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JFS at 140

Starting in 1972 as the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society, this organization evolved into the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Denver, then into its current identity as Jewish Family Service of Colorado, affectionately nicknamed “JFS.”

Just as members of a family have nicknames for each other, JFS is a member of the Jewish community’s family — the caring, nurturing matriarch. Just like the ever watchful mother, from the very beginning JFS has provided for the physical and emotional needs of people in the greater family of the Jewish community — as well as those of “the neighbors,” outside the Jewish community.

As the world has changed and more complex problems have arisen, JFS has continually reinvented itself to address those needs. From meeting the social service needs of Denver’s 300 Jewish pioneers to becoming a modern social service agency in the 1940s, JFS has offered coal, counseling, food, financial assistance, mental health therapy, resettlement from a foreign land, vocational training and placement, senior services and more. No agency can be all things to all people, but JFS comes pretty close.

Read Chris Leppek’s interview with JFS CEO Yana Vishnitsky

One hundred forty is an impressive anniversary for any organization. Indeed, Jewish Family Service of Colorado has been serving human needs almost as long as there have been Jews in this state. It is certainly one of the oldest social service organizations in Colorado.

This anniversary provides an opportunity to look back with gratitude to the agency’s leaders through the decades, beginning with one of its founders, the legendary Frances Wisebart Jacobs (1943-1892), known across the nation as the Mother of Charities. Her involvement with the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society led her to found the national United Way, right here in Denver.

In 1892, she went out on a rainy night to deliver medicine to a sick child, caught pneumonia and died. At Temple Emanuel, 4,000 people attended her funeral.

Harry M. Harris personally delivered coal to poor families in the 1920s to enable them to heat their houses.

Fast forward to the years just after World War II, when the influx of Holocaust refugees and the need to find parents for orphaned children brought Dr. Alfred M. Neumann to the helm of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Denver. With professionalism and determination, Dr. Neumann modernized the agency. He worked to help these strangers in a strange land adjust to their new lives while coping with the horrors of their previous lives.  At the same time, he was mindful of the task of serving native Denver.

Dr. Neumann’s 30-year tenure was succeeded by Jerry Grossfeld, who kept the faith. His compassionate leadership resulted in such community assets as the Jewish Group Home for developmentally disabled adults and an expansion of the SHALOM Denver workshop for vocational training.

JFS current professional leader, President and CEO Yana Vishnitsky, was once a client of the agency as a young mother, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union.  Vishnitsky joined the JFS staff as a liaison to the Russian-speaking clients who were helped by JFS in the 1980s and ‘90s, and ultimately achieved the top position.

Under Vishnitsky’s leadership, JFS assumed responsibility and increased the scope of the Food Pantry — and none too soon with the financial hardship experienced by many during the post-2008 economic downturn. She also led JFS to its new headquarters in its own free-standing building in southeast Denver, thanks to Joyce and the late Kal Zeff.

It is interesting to note that both Alfred Neumann and Yana Vishnitsky were immigrants to this great country, and were destined to impact not only the lives of other immigrants but the lives of American-born clients as well

JFS brings both comfort and pride to the Jewish community. Comfort because it serves as a safety net for the most vulnerable — and sometimes unsuspecting — members of the community. Pride because because JFS goes beyond the Jewish community to help all in need, regardless of religious or ethnic background.

The compassionate work of JFS reflects well on the Jewish community. JFS serves to remind ourselves and others of the compassionate nature of Judaism, rooted in the precepts of the Torah and teachings of the Sages.

Indeed, we are proud of JFS, past and present, and we look forward to the good work this remarkable agency is bound to do in the future. For better or worse, JFS and its mission will never become obsolete. If it does, we will undoubtedly know that the Messiah has arrived. In the meantime, we salute JFS and its current stewards. You are most definitely appreciated.

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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