The first thing you notice when you walk into JSDD’s new building at 310 Eisenhower Parkway in Livingston is the light.
The second thing you notice is the art.
The building’s been put up as a central location for the Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled, to give the JSDD its fully spelled-out name; the light is for its clients, and the art is by them.
Okay. What’s going on here?
The JSDD traces its history to the 1980s, when it was called the Commission on Individuals with Developmental Disabilities, its executive director, Linda Press, and its president, Larry Rein, said last week. They were sitting in a bright meeting room in the new, soon-to-open building, talking about the agency as touring board members walked by.
Back then, they said, the JSDD was a committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest. Its goal always has been to provide education and advocacy for people with developmental disabilities, to help them develop their often surprising potential for creativity, work, friendship, and joy, and to help them integrate into the world around them. It also works to help the families of their clients, whose lives are deeply affected by their children’s and siblings’ disabilities.
The need that first spurred the JSDD into growth and action is not housed in the new building.
In 1989, in response to a needs assessment that showed that parents of children with developmental disabilities worried about what would happen to those adult children when they, the parents, no longer were around — and that Jewish parents also worried about their children’s Jewish lives, including their access to kosher food — the committee opened its first group home. It was in Milburn, and it became home to six developmentally disabled adults; it was coed and it was funded in part by state grants.
The home was successful, and the need for more such homes was clear, so more were opened. There now are 14 of them, with space for 46 residents, and a fifteenth is being developed. They’re throughout the federation’s catchment area; most are in Essex and Morris counties.
“There are anywhere from one to six people in each home; some are supervised living and others are group homes,” Ms. Press said. “Most are staffed for 24 hours, in shifts; no staff person lives there.” The different situations are in response to the residents’ varying needs, including for oversight and also for independence.
People are eligible to live in one of the homes once they turn 21. “Our youngest resident is mid-20s, and our oldest is 87,” she continued. “We make a lifelong commitment to people.”
In 1996, the committee grew in scope and it became independent; “in 1996, when we wanted to develop new programs, we became a new agency, a partner agency of the federation,” Mr. Rein said.
The most prominent new program is the one that is visible in the new building. It’s where the art comes in.
“In 2004, we developed the WAE Center,” Ms. Press said; WAE stands for wellness, arts, and enrichment. “It’s a term we made up,” she continued. “It is a holistic alternative learning center. It means that we look at the individual as a whole person, and our emphasis is on learning.
“We have a full professional art studio, and we employ professional artists as faculty. We offer multimedia, paint on canvas, photography, drawing, sculpture, mixed media; we also have knitting classes, where people create scarves and hats, and we also teach other handcrafts.
“The art is for sale, so it is an alternative means of providing the artists with income, and of course it provides self-expression.”
Some of the art that WAE’s participants make is digitally transformed into images that can go on cups, notebooks, and other forms of promotional merch; they’re all for sale.
WAE, which started with fewer than 10 participants and had reached a pre-covid level of 60 before the virus shut it down, was funded with a seed grant from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, which also helped the center go fully online during the pandemic.
The foundation’s help didn’t end there. “They also gave us a million dollars as a capital grant for this new building,” Ms. Press said.
If the pandemic was a huge black cloud hovering over us, blocking out most of the light — to be more accurate, to some extent it still is a black cloud, even though it’s allowing more beams through — there were some faintly silver linings. For the JSDD, that lining was the way it was significantly easier to get the new building up. Before covid, the agency had been housed at Congregation Ohr Torah in West Orange; it was an arrangement that worked well for everyone for 11 years, but JSDD needed more space.
Work on the new building began in July of 2020, at the height of the pandemic; it was finished and dedicated in September and is set to open for programs as soon as all the inspections and certifications it needs are completed. Fundraising for it has gone on for four years. “We have raised nearly $10 million, which is our goal,” Mr. Rein said. “We are only about half a million away.”
They welcome visitors to the building. “People will see learning going on, and potential, and creativity,” Ms. Press said. “They see it in men and women who in the past were not thought to have potential, or to be creative. They have done remarkable things.”
Although most people assume that if people are intellectually disabled, that must mean that they are disabled imaginatively, creatively, and sensually, that’s not true, both Mr. Rein and Ms. Press said; when they sit down to create art, the connections between their hands, their brains, and their souls can be unimpeded. Their work “is called outsider art, which is defined as art created by individuals who have not been professionally trained in the arts,” Ms. Press said. It is very difficult — if not impossible, at least for ordinary observers — to look at their art and see that its creator is disabled in any way.
Their work has been displayed in the Newark Museum of Art and the Montclair Art Museum, as well as the JCC MetroWest in West Orange, and it’s on permanent display at the new JSDD building. (The gallery already is open, although other parts of the building are not.) There’s a sign on the road outside advising drivers that there’s an art gallery; “and we’ve already had a few people stop by because they saw the sign,” Ms. Press said.
“That’s the point of being on a main drag.”
The building also includes light-flooded classrooms, meeting rooms, offices, a cafeteria, and adaptable social areas, as well as a garden and other outdoor spaces.
Ms. Press, who lives in West Caldwell, started her career in early childhood special education, she said, working in a preschool with handicapped children, doing early interventions. “After I had my own family, I took a part-time job as a behaviorist for the ARC in Newark,” she continued. “I had no background for it then.” She learned. “And then I worked for the JCC MetroWest, first as a part time special-needs coordinator, and then, when it was funded by the HealthCare Foundation,” which figures largely in this story, “the JCC increased my hours to be full time, and I became the director of special needs there.
“And then this agency was looking for someone…”
Because this job allows her to put all her experience and her passions together, “This is coming full circle for me,” Ms. Press said. “I always say that this is where I was destined to end up.”
Mr. Rein, who lives in West Orange, has been involved with the MetroWest federation since he moved to the area 30 or so years ago, he said; he’s a former JCC president and has been on many boards throughout the system. “For probably 15 years now, I’ve been involved in the special needs world,” he said; he’s a part-time senior development executive for Yachad, the Orthodox Union’s group for people with special needs. His background is in marketing; that’s the field he specialized in when he earned his MBA. Professionally, he’s worked for high-tech companies. He used that background for volunteer work throughout his time in federation leadership positions, and it’s helpful now, as he and Ms. Press lead the JSDD.
Together, they’re looking forward to ushering their clients into the huge, light-filled, state-of-the-art workrooms and galleries in their new building, and to propelling the agency forward.