan Ferbank; she since has returned to her own family name.)

In 2004, Ms. Greenbaum became the executive director of the Kings Bay YM-YWHA in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and two years of horrendous commute later took the same job in Bridgewater.

“I feel that I’ve done my time in JCCs,” she said. “It has been a very long and satisfying career, but I wanted to look for other opportunities.” So last year she left the JCC “and fell into a consulting position at the West End Temple in Neponsit,” a shul on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens that “was drowned,” as she put it, during Hurricane Sandy. After a year of strategic planning and practical work on the building, negotiating with FEMA, and taking care of the myriad tiny but necessary details that such a task entails, the shul will be ready to reopen in time for the High Holidays.

She plans to take her background in social work and as a JCC administrator to JFS. “JCCs are heavily programmatic agencies, which really connect with the community in a very dynamic way,” she said. “Part of my vision for JFS is that it become better known in the community, recognized for the fine services it provides, and also recognized by everybody as an agency that everyone will need at some point.

“Everybody can benefit at some point in their lives, or their families’ lives, from the services we offer.”

She hopes for more and better collaboration between the agencies that make up the network of Jewish organizational life in Bergen County. “The JFS has staff that has skills that the JCC does not have,” she said. “There is tremendous potential for collaboration, and there is no dearth of needs. There can be complete and total harmony within the Jewish world.

“There are models across the country, across the Jewish world, that we can learn best practices from.

“My vision for the JFS is that it should have much greater impact than it does now. My vision is that it should be an agency that serves every population in need, or can refer any need it cannot serve; that it be a convener and creator of a complete system.

“I want to have a direct connection with every synagogue and every Jewish day school. However they need us, in whatever ways they want to work with us, we will work with them, because we must integrate into the broader Jewish community.

“Even in a community that is perceived to be as wealthy as Bergen County the needs can be immense. Regardless of socioeconomic strata, needs exist.

“The perception is that we are seen as only an agency for the poor, but really it is an agency for everybody,” Ms. Greenbaum concluded.

Geoffrey Lewis of Tenafly, president of JFS’s board, agreed with Ms. Greenbaum in her assessment of the agency as being mandated to serve the entire community.

“The board’s long-term strategic goal is to be the premier place in Bergen County for people to go for family services,” he said. “Right now there is a misunderstanding in the community that most of what we do simply helps people who can’t afford to go elsewhere.

“Of course we help people in that situation, who can’t afford to pay, but we want to expand that. If you think of family services, no matter what, you should go to JFS, because you will get great service and a great experience.

“That, I believe, is fulfilling the agency’s mission. We are a family service agency. We are here to help families, to treat them with dignity, to help them to lead lives of consequence.

“The Jewish part of our name – doing this is consistent with the Jewish tradition, with tikkun olam. We help everybody. Some of the things that we help with are not particular to the Jewish community, and other things – programs for Holocaust survivors, for second-generation survivors – are more Jewish in nature. Others, like programs about substance abuse or eating disorders among teenagers, or the emergency food pantry – those are things that affect everybody.”

It is important to acknowledge that funding for small agencies has changed, Mr. Lewis said. “Not-for-profits in general are under a tremendous amount of pressure from funding sources. You have to reinvent yourself.

“That’s why we think that Susan can take us to the next level. With her background and her depth of experience in JCCs and in managing big budgets, and with her social-work background, we felt that she was the ideal candidate for us.”

Edwin Ruzinsky of Saddle River, who has been involved with the JFS for 37 years and now is its treasurer, looks back at his experience in the late 1980s as chairman of the board of Family Service America, the umbrella organization for all family service organizations in the United States.

“I understood the difficulty that small agencies face, and that was long before the economy did what it did” – that is, before it crashed in 2008 – he said. “Many of them have adopted a corporate model, but we have not. We still call our lead person an executive director, not a president, as other agencies do. So I have a perspective that I bring to this discussion.”

From that perspective, he said, “I believe that the agency must head in a direction very different than where it has been. The world is different, the needs of the community are different, and we have to think differently to accommodate it.”

Echoing a common theme, he said that it is necessary to serve the entire community. “Several years ago, we started the Club Ed program. It provides after-school support for latchkey kids. It’s now in Cliffside Park, Fairview, North Bergen, and most recently in Fort Lee. We also provide counseling, when appropriate, to children and families in that program.”

Still, he said, that he wants to “provide more services to our core constituency – the Jewish community.

“I do believe that the agency has to look more entrepreneurially down the road if we are to continue doing what we’re doing,” Mr. Ruzinsky said. “Grant funds, federal grant programs – a lot of those monies are drying up.

“The world has turned upside down for social-service agencies. We couldn’t continue down the path we were going if we want to be what our mission requires us to be in terms of serving the community.”

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