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Vishnitsky celebrates JFS’ past and looks to its future

JFS CEO Yana VishnitskyNOT long ago, supporters of Jewish Family Service toyed with the idea of changing the name of the venerable Denver agency, founded in 1872 with the help of legendary Denver philanthropist Frances Wisebart Jacobs, and originally named the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society.

Was the “Jewish” in the name too parochial? Was it too narrow in defining the agency’s extensive work in the general and Jewish communities? Would it discourage non-Jews and foundations from supporting its work?

As it turned out, the name-change idea didn’t go over very well.

Opponents of the change — most notably, JFS’ president and CEO, Yana Vishnitsky — negated the idea.

Like National Jewish Health, Vishnitsky told the Intermountain Jewish News in a recent interview, JFS should always be associated with the Jewish community, whether that goes over well with the general community or not.

And like NJH, she feels that JFS was wise to emphasize, rather than downplay, its essential Jewish component.

“I’m a strong believer that we already have a brand,” Vishnitsky says. “We are very deeply rooted in Jewish values and in the community.

“I mean, how many agencies do you know that have been around for 140 years? For us to change the name, to become a generic agency, would lose its attraction.”

While it might be considered traditional to want to proudly keep the name of an organization like JFS, Vishnitsky’s vision for the agency is anything but hidebound. To listen to her discuss the agency she has managed since 2000 is to hear a professional voice that is openly progressive and anticipatory of the future.

It’s hard to dissociate that attitude from Vishnitsky’s personal background.

Read the related IJN editorial “JFS at 140”

She immigrated from her native USSR to the US in 1978. Then 30 years old, married and with a small son, she had already worked in Russia as a patent attorney and engineer.

Already fluent in English, she wasted little time establishing herself in her newly adopted hometown of Denver. Within months of her immigration, she was working at the Jewish Family & Children’s Services, as it was then known, starting out as an interpreter, then working her way up as a case manager and director of resettlement services.

Along the way, she re-educated herself, earning an undergraduate degree at CSU and a Master of Social Work from Smith College, specializing in mental health issues.

Vishnitsky is an eloquent and elegant speaker, methodical and clear in her thinking, and obviously passionate when it comes to discussing the organization she leads.

As the JFS celebrates its 140th anniversary, she readily agreed to the IJN’s request to discuss the long history of the JFS — where’s it’s been, where it is today, and where it’s likely to go in the future.

IJN: If the ghost of Frances Wisebart Jacobs were sitting here today, what do you think you would say to her?

Vishnitsky: What I would say to her is that we have fulfilled her dream; that we have been able to address not only the current needs but also to change according to the future needs, and to grow with the community together.

She would be very, very proud that her efforts would not have been in vain.

She would be proud that the Jewish community has stood up and taken care of their own, and not only their own but also that they show that Jewish values go way beyond the Jewish community.

Today, according to the ad that you ran recently in the IJN, Jewish Family Service serves 21,000 people. Who are those people and, in a general sense, what do they need?

They are the members of our community, rich or poor, Jewish or non-Jewish. I very strongly believe that all of us, at one point in our lives, have a need — not to be needy but to have a need. And we respond to the needy and the people who have needs.

We are, as I call us, the 911 for the Jewish community.

We have four major area of service. People come to us when they need mental health counseling. People come to us when they have aging parents. Parents come to us when they have acting-out adolescents. People come to us when they have kids with special needs or adults with special needs.

And we’re a safety net for the community. We feed people. We pay rent for people. We change lives. We empower people to be self-sufficient and to lead healthy and productive lives.

The “needy” and “people with needs” is an interesting distinction.

I have always believed very strongly that because of our very strong expertise in our core competencies, which are mental health, geriatric care, disability and safety net — we can appeal to the broader community, including people who have the means to pay but they don’t know where to turn.

If you have not dealt with an aging parent or relative, there are thousands of choices that this community presents and you won’t know which is a good choice.

“We are experts in geriatric care. We know what to recommend in terms of nursing care, assisted living facilities, home health and in general how to deal with your parents or loved ones who are aging and help them to live safely in their homes.

Or people who need counseling. I think the statistical data shows that one in five Coloradans have some kind of mental disorder, either depression or anxiety or marital problems or problems with a teenager or drug addiction.

We have a sliding scale for people who can’t afford to pay for full service. We also provide support care. We will deliver care to a person, the same quality that they can buy for full fee.

That’s why I say we all can be in need. I have an aging father. I go to my geriatric specialist to say, where do I turn to get a wheelchair, to get the best home care for my dad?

That’s “in need” versus “needy.” People who are in need aren’t necessarily needy, but there is a labyrinth of resources, and they don’t know how to access that. We do.

It is confusing and intimidating. It is intimidating for people who have the means. Can you imagine how a person who doesn’t have the means feels? Helpless, hopeless, lost, overwhelmed, burdened.

So we are there to relieve people’s burdens, to make life easier, to make life more accessible. That’s my strong passion and belief. I have been here for 34 years, from doing casework and working with people who don’t speak the language, people who do speak the language, people who can’t pay, people who can pay.

It has been a life-changing experience, for me and for those who need the service.

In 2008 the economy basically tanked in this country. What has been the impact of that recession on the number of people who have needed help and your ability, financially, to meet those needs?

We have seen the wave of the recession hit every area of our service.

Elderly weren’t able to pay co-pays. Their savings, their pensions dwindled.

People lost jobs. They couldn’t pay for mental health.

Families got stressed out by unemployment. Marriages were under stress.

Children were feeling burdened with their parents’ unhappiness.

The unemployed, the hungry, people who had to make choices whether to put food on the table or to pay rent, co-pays for medication, insurance, the uninsured.

There were a lot of ripple effects. It was overwhelming.

But I have to tell you. I have been incredibly struck by the generosity of our community. The community responded in a beautiful, generous, compassionate way.

We have been able to do well. We have been able to meet the growing needs.

It’s always a struggle. I can’t tell you that we can meet everybody’s needs. We had been able at one point to feed 2,300 people a month through the food bank. That became a burden that we couldn’t handle because of the space and the financial burden.

And we wanted to make a bigger impact. We didn’t want to just give out food. We wanted to make a greater impact on the well-being of the family.

So, yes, it affected us in a major way. Yes, the needs have grown. But also the donations have not dwindled. Some of it has grown, some of it has been diminished, but overall we did okay.

SHALOM Denver provides work for the disabled, and a competitive service for business owners.Have you maintained your staff or have you had to let people go these last four years?




We haven’t had to let our staff go. When a grant is over, here and there we have to make changes, but it was not driven by the economy.

What we have done is reduce the salaries for a year and stopped the contributions to 401-K. Then we were able to resume it the next year.

So it was an impact but we didn’t have to close the program, we didn’t have to shrink the program. We understood that the need is there, and greater.

And our staff is phenomenal. They love what they do. And you know that social service employees aren’t compensated very highly. They do it because that’s what they perceive as their mission in life. It’s what they love to do.

Do you feel that your revenue is adequate for the needs or is there still a gap?

There is always a gap. Federal and state funding is shrinking. It is constantly a struggle. We need to be creative, extremely efficient, extremely effective. We need to check our productivity in general, all the time to be on our toes, to be ready.

Overall, I feel that in terms of dollars raised by the community, we’ve had a slow increase. We didn’t have a decrease. The federal and state funding and the foundations are more fickle than the commitment of our donors.

And subject to political forces, of course. We are living with a lot of unknowns. We really don’t know what to expect. We’re kind of preparing for the worst. The Medicaid is down and some of our services are Medicaid-dependent.

What needs that are unmet would you like to start to work on, ideally?

I would like to be able to provide more home-based support services for the seniors who can’t afford to pay. This is a need that will only grow with the baby-boomers getting older. The number of elderly people will exponentially increase.

I would like to provide more mental health services, to be more helpful to the schools than we are right now.

I would like to provide more comprehensive help to people who are on the brink of homelessness and to be able to follow them a little longer than I’m able to do right now.

It is one thing to pay rent and provide food for one or two months, but it would be helpful to see what happens to people within a year or two. Are they able to maintain self-sufficiency?

Everybody is moving toward that model and we have started moving toward that model, but it requires resources – long-term contacts, long-term oversight, long-term connection — and that is not always possible.

And Denver just changed its laws concerning homelessness. I’m assuming that might mean a little more work for you, too.

Well, we don’t deal directly with homelessness because we don’t have the shelters. We deal with prevention. We try to do whatever it takes to prevent people from becoming homeless.

We have fought for that recognition with the city for a long time. Finally they’ve recognized that it’s significantly cheaper to prevent homelessness than to eliminate homelessness.

JFS has always done a lot of work for the non-Jewish community. Has that been true from the beginning? How did that evolve?

I don’t know about Frances [Wisebart’s] philosophy. I know that Jewish values teach us certain things that will be spread to any community. It is about everybody. I know, because I’ve been here for 34 years, that when I started we served just the Jewish community. Our funding was just Allied Jewish Federation and we knew that the Jewish community was growing and we needed to diversify the funding.

One of the biggest pushes at that time was diversification of funding. The more we diversified the funding the more were the requirements for us to open to the non-Jewish community.

But I have to tell you, I am a strong believer in two things. One, our focus has always been and will always remain on the Jewish community. We try very hard to do whatever we can to meet the needs of the Jewish community.

My second belief is that we have leveraged our resources. We have been able to take care of a lot of Jewish clients with non-Jewish money, with foundation or corporation money. Our individual donors are primarily Jewish.

You mentioned that one in five people needs some kind of psychological or emotional counseling. Is that as true in the Jewish community as the non-Jewish community?

I would think so. We are no exceptions in any area of service. Our numbers are fewer but there are the same needs as in the non-Jewish community.

So the belief in the Jewish community that “we don’t have alcoholics or people with depression or people who are homeless or poor or disabled . . . ”

It is a total myth. We have seen it all — Jewish people who are homeless, Jewish people who have beaten their wives, Jewish youth who take drugs, Jewish families that are destroyed. We have seen it all. We’re not immune to any problems that the general community has.

Does it worry you at all that the Jewish community seems to be leaning more heavily on JFS? The example that comes to mind is the JCC senior lunches program, which recently was put under your purview.

It doesn’t worry me. I want to do the best for the community, as long as it is congruent with my mission. I’d like us to be known as the service providers . . . so I’m not scared. I’m proud we can help. I perceive it as a compliment.

Looking ahead, where do you think this organization is going? What sort of needs are you anticipating in the future and what will be your ability to meet those needs?

It’s a very appropriate question right now because we just completed a three-year strategic plan. Of course, we need to assure that there is always financial stability. That is attracting more donors, maybe through outreach to the non-Jewish community.

And to let the community know who we are. Believe it or not, we still remain a big secret in town. People misperceive us. They think we serve just the Jewish community or that we are a religious agency. A lot of people don’t know us. There is still a great deal of work to do in the community for marketing, for delivering the message that we are here to help and to change lives.

One of the areas of growth that we have identified will be senior services, because of the boomers. The numbers are incredibly high. That’s why the JFS at the JCC is congruent with our mission.

We are trying to package our mental health services for schools and to really identify the niches. We want to become the concierge service for mental health services.

“We need to market our expertise to the general community. We want people to understand the difference between need, in-need and needy.

Some will come and pay for services and that will enable us to subsidize people who are not able to pay.

That is our vision — to stay the course, to grow a couple of areas and some areas will be dependent strictly upon the funding that will come.

How optimistic are you about that?

I have a strong faith in the community, in its generosity and compassion, and I very passionately believe in our mission. I have seen lives that have been transformed. When you have that behind you, it’s very hard not to be optimistic. You see how people change and the resilience of human beings.

I’m very optimistic. I believe that we will survive and thrive. I probably won’t see it, but our children and grandchildren will see a strong Jewish Family Service that will be three times or four times as big as today.

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor |

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