‘I love providing service’

‘I love providing service’

Shelly Wimpfheimer talks about how her social work background got her to the Community Chest

Dr. Shelly Wimpfheimer
Dr. Shelly Wimpfheimer

The virus hasn’t been vanquished. The relative freedom the summer afforded is over. The rates of infection are rising again; right now, it’s relatively safe in the Northeast, but we can’t be complacent about that, or really about anything. There are vaccines on the way — there really seem to be vaccines on the way, although there are major transportation and distribution hurdles in their way — but the health risks continue to rise.

As that happens, the economy will falter. Local agencies are seeing increased needs, and they are responding to them. One of those agencies, the Community Chest, which covers eastern Bergen County, provides funding to other organizations, including Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey.

The Community Chest’s annual campaign now is underway. (See box.)

The organization’s executive director, Shelly Wimpfheimer, has deep roots in the local Jewish community, and for that matter in the state. She also has a history rooted deeply in a combination of academics, exploration, and intuition — in figuring out what she wanted to do before she could name it, and then finding it and doing it. All those things — a sense of place and possibility — combined to allow her to do the work she does now.

Dr. Wimpfheimer was born in Brooklyn in 1945 — she was Rochelle Green then — and she, her parents, Ben and Barbara Green, moved to Westwood when she was tiny, then to Hillsdale, and then to Woodcliff Lake, where she and her younger brother, Mark, spent most of her childhood.

That part of Bergen County was not Jewish then, Dr. Wimpfheimer said. “My father had a factory in Westwood.” It was a chicken-and-egg thing, she said; “I don’t know which came first, his factory or our moving there.”

So how did her parents end up there? “My dad was born in 1898, in Poland,” she said. “His father and mother sent him here because the streets of America were paved with gold.” He was supposed to see if the rest of the family should join him. “He loved it, and he never went back,” she said. He’d been an apprentice in a textile factory, so he established himself in that business. He prospered and was able to bring over some of his family. Her mother’s family came from the part of Eastern Europe that moved between Russian and Poland. Other relatives stayed behind, and they died in the Holocaust.

The Greens eventually had two factories, one in Westwood and one in Park Ridge. They named one after Shelly — that was R.G. Trico — and one for Mark, the even more straightforward Mark Lace. The factories made nylon lace for the crinolines — the huge puffy scratchy swirly princess-y slips that would explode under their dress-up skirts — for little girls. “To me, it wasn’t a big thing then, but now when I see them they make me smile,” Dr. Wimpfheimer said.

Her parents also were among the founders of Temple Beth Sholom of Park Ridge. “It was a little furniture warehouse,” she said. “My father was a builder on the side and oversaw the conversion from a furniture warehouse to a shul.”

When she graduated from Pascack Valley High School, “there were about five Jewish families,” she said. “They were mainly from Woodcliff Lake and Park Ridge; there were maybe one or two other Jewish families in Woodcliff Lake, but they didn’t really identify. But the Park Ridge families did — my childhood friends were mostly from Hebrew school.”

When she went to Penn State as a freshman, “I was the first person in my family, with the exception of one older cousin, to go to college,” she said. “I got a lot of encouragement, but I did not have a lot of role models.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t have a career or a direction in mind. I didn’t know any women who went to college. My father’s idea was that all women who went to college became teachers, and he kept pushing me in that direction.

“I kept coming up with different ideas for things I could do, different kinds of jobs, and my father kept saying ‘Who does that? That’s not a real job!’ I was interested in becoming an art museum curator. He had no idea what that was, but he knew he didn’t like it. He didn’t think anyone would pay me for it.” Dr. Wimpfheimer was in college from 1953 to 1957, before the feminist movement expanded women’s horizons. “Then I thought about becoming a lawyer. My father really didn’t like that. But he said something interesting for a man of his age and his generation. He said that women weren’t treated with high regard in law firms. He said that they would take advantage of my intelligence, and then not give me credit for what he knew.

“He didn’t want that for me.

“So big surprise —I became a teacher. And I pretty much hated it from the moment I began.”

What to do next? She did like working with teenagers, just not teaching them English and humanities in a classroom every day. So when the principal asked her to become a student ombudsman — “I had no idea what that was,” she said; it’s a term that’s gone out of favor, but it’s more or less being the liaison between groups, in this case students and staff. “But I said yes, and I had great fun. What I loved about it was that I was given an idea and told to make a program out of it. Today we call that program development. Back then it didn’t have a name.”

She kept doing it, though. The programs she developed were about leadership and advocacy training. “I loved doing it, and I kept asking people, ‘Do you know what this is that I’m doing?’

“I was a person in search of a career. I was doing what I loved — but what was it?

“Someone suggested that I go see a professor at Penn. I went to meet with him and I explained that cockamamie story to him, and he said, ‘Yes, there is such a thing as what you’re doing. We don’t teach it here — but they teach it at Bryn Mawr.’”

“It” turned out to be the field now called social work administrator; it was taught at Bryn Mawr’s social work school. Dr. Wimpfheimer earned a master’s degree there. She loved it. “Bryn Mawr is a Quaker school,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about Quakers, so it was a learning experience. It helped me to form my values — I think that my values were formed by then — but to solidify my thinking about human rights, and about how to put my values into action.”

She also loved the school’s small size, and the intimacy it conferred. “I had come from Penn State, which was huge, and had been fun, but I was ready to be a serious student,” she said. “At Bryn Mawr, you could go to the library and the dean would be there, and you could have a two-hour conversation.”

So when she met Justin Wimpfheimer — who now is retired from the real estate business — and they moved back to Bergen County, she was ready to work in her new field. (After 40 some-odd years in Tenafly, the couple moved to Fort Lee; they have two children, Renee Wimpfheimer Chaifetz and Loren Wimpfheimer, four grandchildren, “and a niece and a nephew who are like grandchildren,” she said. They belong to Temple Sinai in Tenafly, and her husband is active at Temple Emanu-El of Closter.)

For seven years, Dr. Wimpfheimer worked for the New York State Office of Development Disabilities in Rockland County, beginning as a community organizer and leaving as chief of service for developmental disabilities in Orange and Sullivan counties. She worked on deinstitutionalization at Letchworth Village; “There were 5,000 residents there — it was a little city — and the mandate was to close it,” she said. “I worked in the placement unit.” It was an extraordinarily stressful job — the institution was notorious, the desire to move people out of it was strong, and the resistance to having them move into anyplace else was fervent. And she persisted.

After that, Dr. Wimpfheimer moved between more hands-on jobs and administrative work, including a 16-year stint (“I was planning on staying for three years,” she said) as the director of Bergen County’s division of family guidance; at the same time she earned a doctorate in social welfare at Hunter College. Next, she worked for the YMCA of Greater New York; “I was responsible for all the children’s programs in New York City. Again, I was going to stay for three years — I ended up staying for 11.”

She’s had more jobs, volunteer work, teaching positions, and awards to list, although here’s one that seems extremely relevant. In 2018, the Bergen County section of the National Council of Jewish Women gave Dr. Wimpfheimer its Hannah G. Solomon award.

“I love providing service,” she said. “I am not a clinician, although I do have some clinical training, but I love the idea of creating opportunities to improve people’s situations.”

“I am one of the luckiest people in the world, because I have almost always loved my work,” she said.

In 2013, Dr. Wimpfheimer heard that the Community Chest was looking for a director. “I knew just a little about it, because I had been on the board of the Bergen Family Center for many years, and the center has been a recipient of the Community Chest.”

The Community Chest “raises and distributes money to local nonprofits through a competitive grant process,” she explained. “I do a lot of fund raising. And the thing that we do now that we didn’t do before is capacity building. That is a term of art that means that we help organizations enhance their capacity to operate.

“One way to enhance an organization’s capacity is to give it money,” but that’s far from the only way; it also can involve professional training, board development, and other such programs. “That is what we do,” Dr. Wimpfheimer said. “And we do it a lot.”

The pandemic has forced the agencies the Community Chest funds to figure out how to continue to serve their clients, and “some of them may decide not to go back to the old ways,” she said.

There’s a lot to figure out.

“For example, Bergen Family Center has a lot of seniors, and like everyone they’re really concerned about seniors being isolated, so they’re trying to create an infrastructure that would enhance communications for seniors who are home alone. It is a really big job, and I think they have been successful at it. There are other agencies, like Spectrum for Living, that runs residential programs — the costs of PPE for their staff is just astronomical.

“So after a couple of months of trying to learn what the agencies were doing, what their needs were, I recommended to the board that our grant-making this year be specifically to help the nonprofits with the expenses associated with corona.

“Jewish nonprofits are among the agencies we work with, as long as the people they serve are from all faiths. The JFCS” — that’s the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey — “were very interested in expanding their programs. They came to us with a proposal, and it was a perfect it.

“People are being very generous,” Dr. Wimpfheimer said. “We have been able to at least match last year, and maybe do a little better. We are on it all the time.”

The situation is getting worse, she said. “Most recently, I think, people are not doing well. We are noticing that the demand for services is increasing. More people are showing up asking for services. More people are showing up suffering from food insecurity than in the past. Some of the sources of money have moved on to fund other things, but the need remains, and it looks like it is increasing. People who are seeking food have not been able to go back to work, sometimes because of childcare and school. It is very difficult for families to manage. So we have just embarked on a plan, in partnership with other agencies, to raise money and distribute food to people who need it.”

How does she keep going? “I see so much sadness, but I also see a lot of goodness,” Dr. Wimpfheimer said. “I see tremendous generosity. And I think that the people I work with are really extraordinary, and the people who run the agencies are inspiring. We share a community of respect for each other, and we try to help each other.

“We are in it for the right reasons, and that in itself is nurturing.”

Susan Greenbaum is the CEO of the JFCS.

“Shelley is like a ray of sunshine,” she said. “She has a really good fix on the community, through her position and also through who she is and what her background and history are. She has an incredible feel for the entire nonprofit landscape in our area. She is incredibly well connected, and she really is able to connect us.

“Shelly and Karen Adler really are the Community Chest. They are both amazing, and they are just incredibly sensitive while also being comprehensive and really having their fingers on the community’s pulse, and on its needs.”

Ms. Greenbaum, her agency, and her staff all have benefited from the Community Chest, she said, both through the allocation the JFCS gets and through the training and consultation they are offered. And “what I’ve gotten the most out of is being able to network with other organizations that otherwise I hadn’t had access to. It all is invaluable to us.”

Who: The Community Chest of eastern Bergen County

What: Has begun its annual campaign to raise funds for grants for community nonprofits

When: It’s ongoing

Why: It allocates funds to organizations such as the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey; JFCS uses those funds to help stock its food pantry, the Corner Market, which provides kosher food to families who need it. During the pandemic, more local people than ever before have become food insecure.

How to help: Call (201) 568-7474 or email Dr. Wimpfheimer at shelly@communitychestofenglewood.org

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