JFS marks first 60 years
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JFS marks first 60 years

The times they are a changin', but the needs never do

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Staff intern Pincus Brechner unloads hurricane relief supplies as Dorothy O’Bierne, the director of JFS’s job search network, looks on. Courtesy JFS

There is a myth that somehow Jews are immune from the sorrows that plague other families – alcoholism and drug abuse, sexual abuse, poverty, and the soul-sapping loneliness of the elderly, to list some items on a long list of sadnesses.

That myth is not true. We are normal people, open to the same troubles and the same despair as everyone else.

But we also have a strong sense of community, and a deep and age-old commitment to it and to each other. Our values – that we must help others, treat them with respect, no matter who they are, and give them tools they can use to help themselves – express themselves in an agency that is an often overlooked community gem, the Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson.

JFS is about to celebrate its 60th anniversary; as it marks that milestone with a gala dinner this Sunday, we acknowledge it with a look at its accomplishments.

Once known as the Jewish Welfare Board and operated under the aegis of what was then known as UJA Federation, JFS began to take on its present form in 1977, operating out of a small office in Hackensack. (It is still a beneficiary of the renamed Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey; its office is now in Teaneck.)

“Our mission is to serve Jewish families in need,” Ed Ruzinsky, a former JFS president and treasurer and a 35-year board member, said. “In the early ’80s, we resettled more than 100 Russian families. Some of our trustees helped schlep mattresses and furniture so that when people got off the plane, they’d have someplace to sleep. We found apartments for them, and we paid the deposits, even before they were cleared through customs.

“Over time, the agency grew, based on the demands of the community,” he said.

JFS offers a wide array of services. “The mainstay of the agency always has been clinical services for individuals, families, kids with problems,” Ruzinsky said.

“Several years ago, we started a school-based afterschool program, and it’s now in three school districts – North Bergen, Cliffside Park, and Fairview. We provide activities for kids, including academic studies. We’re looking to expand it.

“We also have a kosher meals on wheels program for the homebound elderly. We provided about 25,000 meals last year to about 125 people. We identify volunteers to drive and deliver the meals.

“We responded to the hurricane,” Ruzinsky continued, referring to Sandy. Among the many large and small actions JFS took, he said, were that “we identified resources and posted them on our website; we collaborated with FEMA; because we never lost power we were able to open our doors to the public, so people could walk in off the street and charge their phones; we made coffee and brought it to people waiting on line for gas; we delivered nonperishable food to our clients.”

Those clients – the homebound elderly, whose plight was worsened by power and information outages – received special attention from JFS. “We called all 176 of our elder clients to ensure their well-being,” Ruzinsky said. “We called the police for wellness checks on 22 elder clients when we couldn’t reach them ourselves. We delivered over 50 hot meals to elder clients without power, and we distributed supermarket gift cards, using emergency funding from the federation.”

There is another group JFS helps.

“Today we have a very large community of Holocaust survivors,” Ruzinsky said. “We receive funds from the Holocaust Claims Conference” – the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany – “but the conference is becoming more restrictive in what we can provide and get reimbursed for because it has limited funds. And the survivors are getting on in years.”

Funding is a constant problem for JFS, Ruzinsky said. It gets funding not only from the federation and the Claims Conference, but also from the federal government and from donors. But “if the agency owned Fort Knox, it still wouldn’t have enough money,” he said. “Today people in the community who in years past were benefactors – some of them are now clients of the agency, because they lost their jobs, burned through their reserves, and in some cases lost their homes.”

The last four years, since the economic meltdown of 2008, have been particularly hard, he said.

Lisa Feder, JFS’s executive director, said that JFS’s fiscal year runs from January to December. The organization’s 2011 revenue was $2,293,000, and its 2012 budget is $2.1 million. There is a great deal of normal fluctation from year to year.

“We have a diversified funding stream,” she said. Although JFS used to be funded entirely by federation, this year only 18 percent of its budget was. “The federation is still a fabulous partner, but the truth is that everybody is struggling now,” she added. About 26 percent of JFS’s funding comes from grants from federal, state, and local governments and private foundations, and another 31 percent is from fees for service and reimbursements. Donations make up another 21 percent.

Not only is JFS still struggling with the fallout from the economic meltdown, but its leaders also fear that the fiscal cliff debate facing Congress now might hurt them as well. “The government is giving out less now,” Feder said. “And when Congress talks about cutting social services – they’re talking about us.”

Therefore, like other nonprofits, JFS is counting more and more on its donors “to sustain the programming we offer that helps the most vulnerable in our commuity,” Feder said.

Next, she described a hypothetical case, someone who is out of work and looking for help. “What’s unique about JFS is that you can walk in here thinking you want one thing, help with one aspect of a job search, but then you realize that you need so much other help too. Because you’re out of work, your marriage is struggling, and you’re having a hard time making ends meet.

“We have counseling services, and we have a food pantry,” she said. “We wrap around services – that means that we wrap services around a family, so that we can help them, and teach them the skills they need to sustain themselves in the future.”

And what does JFS offer specifically in the way of helping someone to find a job?

“We have an amalgamation of different job boards,” Feder said. Beyond that, “we have a job coaching service, and we also work on resume writing skills, and on how to use social media when you’re looking for a job. We also can try to connect people, maybe for some volunteerism while they’re looking. We also help with interviewing skills. You have to be able to present yourself well. When you are discouraged, that gets harder and harder. It’s harder to be upbeat and positive, and if you’re not upbeat and positive, you can interview but in the end that job will not be yours.

“We help approximately 3,000 people a year,” Feder said. (Most but not all of them are Jewish.)”We don’t necessarily see everyone here, but we field calls; some people we help here and some we refer to other places. We work very closely with federation and with our Jewish sister agencies; we also work with other community partners, from United Way to the Center for Food Action.

“Every one of those 3,000 people has a story. Some of them are tragic. And then there are the stories of the kids who have come in here who have been victims of abuse, and through therapeutic services have been able to heal.”

Feder told the story of a veteran. “This family is very dear to me,” she said. “He is a veteran, Jewish, a relatively young guy with two kids who was seriously damaged by an IED in Afghanistan. It took him a while to come back to the States. His wife is supportive, but when you are limited in your physical capacities it is easy to be depressed. He has serious permanent disabilities.

“We were able to wrap around clinical issues for the whole family. It’s also the wife’s issues, and the family’s; the whole family had to shift once to redefine themselves when he went away and then again when he came back.

“They don’t have enough money, so we’re helping with the food pantry. He’s not ready for a job search. And then they were affected by the storm, had to leave their home, and became transients.” They ended up relocating out of the area; “they’ve lost the support system they developed over the family’s lifetime here. It’s a tragic situation.”

Another story of wrap-around services is heading toward a much happier ending.

A 52-year-old Jewish divorced mother of 12-year-old twins is “working, but she’s really underemployed, earning minimum wage,” Feder said. She had been working in a school system but was downsized and had problems paying her bills; she had rented an apartment based on her old salary and could barely afford it on her new, lower wages.

JFS stepped in with its wrap-around services. “We helped pay her PSE&G bills, we got her into the food pantry, and then we helped her move into a smaller apartment,” Feder said. She used JFS’s clinical services and its job coaching. “She hadn’t been able to go out on job interviews because she was too depressed, but after the coaching she had two serious job opportunities. She’s waiting to hear, but she is very optimistic about being offered at least one of them.

“She went from being unable to look for work to being a serious contender.”

Feder remembered a particular case that was emblematic of many more. “There was a young girl and her mom. They had been in an abusive situation. Now this girl is married and has a baby, and the turning point was the ability to connect in a healing relationship with a JFS clinician, who could take a hurt preteen to a confident adult without the feeling that she did something wrong, that she was damaged goods. That’s the work that you do in clinical services.”

One new pilot program about which Feder is particularly excited is TeleCare Connection, which pairs homebound elderly people, particularly Holocaust survivors, and teenagers. “Survivors are getting older and more isolated,” Feder said. “They have lived through a lot of loss already.” In general, she added, elderly people tend to “want to stay in their homes. We want them to be able to do that, but it gets harder the more isolated they are, because often they become more and more depressed.

“So we’ve put computers or iPads in the homes of 20 to 30 elders, some of them survivors,” she said. The teenagers, who are accompanied by their parents when they visit their buddies’ homes, teach their elderly partners how to use the technology.

This is just a glimpse of what Jewish Family Service has achieved in its first 60 years. It is unlikely that its founders could have imagined the places their creation go; similarly, today’s leaders can only begin to imagine what the next 60 years will bring – provided, that is, that there will be enough funding for new visions to be realized.

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