A ‘family business’ to serve Jewish families

A ‘family business’ to serve Jewish families

Ever since he was a child growing up in the Boston suburb of Randolph, Reuben Rotman knew he wanted to go into what he jokingly calls the “family business.” His father is retired from a University of Massachusetts training program for special education teachers. Before her retirement, his mother ran a meals-on-wheels program in the Boston area.

“I wanted to work in nonprofits, too,” said Rotman. “It was the world I knew a lot about.”

His parents’ vocations dovetailed neatly with his observant upbringing at a Conservative synagogue and his attendance through high school at after-school Jewish education programs.

In commemoration of his 18 years with Jewish Family Service of MetroWest NJ, Rothman, its executive director, will be saluted on Wednesday, June 5, at the agency’s gala dinner at Brooklake Country Club in Florham Park.

“It is an honor to be honored,” Rotman said in a May 9 interview at his Florham Park office. “I feel very proud of what I’ve worked to do at this agency and this community.”

State Sen. Richard Codey (D-Dist. 27), who served as governor of New Jersey from November 2004 to January 2006, will present the keynote address at the dinner.

During his 30 years in the State Legislature Codey has been a staunch advocate for mental health.

“His personal mission and mandate has been to strengthen the mental health service network in New Jersey, and we are partners in that effort,” Rotman said.

Since becoming executive director in 2004, Rotman has guided JFS MetroWest through new financial territory and established partnerships that have placed JFS personnel in schools and other agencies, many not Jewish.

In his early days there, as a beneficiary agency, it received most of its funding from what has become the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. As that model changed, Rotman was tasked with setting up an infrastructure for independent fund-raising. “Initially we ran a mail campaign and figured out how to institutionalize thank-you letters and donor processing, then grant development,” he said.

Eighteen years later, grants constitute $1.4 million and fund-raising $1 million of the JHS’s $4 million annual budget. The Greater MetroWest federation currently provides the agency with $500,000 a year. Family foundations and private foundations provide much of the funding that maintains a staff of 50 serving people in Essex, Morris, Sussex, southern Hudson, and northern Union counties.

Rotman says his agency’s key mission is to help the most vulnerable — particularly senior citizens and children in troubled families. Despite little increase in funding, his client base has doubled from 2,000 to 4,000 since he began his tenure at JFS MetroWest. Services range from adoption counseling for prospective parents to crisis intervention for children and families to in-home support for the elderly.

“We are no longer serving the Jewish community exclusively,” Rotman said. In the late 1980s, “there was a deliberate attempt to broaden our funding base and extend its doors to serve a broader community.”

Still, some 80 percent of the people served by JFS MetroWest are Jewish. “The hallmark of this agency is to be focused on certain needs in the Jewish community,” said Rotman. “We don’t go out deliberately to set up a new service or program that isn’t also going to be serving the Jewish community, but we don’t ask people who ask for our help if they are Jewish.”

Rotman views his greatest accomplishment as placing staff at sister agencies and at synagogues. Those include Golda Och Academy, Daughters of Israel nursing home, JCC MetroWest, and Jewish Community Housing Corporation, all in West Orange; Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kusher Yeshiva High School in Livingston, and Bohrer-Kaufman Hebrew Academy of Morris County in Randolph. There are currently JFS-provided social workers at five synagogues in the Greater MetroWest area, and the agency does programming at the Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest and the Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled of MetroWest.

(Jewish Family Service of Central NJ, with offices in Elizabeth and Clark, serves residents of Union County and parts of Somerset County.)

“I have worked to position the agency as a resource for everybody — no matter what their income is, no matter what their affiliation is,” Rotman said. “Through placing out staff at sister agencies and at synagogues, over time we have changed the makeup of who comes here so there is a much broader section of the community.”

“But,” he added, “the biggest regret — a struggle I live with every day — is our wait list. We are limited by our funding.”

Rotman lives in Teaneck and attends Congregation Beth Sholom there. His wife, Devorah Silverman, is head of initiatives for global planning at the Jewish Federations of North America. They have 13-year-old twins, Dalia and Zachary, and a 10-year-old daughter, Maya. All three attend the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County.

After graduating from Brandeis University in 1987, Rotman spent two years working with Boston’s black and Latino communities at the Human Resource Center, helping minority group programs to obtain state and foundation funding.

He returned to Brandeis to earn a master’s degree in Jewish communal service and management of human services from its Heller School for Social Policy. He went on to jobs at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and its Jewish Family Service. He moved to New York to become a development executive at the UJA-Federation of New York’s Westchester Division, then relocated to the MetroWest JFS, eventually becoming assistant executive director before being named to its top executive position.

What enables Rotman to cope with daily challenges, as well as the extraordinary strains on the agency after the terror attacks of 9/11 and the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, is “an extraordinary combination of wonderful characteristics,” said JHS president Ellen Kulka of Mountain Lakes. “He is an excellent leader and has great skills in dealing with people and entities in the community to keep the resources we need available and make sure we deliver the services that are needed by the community.”

JFS MetroWest is currently drafting a business plan for the next three years “to grow fee-for-service and grow affiliations so we can grow our service, extend our staffing, and grow our base,” Rotman said. “We are very stretched. We are all over the place.

“Historically, this agency has always been intended to serve the people in the community who have no other place to go,” he said. “That is still the fabric of the mission of this agency.”

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