The new executive director of Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey describes herself as a wandering Jew.
Born in Israel to a sabra mother and a father who’d survived the flames of Nazi Europe, Leah Nemeth immigrated with her family to New York City at age 7. She later lived in the Midwest and then came back East 14 years ago to settle in Fair Lawn with her husband, Alan Kaufman, and two daughters.
"North Jersey reminds me a little of the Midwest," said Kaufman, a licensed clinical social worker who most recently was director of Transitions Eldercare at Jewish Family Service of MetroWest. "I like the openness here; it’s less congested than the city, and you really get to know your neighbors."
Perhaps no one is in a better position than Kaufman to "get to know the neighbors" in Wayne and Fair Lawn, the agency’s two service areas.
Taking over from Abe Davis, who has retired after 37 years, Kaufman will oversee a staff of about 30 professionals and a budget of $1.3 million an amount that must stretch to serve some 1,500 clients.
"It’s never enough. As you develop programs, the number of clients increases and you’re always looking for more funds," she said. "We don’t turn anyone away."
Back in the 19th century, Jewish Family & Children’s Services (commonly abbreviated "JFS") agencies started out assisting Jewish refugees, immigrants, orphans, and the impoverished. Gradually, they became non-sectarian social-service providers to children, adults, and the elderly in 140 communities across North America. There are a dozen JFS offices in New Jersey alone.
"I had been at this agency [Northern New Jersey] before, as director of elder adult services for five years before going to MetroWest, so I know it well," she said. "I’m in the process of bringing myself up to date as to what’s been going on since I left seven years ago, looking at our services and where we can expand them for families, children, and older adults in Fair Lawn as well as Wayne. I also hope to do some collaborative programs with JFS of Bergen County."
Although JFS runs a gamut of programs including Kosher Meals on Wheels, which reaches some 80 clients weekly, Kaufman said that clinical counseling services remain the bedrock of the agency. The nature of the problems therapists deal with does change with the times, however.
"Nationally, JFS has been seeing more and more people in major crises economically, who’ve never experienced psychological turmoil before, but now find themselves in situational crises of losing a job, having to relocate, or some kind of personal loss," she said.
Kaufman aims to introduce additional services that "will really showcase the strengths of our staff," such as programming for children with special needs and for family care-givers of the elderly. She said she hopes to develop relationships with area schools to provide joint programming as well as resources to their child-study teams.
Kaufman started her career ‘9 years ago at Indiana University’s counseling department, but in the past 15 years has concentrated mainly on the needs of older adults and Holocaust survivors and their families.
This is an area that is near to her heart. Her father, Moishe Nemeth of Queens, is a survivor from Czechoslovakia who only began sharing his wartime experiences about a decade ago. He has attended some of her programs for survivors. "There is so much I’ve personally gained, learning about resilience and strength, from this very special group of people," said Kaufman.
Six years ago, she wrote the New Jersey grant for Caf? Europa, a network of professionally facilitated social groups for survivors named for a caf? in Stockholm where, just after World War II, Jews came to look for their lost relatives. As a result of Kaufman’s efforts, each JFS in the state receives a small allocation from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) to run these groups.
"I’ve done national presentations on Caf? Europa and look forward to enhancing it here," Kaufman said. "We get a fairly large turnout and I have ideas on how to expand it programmatically."
Money is always tight, she acknowledged. "I need to get to know where the funding opportunities are, but I feel optimistic and have ideas for programs we can treat a little differently. Hopefully, funders out there will be interested in helping us provide them," she said.
Kaufman was successful in securing numerous state and private grants for the Transitions program at MetroWest. One of her other accomplishments there was setting up community trusts for parents of disabled children. A recipient of the Women’s Fund of New Jersey Award in Excellence in the Non-Profit Sector, Kaufman has served as treasurer of the Society on Aging of New Jersey; delegate to the Interfaith Coalition of the National Council on Aging; and member of the board of directors of Ramapo College’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
"I’m hoping to bring my community-organization skills here, find collaborative partners and bring agencies together to present a holistic approach to serving members of our community," she said.
When she’s not at work, Kaufman likes to knit and enjoys literature and theater. A true child of the 60s, she’s currently reading the newly released "Clapton: The Autobiography" and recently saw "I’m Not There," a biopic about Bob Dylan.
"At one point I built miniature houses I made each of my daughters one but I don’t have the time to do that anymore," she said.
Kaufman’s husband is an English professor at Bergen County Community College. Their daughters, now ‘8 and ‘1, have followed in their father’s footsteps; the older is a PhD student in English, while the younger, a senior at Binghamton University, is interested in journalism.
Kaufman said she welcomes inquiries into the agency’s many programs and services. The Wayne office may be reached at (973) 595-0111, and the Fair Lawn branch at (’01) 796-5151.