A few summers at day camp changed Alan Siskind’s life.
Siskind, who retired in the fall as executive vice president of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services after 16 years in that position and 33 years at the agency says his days as a counselor at the Mount Vernon Y’s summer camp, influenced him to become a social worker.
At the camp he observed the directors, all trained in social work.
“They were smart. They were good teachers,” he says.
Nearly 50 years later, sitting in his new, small office, where he continues to work several days a week as an adviser to JBFCS, Siskind, 65, who grew up in Yonkers, tells the story of one 10-year-old camper and one camp director.
The kid was screaming. He was “out of control.” He had beaten up another child. The director, a woman, tightly held the boy and calmly told him, “Johnny [Siskind doesn’t remember the actual name], you very much want me to let you go. As soon as you can behave, I will let you go.”
“I watched the youngster calm down,” Siskind says. “That inspired me. It was emblematic of what I appreciated.”
He was 17 then. At 20, “I knew.”
After studying at Boston University, Columbia University and Smith College, pursuing post-graduate work in community psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, and running a mental health clinic in the army for three years, he joined the Jewish Board of Guardians — which merged with Jewish Family Service in 1978 into JBFCS, one of the largest family and mental health clinics in the nation. He was assistant director of the Linden Hill School, a residential center for adolescents.
“I never came to the Jewish Board to stay,” Siskind says. “I never came to become the executive director.”
Through the years he assumed more managerial responsibilities; in 1985 he was appointed the now-merged agency’s assistant executive vice president.
As executive vice president beginning in 1991, he oversaw a growth in JBFCS’s budget, endowment, staff and number of sites.
By increasing the percentage of the agency’s income raised through philanthropic contributions, he has reduced the part of the budget received from UJA-Federation from 18 percent to about 4 percent.
During his tenure heading the agency, Siskind established coalitions with a variety of social service agencies, spearheaded JBFCS’ involvement in AIDS and domestic violence issues, and helped coordinate a hot-line and walk-in clinic after 9/11.
“He leaves an enduring legacy,” UJA-Federation CEO John Ruskay wrote in a recent edition of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service. “Under Alan’s leadership, JBFCS developed a richly deserved reputation as both a high-quality professional training institution and a model of innovation, compassion and collaboration across the fields of human service.
“At least one reason for that continued success is clear,” Ruskay wrote. “Alan led by mentoring.”
One of the people he mentored, Paul Levine, who has served at JBFCS for 24 years, became the new executive vice president in October, after a four-year “gestation period.”
“The transition went very smoothly,” says Levine, 62, who has established both a new project to foster program development and an entrepreneurial spirit.
Under Siskind, several social service programs with a focus on the Jewish community, including JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others), the New York Jewish Healing Center and the Rabbi Isaac N. Trainin Bikur Cholim Coordinating Council joined JBFCS’s Jewish Connections Program.
“He always kept his eye on our obligations to the Jewish community,” Levine says.
To honor Siskind, the agency will hold a biennial training symposium named for him.
In addition to his advisory role at JBFCS and at other social service agencies, Siskind is working at his private practice.
“I’m not really retired,” he says. “I like continuing to make a difference in people’s lives.”
His wife Marla, also a social worker, is retiring this year as well.
Why did Siskind, still healthy, decide to leave his fulltime position?
“I thought it was a good time to step down,” he says. “I still felt vigorous and had a lot of energy. The agency is in good shape.”
“He was plenty stubborn, sticking to the things he felt the organization had to stand for,” says Paul Levine, his successor.
Their friendship is 43 years old. They met at the Mount Vernon’s Y’s summer camp, where Siskind was a unit director and Levine was a counselor.