If we include its predecessors, Jewish Family Service of Colorado is the oldest Jewish community organization in Colorado. One would think that by now everyone knows what it does. But because much of what it does entails client confidentiality, there is a certain curtain. No doubt, this changed as JFS acquired its own headquarters, but because JFS still protects privacy, I sat down with its new CEO, Linda Foster, to explore JFS today.
Question: What does JFS do?
We help people in need, the most vulnerable. We give them the tools to help them out of whatever they’re struggling with. We see them as the whole person, ready to move on in life and be as successful as possible. Specifically, we help those struggling financially. We provide mental health counseling; help seniors stay in their homes; and give dignity to those who are disabled.
We help with social interactions, so people have a community, have friends. We help the aging population not to feel alone. Loneliness is a huge issue today, so we have a “friendly visitors” program. People go into someone else’s home, usually weekly, and have a social relationship, so they do not feel so lonely and isolated. We provide companionship, maybe helping them look through bills or go to lunch or do light housekeeping or shopping or run errands or light cooking or find a handy man.
JFS is an employment agency. We prevent people from becoming homeless; or, if they are homeless, we help them find housing and employment.
JFS is trying more and more to go where the people need us. We’re in about 14 schools, mostly DPS but also one Jewish day school and a couple of private schools, both elementary and high school. We do mental health counseling in the schools, helping the students and the teachers deal with the students. Also the parents.
We do intergenerational work. As volunteers, older adults go into high schools and mentor students. Altogether, we have over 1,211 volunteers who comes to JFS. We screen them.
All this falls into one of four major JFS programs:
• family safety net;
• mental health;
• senior solutions, including programs for over 80 Holocaust survivors;
• disabilities, which includes JFS Shalom Workshop.
Linda Foster says, “I’m still getting informed on what we do. Yesterday I learned that we still have an HIV program with four clients. All told, JFS has some 32 or 34 programs.”
Q: What makes JFS “Jewish”?
There had been a lot of talk about whether to remove the “Jewish” from our name. I wouldn’t be here if Jewish were not in the name. For the Jewish core values to guide us is critical. I didn’t think the staff would be so committed to them, but it looks forward to the dvar Torah at the staff and board meetings. “Jewish” is incredibly important. It’s part of everything we do.
We are guided by Jewish values: tikkun olam, taking responsibility for making the world a better place; tzelem el-him, image of G-d; tzedakah and gemilut chasadim. Our founder, Francis Wisebart Jacobs, started us out with a Jewish direction.
We work very similar to Catholic charities, but being guided by Jewish values makes us very different. We will refer someone to Catholic charities if we can’t help them.
After we address people’s specific need, we ask, what else is going on their lives.
Q: Does JFS have specific programs focused on the Jewish population?
• The Jewish Disability Advocates program integrates people into the Jewish community. We have partnerships with the congregations to have them welcome Jews with disabilities, and not just on a superficial level. At the Jewish festival in Boulder, we went around with our Jewish disability clients. We find people to do sign language at congregations.
• We partner with the JCC, JEWISHcolorado, Shalom Park and VOA to provide kosher meals three days a week at the JCC, and provide activities for the aging population who comes to these meals.
• We have a kosher meals on wheels program with VOA.
• We have the Jewish Group Home, even though not all the residents are Jewish.
• Rabbi Rick Brody from Philadelphia is now our part time community chaplain. He oversees the chaplaincy program and brings so much internally to JFS. At all our staff meetings he gives a dvar Torah.
Through our parachaplaincy, on all the holidays we’re in nursing homes and senior living facilities. We conduct Passover seders. We have so many volunteers. They are trained in Denver and in Boulder. All told, we have parachaplains at 250 events, such as Shabbat services.
• We support Holocaust survivors. There are more than people know, and they are impoverished. We help them to stay in their homes with homemaker services and mental health counseling.
Q: What percentage of the board of JFS is Jewish?
One hundred percent or close to it. We’re adding a couple of people who are not Jewish. There are 25 or 27 people on the board.
Q: What do you want to change at JFS?
I’m looking to strengthen what we’re doing, to make sure we are current, to make sure our programs meet needs in today’s world, and that they are doing it in the most effective way.
I want to put the emphasis on the Colorado piece — how can we support people in rural areas. There is a real lack of mental health counseling in rural areas. Can we do this virtually — telehealth? We’ve applied for a grant.
We work in Boulder, but not elsewhere in Colorado, not in Colorado Springs — yet.
In Boulder, we are expanding our work, mostly around the aging population with mental health counseling and some emergency services. Jewish Disability Advocates is also in Boulder.
We’re doing a lot of listening,
Our disability and employment areas have had to change dramatically because of the new minimum wage.
We’re now doing “integrated employment.” People with disabilities work in an integrated environment, alongside people without disabilities. Before, they were in a sheltered and segregated environment at Shalom Denver. And, we’re trying to integrate our own work environment at JFS.
We are looking into other areas: providing legal services to immigrants, to refugees. The waiting list is huge. We’re looking to get funding for this. We’ve approached Rose Community Foundation. We hope for some foundation funding, some individual philanthropists, state and city funding. We see a need. We have a lawyer who would be interested in heading this pro bono.
Q: What’s the bottom line?
We are mission-driven. I need to work somewhere where we make a difference. I need a mission.
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