Adapting As Needs Change

Adapting As Needs Change

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series connected to the 90th anniversary of UJA-Federation of New York. The first part, concerning the federation’s history, appeared last week.

The help that Irina Dubrovskaya receives from the Hebrew Free Loan Society, one of the 24 charter agencies that launched what is now UJA-Federation, is similar to much of the aid the federation funded through the society in its early years.

Like many of the pushcart peddlers, merchants and tradesmen on the Lower East Side, Dubrovskaya is a recent immigrant, having arrived in New York six years ago. She runs a small business, a day care center in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Her $25,000, interest-free loan is much larger than the loans of the early 1900s — those ranged from $5 to $25 — and the agency’s rules governing the process are much stricter, reflecting a more complicated world. But the object is still the same: to give Jewish newcomers to this country a hand up as they try to establish themselves and build a better life.

Dubrovskaya, 44 and married, has used the loan to establish working capital and to make improvements to the center, which she runs out of her home. A native of Ukraine, she cares for 12 children at the center, the Happy Planet, and hopes one day to expand.

Her story, with its parallels to the aid given to an earlier generation of immigrants, may seem fitting as UJA-Federation celebrates its 90th anniversary. The celebration kicked off last month with the William Rosenwald Mission, a five-day journey to Israel named for a founder of the United Jewish Appeal. Upcoming events will include a full day of activities on Wednesday, May 30, rededicating the federation’s building at East 59th Street, and a June 19 dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria.

But Dubrovskaya’s story also illustrates at least one way in which UJA-Federation and its network of local, national and international agencies work together. That network has grown from 24 charter agencies in 1917 to more than 100 today — and one outcome, to borrow a favorite word of federation and agency leaders, is the “synergy” that takes place among members of the system.

Dubrovskaya, for instance, approached the Hebrew Free Loan Society after learning of the agency from the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations, which, though not an agency of UJA-Federation, is funded by the umbrella group.

She applied for the loan through HFLS’ Microenterprise Loan Program, a new venture that helps its clients — primarily Russian-speaking Jews in South Brooklyn — create or expand small businesses. But before her loan could be approved, Dubrovskaya, like other recipients, had to be screened. The process is partly staffed by another federation agency, the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst, which determines how serious or committed applicants are. JCH also runs a seven-week business course, in Russian, that recipients must attend as a condition for receiving their loan.

HFLS is a small, Manhattan-based organization with only nine full-time staff members, making it tough to effectively serve its client base without connecting to other agencies, said Shana Novick, the society’s executive director. To remedy that, she said, “We leverage our staff through partnerships with a multiplicity of agencies, some of them affiliated with UJA-Federation.”

Those collaborations often take part with UJA-Federation’s direct assistance, said Louise B. Greilsheimer, the organization’s vice president for agency and external relations, who’s responsible, in part, for strengthening the agency system. Among the network’s local members are nursing homes, Jewish community centers, campus Hillels and summer camps, in addition to human-service agencies and such institutions as the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Board of Jewish Education. The network also extends to Westchester and Long Island, where the federation has a number of agencies, and assists Jews overseas through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), the two largest recipients of federation funds. Greilsheimer pointed out that the federation has established affinity groups for agency officials in various fields, such as public relations, fundraising and human resources, in which they share information and pool resources. The federation also brings together the CEOs of all its local agencies four times a year and conducts a Board Leadership University, which trains volunteers to serve on agency boards.

On a more basic level, UJA-Federation offers the members of its network “serious planning, research and guidance,” furthering their impact, said Greilsheimer. “We feel it’s important not only for the agencies to do things on their own, but for all of us to do things together.”

The planning, research and guidance have also enabled members of the network to evolve as the community’s needs change.

Sea Change For AgenciesOne example is FEGS, one of the three local agencies created by UJA-Federation. Established in 1934 as the Federation Employment Service (FES), the new agency saw its mission as fighting discrimination in the workplace and locating jobs for Jews — both needs cited in a study submitted to the federation by Jack Nadel, the 92nd Street Y’s top executive at the time. In later incarnations, as the new agency broadened its services, FES became the Federation Employment and Guidance Service and, later, the FEGS Health and Human Services System, its current name.

The FEGS that exists today, one of the nation’s largest human service agencies, is a far different entity than the one born 73 years ago or even the one that existed five years ago, said Alfred “Al” Miller, the agency’s CEO. Miller, who plans to retire from FEGS at the end of this month, added that the network itself has evolved as the federation helped create new agencies, encouraged the merger of others and, at times, even disaffiliated those organizations it felt were no longer serving a purpose. “The only constant [about the UJA-Federation network] is change.”

Today’s network of agencies includes 13 organizations that either signed the federation’s original charter or are directly related to those that did. In addition to HFLS, they include the 92nd Street Y, the Educational Alliance and the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services (JBFCS), whose top executives recently discussed the work of their agencies with the Jewish Week.

Even an organization as venerable as the 92nd Street Y, established by German Jews in 1874, has undergone a sea of change as times change and, with it, the needs of the community, said Sol Adler, the Y’s executive director.

Created, in part, to acculturate new Jewish arrivals from Eastern Europe, the Y was originally located in Lower Manhattan and moved uptown in 1900 to give the young Jewish men it served “more breathing room,” Adler said. Jewish programming remains as strong as it has ever been, he added, but it has always taken “the form and shape of the day,” influenced by the era’s Jewish community.

The most vivid example of change at the Y today, in this era of Podcasts and blogs, is the institution’s effort to move beyond its physical space, Adler said — an effort that matches the Y’s current vision statement, calling for the agency to become the model Jewish cultural center of the 21st century. The Y continues to sponsor many programs that are local in nature, like its famed nursery school and its senior citizens center, but it has also created programs like “Live from New York’s 92nd Street Y,” a satellite broadcast of concerts and talks at the Y. The program’s 110 clients include universities, JCCs, synagogues and even secular institutions.

Meanwhile, in response to discussions at UJA-Federation, the Y has extended its outreach to the Russian-speaking community, creating Russian Sundays, a series of programs throughout the year with music, lectures and Russian food.

The Educational Alliance is the largest Jewish communal service agency in Lower Manhattan, serving 40,000 people each year at 25 locations, said Robin Bernstein, its president and CEO. Originally a settlement house for Eastern European Jews, the agency now offers educational, cultural and recreational programs, in addition to care for children and the elderly, parenting workshops, drug abuse treatment and mental-health treatment.

JBFCS, a descendant of one of the federation’s charter agencies, took on its current name and form in 1978, following a merger between the Jewish Board of Guardians and the Jewish Family Service. Alan B. Siskind, executive vice president of JBFCS, recently recalled that UJA-Federation encouraged the merger because of the efficiencies in uniting two agencies that both offered emotional counseling to families and children.

Looking at how his agency has grown since then, Siskind said much of the impetus has come from UJA-Federation asking JBFCS to address unmet needs. Two examples, he said, would include Mishkon, a residential program in Brooklyn serving developmentally disabled individuals from the Orthodox community, and the Shira Ruskay Center, which offers emotional and spiritual counseling to seriously ill Jews and their families.

The three agencies that UJA-Federation has helped create since 1917 include FEGS, the Jewish Association of Services for the Aged (JASA), established in 1968; and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, launched in 1972.

The federation established JASA in response to the growing number of older New Yorkers and the creation of new federal programs for the elderly, said Aileen Gitelson, the agency’s CEO. “The great thing the federation brought to JASA was a fantastic and committed board,” Gitelson said, adding that the agency’s budget has since grown from $300,000 to $100 million. JASA now offers services in three areas: social services, housing and home care.

Met Council was launched after Jewish activists from across the city, including the outer boroughs, approached the federation in anger, believing that the Jewish poor were excluded from the federal government’s war on poverty and the city’s programs, William Rapfogel, its CEO, recalled. To its credit, he continued, the federation created an agency that now provides an array of services, including crisis intervention, initial counseling and referrals to other agencies. Met Council also works with the near poor, giving them monthly packages of food, and maintains close contact with the 25 Jewish community councils that belong to the agency.

The global work funded by UJA-Federation includes efforts to nurture the Jewish community in the former Soviet Union, where the Joint Distribution Committee, an international agency founded a few years before the federation, supports family camping programs, meals for the elderly, Jewish educational programming and other activities. It also includes support for Israelis, such as aid to the residents of Sderot, the city near Gaza now being bombarded by rocket attacks; Birth to Bagrut, an initiative to help Ethiopian Jews in Rehovot acculturate and thrive; and funding for the Israel Trauma Coalition, which helps families and children affected by war and terrorism. Many of the activities are carried out in partnership with the JDC or JAFI or both.

Meanwhile, local members of the network are now providing counseling services in synagogues and JCCs as part of a new federation initiative, Partners in Caring, an effort to reach members of the community where they gather, said John Ruskay, CEO of UJA-Federation.

The interaction between UJA-Federation and its agencies varies, said Greilsheimer, a past federation president, with new ideas coming from either end. “There’s no one table where people say, ‘This is a great idea — let’s do it!” she added. “We’re too big for that, and the issues are too intricate.” Similarly, Miller called the process “a combination of discussion and thinking and working together. It’s not a staid, fixed thing; it’s a flexible, evolutionary system.”

What is clear, though, is that UJA-Federation and its network of agencies share the same vision for strengthening the Jewish community and helping those members who are struggling, Greilsheimer said. “We’re moving the system to become more inspiring and more caring.”

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