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The one and only Yana Vishnitsky

Denver’s community will come out in force Dec. 10 to bid a celebratory farewell to Yana Vishnitsky, president and CEO of Jewish Family Service since 2000. She’s retiring from a 38-year career with JFS, which resettled her, her first husband and four-year-old son Vitaly after they emigrated from the USSR in 1978.

Only 27 at the time, Vishnitsky was physically free but professionally stuck. Her skills as an engineer and a patent attorney meant little. The Russia of her youth and early adulthood stifled confidence and dreams of the future. It forced Judaism to crouch behind closed doors. If anyone understands that an unscripted path can take us farther than we dare imagine, it is Yana Vishnitsky.

After arriving in Denver that February afternoon in 1978, she attended synagogue for the first time in her life. Yana chose Temple Emanuel, where Rabbi Steven Foster was leading services. His youthful attractiveness knocked her for a loop.

But Yana’s encounter with Joyce Foster that same night unlocked her professional window. It began with a brief introduction — “Hello, my name is Yana Vishnitsky” — and culminated in Joyce Foster’s exclamation, “You speak English!” The keys to our freedom can pop up in the most unexpected ways.

JFS broke precedent by hiring Vishnitsky, one of its clients, as an interpreter and a case manager for the influx of Russian immigrants. Her relationship with the Fosters has flourished through the years, and remains strong to this day.

A  supervisor recognized Vishnitsky’s talents and encouraged her to earn additional degrees to enlarge her professional purse. Upon receiving a BA in social work at CSU, she was promoted to director of JFS’ resettlement program.

Still, her innate drive for self-actualization persisted. She obtained an MA in social work at Smith College and completed post-graduate training in psychotherapy at the Denver Institute of Psychiatry.

For those who have seen Visnitsky in action, a recitation of her accomplishments is unnecessary. But here they are in short, amazing order:

  • She was appointed assistant executive director of JFS, 1999.
  • She was made president and CEO of JFS, 2000.
  • In 2000, the agency had a budget of $4.8 million and served nearly 8,000 clients.
  • By 2015, the budget soared to $14.4 million, and JFS helped at least 25,000 people annually.

In 2015, at age 69, Vishnitsky formally announced plans to retire. Cathy Grimm, JFS’ Senior Solutions Center director and close friend, died suddenly in 2015. Joyce Zeff, Vishnitsky’s guiding light, died that same year. The losses were unbearable.

Struggling with Parkinson’s disease for the last 10 years, Vishnitsky realized it was time to slow down and devote her energies to her health Life is precious.

Her husband James Wolfe, whom she married 24 years ago, will be a solid support during this transition period, as will family and countless friends. Clients will certainly miss Vishnitsky’s empathetic, tireless advocacy.

JFS will feel a keen absence — and the relationship is reciprocal. Vishnitsky has said that JFS helped her discover her own talent, something she never knew about herself.

“If I gained nothing else in the US, I always said, ‘Give me the opportunity to learn who I am,’”she told the IJN recently. “This is the greatest gift you can give a human being.” We say that Yana Vishnitsky is one of the greatest gifts a human being, or our community, could receive.

She plans to spend quality time with her husband, son and grandchildren; travel the world; enjoy the fruits of her labor and life. Yes, we will miss her. But she deserves every joyful moment that awaits her.

Copyright © 2016 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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