It began as the Hebrew Benevolent Society and Orphans’ Asylum, a 15-bed facility located at 232 Mulberry St. in Newark.
It has undergone many name changes since, but the Jewish Family Service of MetroWest has never wavered in its mission of serving the needy, the disadvantaged, and those who just might need a little help in difficult times.
Now gearing up for its sesquicentennial year, the agency is planning a series of events to celebrate its evolution from children’s shelter to a multi-county organization with a myriad nonsectarian programs.
“We have evolved to acknowledge that everybody in the community may experience life-cycle challenges such as divorce or a period of unemployment or stress around an aging parent or child-rearing issues,” said JFS executive director Reuben Rotman. “What we have tried to do in the last 15 or 20 years is make our services as available as possible to everybody, not just those defined as the low-income and least fortunate.”
Those services include mental health, adoption, individual, and group counseling as well as providing both long-term attention and crisis care for people in need.
The agency also has remained an expression of the Jewish community from which it sprung. A partner agency of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, JFS over the years has absorbed or launched other communal services and projects to keep pace with the times.
That broadening agenda now includes assistance for victims of child and spousal abuse, an issue that was spoken of mainly in hushed tones during previous eras.
To Carol Marcus of Bloomingdale, who has been involved with JFS for nearly 30 years and is cochair of the planning committee for the year-long celebration, the formation in 1997 of the Rachel Coalition — a community partnership to provide support and resources for victims of domestic violence — was a key moment in her tenure.
The start of JFS’ including domestic abuse in its portfolio of interventions evolved from a UJC MetroWest NJ Women’s Division board meeting, when a former JFS executive spoke of increasing complaints of spousal abuse in the community.
“An abused woman might belong to a country club and drive a Mercedes, but she wasn’t about to move to a shelter in Newark,” said Marcus. “There were people in that room who said, ‘We have to do something about this.’ We raised money to open a safe house and begin the Rachel Coalition.”
In recent years, the JFS has also tackled some key issues concerning adolescents, notably bullying, substance abuse, and eating disorders.
“Our services evolved as the mental health field evolved,” said Rotman. “They are reflections of what went on in the broader world.”
The agency also administers the Hebrew Free Loan of New Jersey, which provides interest-free loans to local Jewish community members with economic needs.
One key transition came with the rise of managed care, popularized in the 1970s in a move to cut the cost of medical services. “Our staff needed to deliver quality care in a brief period, so people weren’t in therapy forever,” said Rotman.
And while some feared the rise of HMOs would compromise care, “good clinical practice has always reigned supreme in this agency,” he said. “If someone needs to be in treatment beyond what their managed care allows, we will continue to see them and make other arrangements.”
Anniversary celebrations will begin on Wednesday, Sept. 15, with “Past Forward,” an exhibit that will be on display for two months at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany. Linda Forgosh, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest NJ, is helping the agency put its celebration together.
A celebratory cocktail reception held at the exhibit on Wednesday, Oct. 6, will include memorabilia from JFS’ long and varied history.
The agency is also planning a gathering of past presidents in September; a community forum on May 4, 2011, featuring Judith Viorst, who writes about mental health and parenting issues; and a gala anniversary celebration on June 2.
“This is an agency that is proud of what it does and wants the community to understand every facet of its services,” said Forgosh.