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Jewish Family and Children’s Service Takes Over Worcester JFS

By Laura Porter

On October 1, Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Boston will formally take over Jewish Family Service of Worcester, the result of a lengthy period of collaborative discussion and hard work.

JFS will become an affiliate of JF & CS, and the 150-year-old organization based in Waltham will maintain all of JFS’s current programs as well as its “direct-care staffing,” says Alan Jacobson, Senior Vice President of Programs at JF & CS. “JFS provides very high quality services in what they do.”

Debra Shrier, who currently serves as JF & CS’s director of Community and Program Development in Central Massachusetts, will continue to handle all activities in the area after October 1. As an affiliate, the Worcester organization will no longer have a separate governing board, but will instead have representation on the JF and CS board, as does its affiliate on the North Shore.

Kathy Burnes, chair of this past year’s interim JFS board of directors, says, “We’re very excited about it. We’re just waiting for all the pieces to come together so it can be official and we can continue with what we’ve been doing.”

Like many of the current changes in the landscape of the Jewish community in Worcester and across the country, the shift comes about as the result of financial difficulties. Demographic realities as well as the ongoing recession have brought about the need for consolidation in many arenas in the Jewish as well as the non-profit arena.

In the case of JFS Worcester, by all accounts the agency was on the verge of closing its doors when it approached JF & CS, among several organizations. While it had been able to maintain the solid caliber of its services, it had suffered in terms of its fundraising as well as its integration with the rest of the community.

Notes Howard Borer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts, “We had been concerned that JFS had distanced itself from the Jewish community and had been less attuned to the needs of the community. They had lost a lot of support and there was no longer a good partnership.”

From the outset, the new venture was a good match.

Notes Jacobson: “There was a very clear synergy in terms of mission, programming and values” between the two organizations, both members of the national umbrella, the Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies (AJFCA).

To that end, the evolving collaboration has been about building on rather than supplanting existing programming. Shrier praises the “skilled, dedicated and wonderful” staff at JFS. In particular, she emphasizes the Worcester agency’s key programs:  the guardianship and conservatorship program for seniors; child and family counseling; family mediation and Children Cope with Divorce, both programs of the Probate and Family Court; the school-based consultation program, currently working with the Woodland Street and Goddard Schools in Worcester; and The Club, a monthly social program for Jewish adults with disabilities.

In recent months, JF & CS staff, especially Shrier and Jacobson, have been getting to know the Worcester community in order to identify gaps in services that JF & CS might step in to fill. In its 35 programs, the Greater Boston agency focuses primarily on people with disabilities, children, seniors, and newborns at risk, Jewish as well as in the general population.

“We are doing our due diligence with congregations, nonprofits, and Jewish programs in the [Worcester] area to identify needs” in those four areas, says Jacobson. “We have met with just about every local leader and COO’s of nonprofits. We have taken them our list of programs and asked them what Central Mass. would most benefit from.  We don’t want to step on any toes – we just want to bring in something necessary.”

At this point, it is clear that disability services will be part of new programming for Worcester, but discussions continue about details as well as further service areas.

The Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts has helped to finance the needs study with a grant of $7500 to JF & CS for the current fiscal year. Indeed, says Jacobson, “Federation’s investment in JFS and its services showed our board Federation’s willingness to be an involved partner.”

That commitment underlines a critical element in the way JF & CS operates: by emphasizing relationships. It has worked closely with Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) as well as the Jewish Federation of the North Shore before their merger last summer.

In Worcester, too, “We want to develop partnerships and collaborations in the area,” not only with Jewish organizations but “with human service agencies as well,” says Rimma Zelfand, the chief executive officer of JF & CS. “There is strength in numbers.”

Services, of course, are dependent upon financing, and fundraising at a local level will provide the backbone of the support that JF & CS Worcester can offer the community. Zelfand describes the JF & CS philosophy as “’locally raised money spent locally.’ 90% of donors would insist that money given would be spent locally,” she says.

It may be possible to begin smaller, relatively less expensive, programming in Central Massachusetts sooner rather than later, but significant additions will need to wait for funds to be raised.

In the meantime, Howard Borer calls JF & CS “a great partner” and looks forward to progress in the months ahead. “We’ll continue to work closely with them,” he says. “It’s very important for the community.”

Jacobson and Shrier both express excitement about the new collaboration.

“We share the same mission and the same goal: to provide the best services to people in need,” says Shrier. “It is a very obvious fit for us to be in Worcester and in Central Massachusetts.”

Laura Porter is a freelance writer in Worcester.

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