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Maxine Stein leads JFS of Western Mass. with strong Jewish voice

By Stacey Dresner

SPRINGFIELD – Maxine Stein says she was raised to be the “Jewish voice” in whatever she does.

And that is exactly what she is doing now as executive director of Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts.

Stein succeeds Robert Marmor, who led JFS for 14 years. He is now working at HIAS in their new Washington, D.C. office.

When Stein spoke to the Jewish Ledger, she was in just her seventh week as director of JFS, the mission of which is to “provide exceptional social services, grounded in Jewish values, to support and empower individuals and families from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds.”

“I have always known about JFS, I have always admired their work and what Bob Marmor built here. I was just drawn to it,” Stein said. “The two pieces of the program I found most exciting was the work with elders…and of course our New American program, which ironically is even more timely than ever.”

JFS has settled 16 Syrian refugees this year, and as per the agency’s mission to protect people fleeing from war and persecution, JFS will heed the call if and when HIAS sends more.

“In some ways it is business as usual,” Stein said. “JFS has no control over who is coming. We are given numbers and names and countries by HIAS, who gets them from Homeland Security. We find out from HIAS when we will be getting people, who we will be getting, how many are in a family and what country they are coming from.

“The numbers have gotten to beyond crisis proportions. I think we are dealing with the largest refugee crisis since World War II and Syria’s is the largest. But it is not a new crisis in Syria. This has been going on for five years in Syria and there has been very little attention given to it until now. We have been aware of this; we are aware of every crisis around the world and we are taking in those people and working with those people.”

Instilling Jewish Values

Born and raised in Pittsfield, Stein is the daughter of Arthur Stein and the late Sylvia Stein, longtime members of Congregation Knesset Israel. She credits her parents, who were community activitists instrumental in aiding the initial waves of Jewish Russian refugees who came to the Berkshires for instilling Jewish values in their children.

“I grew up in a household that was very steeped in Jewish values, particularly tikkun olam,” she said. “My parents were very active Jews in their synagogue and in the community and also in non-Jewish affairs as well. They were just community activists…They taught my sisters and I the importance of giving back and being a part of the community, and also being the Jewish voice in all that we do.”

After attending Bennington College, Stein headed to Washington University in St. Louis to get her MSW.

“I’ve always been drawn to the work of helping others…But my real focus, as I realized was in a more macro level of social service, I felt like that was where what I had to offer would be most helpful.”

Her first foray into the world of non-profits was in hospice — in her graduate school work she did a lot of work focusing on death and dying.

“I was very fortunate to get a job very early on in the hospice movement at a very grassroots time in this country when people didn’t even know what hospice was, you kind of had to explain it to them.”

Stein says over the years she honed her skills in non-profit administration, board development and fundraising working mostly for national organizations, living in the Midwest, Florida and Israel over the years.

She moved back to the Pioneer Valley in 2004 because of “family and missing New England,” she says. Once back, she began working for “Stop it Now,” a national child sexual abuse prevention program as executive director. She also served as development director at the Yiddish Book Center. She is married to Dr. Henry Simkin, a family practitioner and mohel in Florence. Between them they have five children.

In 2013, she returned to her hospice roots, working as executive director for the Fisher Home in Amherst.

But this summer she was approached by Jewish Family Service when Marmor left.

“She brings to JFS extensive experience in executive and organizational management, team leadership, networking and outreach, marketing, and fundraising,” said Daniel Plotkin, chair of the JFS board. “Her personal value of tikkun olam and volunteerism in her own community reflect a passion for social justice, collaboration and cooperation in partnership with others. Maxine is a skilled administrator who will engender trust, confidence and motivation among everyone connected to the JFS community.”

Stein said her goals for JFS include increasing awareness of the agency’s work with the elderly.

“I think that in terms of our elder services we would like to do more outreach. It would be phenomenal for us to be able to get into Holyoke and the upper valley with our services. We currently run a great caregiver support group [out of] the Northampton Senior Center and we will be expanding programming for elders in the upper valley and are very excited about that. We are in the process of trying to determine which services would be most useful to, specifically the Jewish community in the upper valley.”

Also of the utmost importance is JFS’ refugee resettlement program.

“Refugee resettlement is something we have been doing forever…What we do on this end is rather remarkable,” she said. “We have a multi-cultural staff … they speak the language and they are often refugees who have succeeded themselves. The whole success behind the program is the cultural sensitivity and the matching up of our case workers with the families coming in, so that the refugees have someone who understands them, can appreciate where they are coming from, appreciate the trauma that they are going through, and can help them to begin the very long and challenging acculturation process.”

Why does JFS continue this work?

“I think it goes back to our own value system as Jews,” Stein explained. “HIAS has been doing this since 1881 and they were formed to protect refugees because we had been rescued as Jews and we need to help others be rescued because we know what it is like. We have experienced it. We are the Jewish community voice in refugee resettlement and I think that is really important. I feel that any funding we get from the Jewish community is key because they are empowering and helping us to be that Jewish voice. Tikkum olam is really what it is all about.”

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