For 90 years, Jewish Family Service responds to the needs of the community.
For a 90-year-old, Jewish Family Service (JFS) is pretty darn nimble. While its mainstay is providing services for older adults, mental health and substance abuse counseling, coordination of health care access and ensuring basic needs are being met, the agency can also act quickly to help out in times of crisis, be it helping those affected by the 2014 floods or last year’s fire at Baptist Manor in Farmington Hills.
“It’s part of our DNA,” said Perry Ohren, MSW, who was first hired by the agency in 1991 and became its CEO in 2011. “While there is core stuff we do every day, we have the ability to be flexible and respond to what impacts people on an individual basis to meet their needs. We balance those two things, thanks to the generosity of our donors.”
JFS staff, volunteers and others will gather on May 30 for a 90th anniversary celebratory event expected to attract at least 800 participants.
The basic mission hasn’t altered much since 1928, when the Jewish Social Service Bureau was incorporated to promote “family welfare and welfare of children among the Jewish people of Detroit and environs.” One major change, however, was expanding into non-sectarian services in 1983.
“We are not just for someone who
is disenfranchised; we are there for people going through all sorts of problems or transitions or challenges.” — Perry Ohren, JFS CEO
“When we started to diversify our funding and get some from government sources, my predecessors decided that to serve the Jewish community better, let’s open the door wider, serve the whole community and repair the entire world,” Ohren said. “Most people, whether Jewish or not, might reflexively assume JFS is for Jews. We are Jewish in our name, our history and our values, but we provide human and family services for people whoever they are. It’s a challenge to let everyone know we are a non-sectarian agency.”
Still, 85 percent of those JFS serves are Jewish, he said, adding that Detroit’s percentage is higher than many.
For fiscal year ending May 31, JFS’ budget is $11.2 million; revenue sources include various grants, federal and state government funds, contracts with community partners for specific targeted programs, insurance and self-pay fees for certain services, and allocations (total of $3 million) from the Jewish Federation. The agency has 114 employees.
“The fundraising part is a constant challenge,” Ohren said. “The reality is that funders, whether the Federation or United Way or the government, sometimes change and those changes are sometimes abrupt. We are not going anywhere, but I do worry about various pots of $100,000 here or $500,000 there. What we will look like three years from now will be a little different from what we looked like three years ago, but our core will remain the same.”
While the “Jewish” in the agency’s name respects its origins, the word “Family” has additional meaning to some. Many of the 1,000 volunteers who help each year are related.
Erica Solway, 36, of Ann Arbor, for instance, learned about volunteerism from watching her mother, Nancy Solway, a current board member. When Erica was a teenager, she tagged along with her mother, a “Friendly Visitor” to a disabled woman named Lynn. Blind and confined to a wheelchair, Lynn lived at the Prentis Apartments in Oak Park, but a broken leg had temporarily put her in Menorah House in Southfield.
“I had to do community service for school, so I asked if anyone at Menorah House could use a visitor,” Erica recalled. “I ended up developing a bond with a man named Othni and visiting with him weekly for a couple of years until I went to college. He died, but I still stay in touch with his family.”
Her experiences at Menorah House fueled her career in geriatrics.
“I had never given it much thought before, but it really changed me, and I just ran with the experience,” said Erica, currently associate director of the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging and who formerly worked on health and aging policy for the U.S. Senate. “It was pretty eye-opening to realize how much can be done to improve the care for older adults.”
Now 66 and serving her second stint on the board of directors, Nancy Solway of Bloomfield Hills, said meeting Lynn in 1988 through the Friendly Visitors program had a major effect on her life.
“We were good friends from the day we met, and we visited for about 23 years until she passed away six years ago. It was a great relationship for both of us and a very special part of my life,” Nancy said. “Being a part of JFS has influenced and grounded my life. It’s a group I am proud and honored to be affiliated with.”
Current board chair Suzan Curhan of West Bloomfield fondly recalls how her step-grandmother, the late Edythe Jackier, was an active volunteer. “It speaks to the heart and soul of who we are,” said Curhan, 56. “We are such a dynamic group and passionate with different views that come to the table. We are not perfect and there is a lot that remains to be done, but we will not be stagnant.”
The agency’s responsiveness is one of the things that attracted Debbie Feit of Farmington, who has been its communications manager for the past three years after a career in advertising.
“This is the first nonprofit I’ve worked for and making that transition has been very satisfying to me, even if my role is a small one. It has been fascinating to see just how much we do and have evolved over the years,” said Feit, 50. “You don’t have to be Jewish and if we can’t help you, we will refer you to someone who can.”
That’s a message JFS, which helps some 14,000 people each year, works hard to deliver.
“Oftentimes the perception is, ‘JFS isn’t for me. It’s for a poor person on the other side of town,’” said Ohren, 55, of Huntington Woods. “We are not just for someone who is disenfranchised; we are there for people going through all sorts of problems or transitions or challenges. You can be the wealthiest person in Detroit and still benefit from our services. Though we were founded to help people who didn’t have two nickels to rub together, that is simply a piece of what we do. We are there for people when they are going through something, and that in some ways is a well-kept secret.”
Michele and Michael Colton of Franklin have each volunteered their time — and hearts — through JFS’ Mentor Connection.
“I was a mentor to two young men,” said Michael, 63, whose own father died when Michael was just 11. “I think it’s essential, and it became personal for me. I have three sons of my own and it was a rewarding experience parenting them. All three are grown so I had that jones I had to feed.”
He attended one of the teen’s bar mitzvah years ago and still keeps in touch with the young man, who is now in college. “We had lunch about nine months ago and he is blossoming,” he reported.
Michele, 56, had a more challenging time with her mentee, an independent-minded teen from Pontiac. “I saw her every few weeks for five years. Toward her later years, I was hoping to have a real impact, but, by the end, I was amazed that she graduated and was not pregnant,” she said. “She seemed to care about me, but she wanted to hang out with her friends, and I ended up being more of a support system to her grandmother.”
These days, Michele has befriended two senior citizens through JFS. She plays Scrabble weekly with a 92-year-old woman in hospice and takes a 77-year-old shopping each week and is in the process of helping her move to subsidized housing.
“They are so supportive and loving when you visit them; they think it is so amazing someone would take time out of their day to spend time with them,” Michele said. “They light up when they see you. To me, it is more than throwing them in the car and taking them to the doctor. An hour a week is nothing, but you do have to realize that you become important to that person.”
REASONS TO BE PROUD
Providing services to older adults and their caregivers is among the “zillion things I am proud of,” Ohren said. “Helping people age in place in their homes is not rocket science, but it really does take a qualified social worker to help people navigate. JFS is very attuned to the fact we are all getting older. A subset of that is Holocaust survivors, and we are helping more than 500 of the maybe 1,000 in the community. There couldn’t be anything more important that JFS does.”
Ed and Francine Gold, who live in Bloomfield Hills, have each served on the board during their 51-year marriage, as has their son Lorne, 49, of Huntington Woods.
“I am one of the old dogs,” said Ed, 77, who was board president in 1988 and still attends the occasional meeting. “When I started my relationship with JFS, Sam Lerner was the head and he was an institution in the Detroit Jewish community — a wonderful man and a great leader. Sam retired when I was in office and finding a replacement for him was no easy task, but we had a lot of qualified candidates and got Alan Goodman [CEO from 1989-1998], who was terrific.”
He added, “JFS is very special because it’s hands-on, dealing with real people having real problems. That’s what drew me — the fact that we could actually affect the daily lives of people in our community. You can’t work at JFS without having a good ‘neshamah’ — a good heart and true feelings for people who are having problems and need help.”
See Then and Now
Join The Celebration
JFS’ 90th Anniversary Event on Wednesday, May 30, features a talk by Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle, a captivating memoir of her youth spent in dire poverty because of her parents’ alcoholism and mental illness. Tickets for the event, which is chaired by Andi and Larry Wolfe, are $36, two for $50 and $10 for students. The program begins at 7 p.m. at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield. For tickets or sponsorship information, call (248) 592-2339 or visit jfsannualevent.org.