When you talk with Dr. John Winer about the Howard E. Charish Award for Professional Excellence he will receive from the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey at its annual meeting on June 16, it’s clear that while he is very proud of what the Jewish Association for Developmental Disabilities has accomplished since he took its helm in 2004, he doesn’t see the award as being about him.
Yes, he works hard; when he talks about how his family has made the award possible, he notes the nights he stayed over J-ADD’s its Bergen County offices rather than driving back to his home in Highland Park. When he talks about Australia, where he spent formative years (when he was 15, his family moved to Perth from Johannesburg , South Africa), he wistfully praises how people there “work to live rather than live to work.”
But he is deeply aware of the contributions of the organization’s 105 employees, 90 of whom work directly with the adults with developmental disabilities who J-ADD houses and supports, with all but two of the remaining employees frequently in the field. (The bookkeeper and a colleague are too busy to leave their desks.)
J-ADD sponsored New Jersey’s first kosher group home in Englewood in 1988; it now operates eight group homes, as well as renting seven apartments for people who can live more independently. All told, the agency has space to house 50 people, though now one of the houses is being renovated, so it’s not at full capacity.
At the center of Dr. Winer’s work is his firm conviction that people with developmental disabilities are first, last, and always people.
Those who have seen him in action say that that conviction has made him an impressive executive.
Jason Shames, the federation’s CEO, noted Dr. Winer’s “incredible dedication and service to his residents and clients during covid. He was personally engaged in everything and touched everyone. It was above and beyond.”
Sharon Horn of Fort Lee, who heads J-ADD’s board, first met Dr. Winer when she worked at the agency as an intern while she was studying for graduate degree from Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work. Inspired by Dr. Winer’s attitude, she returned after graduation and worked there as a social worker before opening her practice advising families of disabled people.
“I can’t tell you how much I learned from his compassion and empathy,” she said. “Also, he’s quite bright.
“He’s a hands-on guy. He goes over to the residences to make sure everything is kosher for Passover, and he also goes to Trenton to advocate. If someone is sick he goes to the hospital. If someone dies, he’s the eulogizer. He sets up the shiva.”
Ms. Horn said she came to her internship already thinking about people with developmental disabilities; she grew up knowing an uncle with developmental disabilities who lived in a group home. And she was incredibly impressed “by John’s devotion to these individuals, his mission of always being sure they were part of the family, part of the community, treated like individuals should be treated,” she said.
That translates into the belief “that they should be pushed to the maximum, given their options. They should go to the supermarket, go to the movies, should get their hair done, go to synagogue or church.” (All the residences are kosher, though not all the residents are Jewish.)
Ms. Horn, who got to J-ADD not long after Dr. Winer did, saw him make seemingly small changes in how the residences operated that made them feel more like homes and less like institutions.
Take snacks, for example.
“At an institution, everyone has to eat the same thing at the same time,” Ms. Horn said. “John pushed the premise that it’s their home. They should be able to go the fridge, to decide they’d rather have popcorn than an orange.”
Dr. Winer earned an undergraduate psychology degree and then a graduate degree in social work. (“Both my degrees were free,” he said, praising Australia’s welfare state.)
He started off working for the an organization serving the blind in Western Australia; then he moved to Israel, where he found a job working with seniors.
The pivotal moment in his career came when he took a job in Netanya, running a sheltered workshop for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities as he earned a post-graduate degree in rehabilitation. “That’s when my eyes were really opened to looking at people with disabilities as people having the same needs, wants, and desires as anyone else,” he said.
Looked at that way, the busy but useless tasks he was giving the people in his workshop — putting things together and then taking them apart, because there wasn’t enough real work for them to do — left him “pretty disgusted with myself.”
So he developed a program that didn’t just keep people busy, but helped them with elementary skills, “whether motor skills or toileting skills.”
And he got a contract with a kibbutz that sold drip irrigation systems, which paid his workshop participants “to put those little spigots into the pipes,” he said. “The people were able to do real meaningful work.”
He also got to meet people in his program who, despite their disabilities, were able to integrate into the community.
“My favorite experience with that is one individual who worked for the Netanya police force. His job was to keep the car shop clean and organized. He was out sick one day. They called in: ‘Where’s Reuven? We have a problem. We can’t get any of the squad care out of here. We don’t know which key goes with which car.’
“He had a system and he was the only one who knew it,” Dr. Winer said. “He had control over the whole garage over there.”
Dr. Winer eventually decided to enroll at Wurzweiler to earn a doctorate in social work, specializing in quality of life issues for people with intellectual disabilities. That brought him to America. He found a job at YAI, a New York-based agency, founded as the Young Adult Institute, that now provides residences and other services for the developmentally disabled. Dr. Winer began working in residential services there. “I had an incredible learning curve over there,” he said.
That was in 1994; he has continued working in residential services ever since, except for “a short hiatus at the Sinai Schools, running the boys’ program at the Torah Academy of Bergen County” in Teaneck, he said.
Dr. Winer attributes his desire to help people partly to his experience in Perth’s Jewish community, which, unlike Johannesburg, had no Jewish high school, and where everyone’s participation made a difference. He attributes it as well to the ethos of Australia’s welfare system.
“There’s such a sense of social justice,” he said. “You see that giving begets giving. I got so I give.”
The ethos in Israel was similar — but when he made aliyah, “there was no money,” he said. “The country was very poor. The system was designed to cater for a more socially just society, but the magnitude of the situation didn’t always allow for it to be carried out. That’s why you contribute to something like the federation, which supports the Israeli community even as it supports the local community.”
He starts to talk about Jewish values, about chesed — kindness and generosity — but pulls back.
“I shouldn’t say chesed,” he said. “Chesed is a wonderful value, but on the whole the Jewish community tends to do things for people with disabilities because of a chesed focus. I see chesed as doing something for someone. I’m getting the scorecard points, the mitzvah points, by helping someone out and including them in the community.
“It’s really the other way around. Including someone is tzedek, a justice we need to be doing. The person doing the chesed is the person with the disability. They’re doing the chesed for me by allowing me to come into their lives and work with them, in allowing me to make the world a more just place. You’re doing the justice of including them in the community.”
If you look at how J-ADD has expanded under Dr. Winer’s leadership, you can see its clear focus on inclusion. When he started, the organization had seven group homes. Today it has eight. But now it also rents seven apartments scattered in Teaneck, where pairs of J-ADD clients who don’t need round-the-clock attention live independently. “It’s much easier to provide person-centered opportunities when it’s one or two people in the apartment,” he said.
Another focus has been renovating the group homes to enable its residents to age in place. “Five of the homes are now accessible at least at the ground level,” he said. That includes showers that are accessible by wheelchair.
One of those now-accessible homes is called the Bressman Home. When Lillian Bressman, whose son lives in the home, died in March, the family sat shiva there.
“It’s part of including people with disabilities in our lives on a day-to-day basis,” Dr. Winer said. “It’s hard for him to get to his mother’s apartment. Do it where he’s comfortable.”
At the shiva minyan, Dr. Winer officiated at services at the family’s request.
He also has performed a funeral service. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would do shivas and funerals as a social worker, as an executive director,” he said. “The honor I felt was amazing. I was so touched.
“It sounds morbid, but the whole idea of J-ADD is this is a family, and these are the things we do for family. We do the dirty deeds and we do the nice deeds. That gives me such satisfaction.”
But graduations are better than funerals. A J-ADD client had one of those last week.
“She marched,” Dr. Winer said. “She got a bachelor’s degree in fashion merchandising. How cool is that?”