Happy 150th Anniversary, Part I

This past week I attended two events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Jewish Family Service and Congregation Oheb Shalom of South Orange. Any institution’s celebration of a century and a half of existence is a milestone in itself. But honoring two institutions that have successfully adapted to changing times is a testament to their wise leadership, who were able to navigate change while holding fast to their underlying mission. This blog will focus, initially, on Jewish Family Service.

Several years ago, at the height of The Great Recession, I received numerous phone calls from individuals who were desperately seeking financial assistance to avert literally being thrown out on the street, for lack of payment of rent or mortgage. Needless to say, we referred these individuals to Jewish Family Service, which dealt with these cases with professionalism and empathy. We collaborated closely, not only with the Jewish Family Service but also the Hebrew Free Loan, which helped dispense grants for these purposes as well as eliciting resources from MetroWest HELPS, UJA’s special campaign effort that allocated approximately $500,000 for services to help families in need and, through JVS, assisted with job counseling and placement.

But individuals whom JFS assisted were not just the poor. They were also middle-income individuals who found themselves out of work. They underwent not only economic but also familial distress. Jewish Family Service takes a holistic approach to dealing with the entire constellation of needs confronting a family, including psychological, financial, and “concrete” services.

This mission of helping Jewish families was in the original charter of the agency when it was established on January 2, 1861, under the name of Hebrew Benevolent and Orphans Asylum Society. Its object was to “assist the needy, succor the helpless and protect the weak.”

Invoking Maimonides’ dictum of not embarrassing the needy, every officer of the Society had to pledge never to divulge to the outside world the names of those assisted or the sums of money they received.

Over the years, the agency incorporated an orphanage and had many additional permutations, ultimately evolving into the Jewish Family Service of today. The number of special categories of individuals helped included the vast number of Eastern European refugees who came to our shores in the late nineteenth and early decades of twentieth century, Holocaust survivors, Soviet Jews, in addition to the “indigenous” Jewish population.

More recently, JFS incorporated The Rachel Coalition in its effort to deal with victims of domestic violence; Café Europa, a program that provides Holocaust survivors with opportunities for socialization through a non-threatening environment; Carelink, which connects volunteers with a day of service, and most recently, a merging with the Jewish Family and Counseling Service of Jersey City, Bayonne and Hoboken. But one constant over the past decades has been UJA’s annual support for JFS’ vital services.

As part of its celebration, the Jewish Family Service will be, with our Jewish Community Foundation, raising endowments for the Center for Jewish Family and Children’s Services, the Center for Eldercare Services, and the Center for Community Services.

The Jewish Family Service is capably led by its President, Marian Stern; its Executive Director, Reuben Rotman; and a cadre of extraordinary professionals and lay leaders. The opening reception, which I attended last week, included an exhibition coordinated by the MetroWest Jewish Historical Society: “Past Forward: Celebrating 150 Years of Jewish Family Service of MetroWest.” This exhibition was funded by The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, Hebrew Free Loan, and The Rachel Coalition. I want to thank Thelma and Richie Florin for their generous support of this event, and to thank Carol Marcus and Sandi Rosenbaum for co-chairing the 150th year celebration. “Past Forward” is an apt name for the JFS exhibition, because JFS has relied on its past to help set the course to take on the challenges but also the opportunities of the future.

Congratulations JFS!

I hope you will continue to have many years of productive service for the Jewish and general community of MetroWest.

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