Demand and Supply

T he Jewish principle of tikkun olam—repairing the world—is the mission of Jewish Family Service of Greater New Haven. That world extends far beyond the region’s Jewish community, even though that’s where the organization’s work began.

In 1881, as a wave of Russian Jews fled massacres at home and immigrated to New Haven, leaders in the city’s already thriving Jewish community founded several organizations that eventually merged in 1919 to become United Jewish Charities. In 1940, the organization was renamed Jewish Family Service of New Haven (the “Greater” was added in 2015). Today, with a staff of 21, the 102-year-old nonprofit delivers an astonishing array of services: care planning and case management for aging adults, social work outreach for vulnerable and at-risk families, counseling for families going through divorce, mental health counseling, backpacks of food for New Haven Public School children, adoption services, foster care case management and a food pantry, to name a few.

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Several of its services are directed toward the Jewish community, such as a Holocaust survivor program, a group to help Jewish adults with developmental disabilities learn about and celebrate their traditions and delivery of Friday night Sabbath meals to isolated aging adults. But most reach outward to the entire greater New Haven community. “We’re providing services for people across their life cycles,” CEO Amy Rashba says, “from little children to older children, adolescents, young adults and older adults, families.” Before the pandemic, the agency served a combined 4,800 individuals annually.

In many cases, JFS inhabits a special niche. Take, for example, its food pantry. Tucked in a small Whalley Avenue strip mall behind the former Athenian Diner, tables and shelves in the pantry were packed one recent morning with large white paper bags of orders ready to be picked up, and volunteer Annabelle Kline was restocking shelves. Pre-COVID, the pantry was set up like a supermarket, with items shelved by category—breakfast foods, canned vegetables, items for special diets—so that clients could browse with a basket or a cart. Instead of budgeting dollars, they budgeted pounds of food, with weight allotted based on their number of dependents and any federal programs they participated in. On top of nonperishable poundage, clients could choose from fresh and frozen items. On offer this particular morning were frozen fish and burgers, American cheese, butter, acorn squash, apples and potatoes. Food is purchased in bulk or donated by local producers, supermarkets and individuals, and several synagogues cultivate vegetable gardens for the pantry.

“We really know our clients personally,” says Betsy Flaherty, who has volunteered with the pantry for about seven years. “We see them once a month, and when we ask them, ‘How are you?’, we really listen to what they say, so the next time we can ask them about that thing.” Knowing clients on a personal level also means volunteers can help them choose items that will fit within their diet or pique their interest.

Since COVID, the pantry has become what volunteers jokingly call “Peapod by JFS.” Over the course of the year, pantry director Sandy Hagan has created an individualized shopping list for each client based on their needs and preferences. Volunteers shop the aisles and bag items in advance, and clients can call ahead with adjustments or special requests. When they arrive, they still choose their own fresh and frozen items from a table at the door. About 25 clients were expected on the day of my visit, but the pantry is capable of serving more. Signing up requires a simple intake phone call.

“They’re regular people. They’re just having a hard time,” says Flaherty, who tears up as she talks about some of the clients she’s met over the years. “I feel lucky that, for that moment, I can engage with them in a way that makes them feel good,” she says. “I just feel like what I’m doing makes a difference.”

JFS has other strengths as well, Rashba says. Its wraparound services enable a mental health counselor to send a client in need to the food pantry, for example. “People are really getting a lot of services in one place, so they don’t have to go all over the community searching for what they need,” she says. And while mental health counseling is available in many other community settings, JFS doesn’t have a wait list. “We’ve seen quite an uptick in our mental health services, and that’s something that we’re going to be expanding now,” Rashba says.

She has seen firsthand the stresses COVID has put not only on people but on local organizations. Not every nonprofit will make it out of this challenging environment, Rashba predicts. One thing she believes will carry JFS through is the versatility of its staff, many of whom are social workers. She herself came to JFS in 1986 as a second-year student in a social work master’s degree program. “Before I was the CEO, I did everything at JFS, all the different programs,” she says. She’s spent most of her career working in adoptions, but she also ran JFS mental health programs for a time. “Our skill sets go across a myriad of programs, and that’s why I think we’ve been one, successful, and two, unique in that we can do a lot of things. Everybody [here] can do anything.”

That includes running the annual JFS spring fundraiser in a virtual format. The June 17 event, with tickets going up for sale soon, will include musical entertainment, a video highlighting JFS services and a tribute to Rabbi Herbert Brockman, who recently retired after more than 30 years serving congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden. Rashba calls Brockman “the be-all and end-all of what JFS is all about,” citing “everything he’s done with the interfaith community, with social justice, with doing the right thing, standing up for those in need.”

Those in need once included Rashba’s own grandparents. One day, while riffling through some “little tiny index cards” in the JFS archives, she came across cards listing their names as well as goods and services received, such as coal for heating. “I knew that my father’s family, they were pretty poor, and they struggled quite a bit,” Rashba says. “It was amazing to find my maiden name in there, where I could see that they were helped.”

Coal has been replaced by gas and oil heating assistance, a service JFS still helps clients access—just one more example of the organization’s steadfast commitment to New Haven. Its CEO, the descendant of clients once served, is looking ahead now toward a second century of helping families like hers make their way.

Jewish Family Service of Greater New Haven
1440 Whalley Ave, New Haven (map)
(203) 389-5599 | rseipold@jfsnh.org
www.jfsnh.org

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 features volunteer Anabelle Kline. Image 2 features volunteer Betsy Flaherty and pantry director Sandy Hagan.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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