A helping hand for those in need

Founding RJFS gave Federation a way to change lives

by Masada Siegel

Maria Dowlng, CEO of Rockland Jewish Family Service, left, works with Diane Serratore, executive director of People to People, and Rob Mauer, executive director of TOUCH, at a food pickup for Rockland County food pantries coordinated by RJFS.

Maria Dowlng, CEO of Rockland Jewish Family Service, left, works with Diane Serratore, executive director of People to People, and Rob Mauer, executive director of TOUCH, at a food pickup for Rockland County food pantries coordinated by RJFS.

November 12, 2010When Rockland Jewish Family Services began in 1987, it was as a committee of the Jewish Federation of Rockland County. Forming it was a way to help meet community needs, which at that time focused on resettling Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Although there was an overall thrust to creating an organization that could meet counseling needs, within two years the agency found itself helping a new population of several hundred immigrants, with some very pressing needs, according to Joe Zweig a founding board member and a past president of the organization.

“For the next few years, housing, education, vocational services and assistance with acculturation of these families was our primary focus,” Zweig said.

JFS also became the liaison between the new residents and local social service agencies, especially the various school districts and the Department of Social Services. Many immigrants at the time came with advanced degrees, however, they needed language skills or to take American placement exams. The agency helped them in all areas of life from finding places to live to registering their children to attend school

“As the Russian families settled in, the agency began to refocus on more traditional counseling services based on the needs of the community.” Zweig said. “We were established as an independent beneficiary agency of Federation and we were able to add group and family therapy as ongoing services, and began to develop targeted groups for those experiencing loss, change in family structure, substance abuse, parenting or marital difficulties.”

Today JFS provides many different services for all members of the community such as: counseling, adoption, family mediation, support groups, a kosher pantry to name just a few.

Sylvia Kaufman, a previous executive director marveled over all the positive work the JFS accomplishes. “Rockland Jewish Family service is a very special place to go to for services, it’s warm and welcoming and client and family centered. Its doors are open to everyone in the community. It is also a very special place to work.”

The organization has grown over the years and so has its operating budget from $288,000 to about $700,000. What was once a committee of the Federation, now employs 13 part- and full-time employees, and receives not only Federation funding, but also private donations and state and local grants.

As the money increased so did the possibilities to increase services and help more people. An organization with a quality staff can make a world of difference.

“It is wonderful to be involved with an organization that is so committed to providing quality services for the entire Rockland community,” said Maria Dowling, chief executive officer of the organization. “We have a dedicated group of staff, board members and over 200 volunteers who work hard to improve the lives of our neighbors in need.”

The family based programs include counseling for families, individuals and couples on many issues ranging from depression to divorce and everything in between.

Zweig further discussed, “Over the years, as we identify gaps in service we continue to expand the RJFS “menu,” with programs for young people on the autism spectrum, aging adults including those with dementia (as well as their caregivers), new parents, individuals with gender identity issues and the homebound.”

JFS also focuses on older adult services, for people who have special needs in terms of care giving and caregivers. In addition, they provide a full range of services for individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease and their families and caregivers working in collaboration with Alzheimer’s Association.

They also have specialized services for Holocaust survivors, who work together with the Café Europa and the Euro café alongside the JCC and the Holocaust museum. Working together with outside organizations with similar interests encouraged many new programs that improve the community.

One special niche JFS fills is through the Rhoda Bloom Kosher Food Pantry, the only kosher facility of its sort in the county. The program began in the days of the Russian resettlement, according to Zweig and has grown to meet local needs.

“In addition, as a result of our experience with some of the concrete needs of the families in the Russian resettlement project it was clear that there was a need for a kosher food pantry to supplement the secular food programs already in place.”

The pantry program started and originally helped 10 to 12 families. Now it has grown to over 120 families receiving food distributed by hundreds of volunteers at the Rockland Jewish Family Service Rhoda Bloom Kosher Food Pantry.

Supporters of JFS say the organizations programs are not just for families during extreme crises, rather, they connect to people during their daily lives with support groups for people with debilitating diseases as well as offering new skill set for people. Additionally, they provide birth baskets to new mothers and organize the share a Shabbat program.

So from nourishing the soul to keeping people well fed, the agency has successfully tackled all areas to support the Rockland County community, and no one is ever turned away.

“I am proud to be a part of the agency that Rockland Jewish Family Service is today, and I am excited about our potential for the future,” said Dowling. ” I am also grateful to our funders for supporting the work that we do. Especially the Jewish Federation, who have been there with us from the beginning and continue to support our new endeavors as we strive to meet the changing needs of the community in this challenging environment.”

Nov. 12, 2010

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