Providing a safety net in an increasingly trying time

Providing a safety net in an increasingly trying time

Jewish Family and Children’s Services offers holistic help as needs grow

Children and adults line up for the start of the 2016 Wheels for Meals Ride to Fight Hunger.
Children and adults line up for the start of the 2016 Wheels for Meals Ride to Fight Hunger.

These are troubled, troubling times that we live in.

There is economic uncertainty, encouraged by some politicians and exacerbated by the growing sense that human beings are being replaced by machines.

There is social uncertainty, as our understanding of acceptable behavior is challenged, often years later, by victims who feel scarred by it; at the same time, both crude, vulgar lack of empathy toward anyone who is different and a feeling that we owe people who are different understanding, respect, and dignity battle in our public forums, and even inside our own hearts and minds.

There is status uncertainty; immigrants who have come here illegally and lived safely, even comfortably, for years no longer feel as comfortable or even as safe. There is political uncertainty, as surprising wins and losses make solid-seeming institutions shudder, just a little bit. There is health-care uncertainty, as politicians fight about who should pay what for it. Even Medicare and Medicaid are under sporadic attack.

That’s just a short list of some of the most obvious uncertainties. Many more loom.

Sandra Leshaw, the program director of Re-Launch Career Services, works with a client.

For social service agencies, this is both a huge opportunity and a huge challenge. As the need for the services agencies provide rises, the funding necessary to provide them diminishes, a seemingly intractable dance of cause and effect.

Locally, a year after the merger that brought it into existence, the Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey is facing the results of that uncertainty. As it begins its second year with a gala dinner on Sunday night, JFCS looks to the community that it helps for help. [See box.]

The agency — created with help from the organization that provides a large chunk of its funding, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey — is the result of the marriage of the Jewish Family Service of North Jersey in Fair Lawn and Wayne and the Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson in Teaneck.

It faces extra challenges and rewards with its unusual model.

Unlike most agencies, which focus on one area of need and work only on that, “We provide multiple services,” Susan Greenbaum said. Ms. Greenbaum, a social worker, is the agency’s chief executive officer. “That means that we do both psychotherapy and senior services, that we have a food pantry, that we provide both vocational support and support groups.”

It’s not that those other groups — programs for older people, assisted living programs, food banks, employment services — aren’t extremely important. They are. It’s not as if they don’t meet important needs. They do. But JFCS is a holistic agency that sees a whole person — for that matter, a whole family — and therefore can see how those needs intersect, or even how they cause yet more friction as they hit up against each other.

Susan Greenbaum, left, and Ron Rosensweig, who was vice president of the Jewish Family Service of North Jersey, look on as presidents of the two merging organizations, Shira Feuerstein and Allyn Michaelson, sign the agreement to join the agencies.

To be specific, “if we see a senior in the community who has both hunger issues and some physical issues that we need to address with home care, that senior also can get therapy. Or if we see a kid who is depressed and anxious, we can see that entire family, and the family also can get concrete services, like access to the food pantry.” The family also can get help in gaining access to the tangled, non-user-friendly web of available government services.

It is perhaps like a family doctor surrounded by specialists; the specialists are vitally important, but it is the family doctor who can see how the entire patient functions; to the family doctor, the patient is a person, not a collection of organs. That’s true for the JFCS as well.

JFCS gets money from the state and local government as well as from the federation and from donors; it draws its clients from both the broader community and the Jewish community. “We are there for the entire community; we are the safety net for the Jewish community,” Ms. Greenbaum said.

“That’s what sets us apart. That’s the beauty of organized Jewish society. We can do this better than anyone else because we’re supported by the community, and we can deliver these services in a way that is much more comfortable and palatable.

“Everyone has someone — a mother, a brother, a father-in-law, a cousin, a neighbor — who has needed help. We are there to answer that call for help. Even if we can’t do it all, we’re always there. We will not drop anyone.”

In 2016, volunteers came to serve Thanksgiving dinner at Cafe Europa.

JFCS’s offerings range widely. It provides Kosher Meals on Wheels; the number of meals it provides is increasing. It supports Holocaust survivors; the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany gave the agency more than $1.5 million, and the federation has filled in the gaps that even that large but surprisingly easy-to-spend amount has left in elderly survivors’ lives.

It runs a food pantry whose clients include many Jews. “I recently learned that a man we’re working with gets $13 a month in food stamps,” Ms. Greenbaum said. “That supplements a meager disability check. This is a Jewish man, and he could be my cousin. He could be your cousin.

“We also see a trend of single mothers who have children with serious disabilities.” Those women struggle mightily, both with the high costs of the daily items that everyone needs — even soap and shampoo add up — and with the physical and physiological toll caring for their children takes on them. They need help feeding their children. Many organizations — synagogues, schools, and also stores and community-based nonprofits — are joining to help. “We all communicate and work together to deal with this painful reality of hunger in 2017,” Ms. Greenbaum said.

Here’s a stark and terrifying fact. “JFCS is dealing with a serious increase in anxiety and depression in pre-teens,” Jessica Fleischer, the agency’s chief operations officer, who is also a social worker, said. “Our therapists are managing the cases of four attempted suicides in the past two weeks.” All those children, she said, were between the ages of 10 and 12.

“Our children are suffering,” Ms. Greenbaum said.

“Fifty-five percent of our child clients in our current caseload are 12 or younger,” Ellen Finkelstein, the agency’s marketing director, said. “We now have 134 children currently in active cases.”

Therapist Miriam Sloan talks to a client.

Why? “There are a variety of reasons — anxiety, depression, family conflict, and performance issues,” Ms. Fleischer added.

Neither Ms. Greenbaum nor Ms. Fleischer nor Ms. Finkelstein, who also is deeply involved in its day-to-day operations, can say exactly why the statistics show such a stunning rise in the rate of children who clearly are at risk. They are not researchers, they say. Everything they know is anecdotal. But they hear a lot of anecdotes.

To begin with, “We have noticed that there is a spike in the number of referrals almost every October,” Ms. Fleischer said. “That’s probably because now they’ve settled into the school year, and are feeling anxiety and stress.” And it’s even worse this year.

“I think that school plays a part in it, and home plays a part in it,” she continued. “In some cases there is a component of bullying. In some there is a long history of frequent and severe abuse. In some cases it’s related to nationality and religion and immigration status.

“In some cases, certainly over the last six months or so, we have situations where children fear that their parents will be deported.”

It is important to realize that abuse is not confined to the non-Jewish world, Ms. Fleisher said. “We like to think that these problems are not in our community, but that’s not true. We see abuse cases referred to us from the day schools, from rabbis, from other community organizations, whether it’s spousal abuse or children abuse. And we see more of it, and other mental health issues are increasing as well.

Many of the families that most need help also are hungry. They come to the food pantry. “Food is probably the hardest thing to ask for,” Ms. Fleischer said. “It’s humiliating.” And when they get to food banks, people often are asked questions that they find too risky to answer, particularly questions about their immigration status. “We look at each family holistically,” Ms. Fleischer said. “We don’t ask them fewer questions than other food banks do, but we don’t try to force them to answer them.” They can’t. The people standing in front of them are hungry.

Israeli tzofim — scouts — from the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly work at JFCS’s food pantry.

As part of their holistic approach, JFCS social workers go to school meetings. “It is really atypical for a mental health facility to allow or enable their teams to meet offsite like that, but we understand that school is such an important part of a child’s environment,” Ms. Fleischer said. It’s unusual to do that because it’s so expensive, she added. “But we allow it when we’re in deep with a kid, because it is so important to them.

“The results of those visits are compelling. The social workers have a unique perspective, and they can advocate for their clients in a different way, professional to professional.

“And this also speaks to the severity of the cases we are seeing now. Probably five or even three years ago it wasn’t as necessary to do that as it is now.”

All of these programs are expensive, though, and as generous as the federation is with JFCS, still the agency needs more. It relies on private donors.

The need for mental health services is particularly acute, Ms. Fleisher said. “People like to donate for food or emergency services, but donating to mental health services isn’t popular. It’s not at all tangible. But the needs of the community in terms of mental health far outweigh everything else we do.”

Who: The Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey

What: Holds its gala dinner

When: On Sunday, December 3, at 5:30 p.m.

Where: At the Edgewood Country Club, 449 Rivervale Road in Rivervale

Why: To raise funds to help JFCS continue to provide holistic services to entire families and to be the safety net for the local Jewish community.

For more information: Go to You can register online until Sunday morning, and walk-ins are welcomed.

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