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Central family agency, 100, counts its blessings
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Central family agency, 100, counts its blessings

Centennial gala marks decades of service to those in need

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

People with ties to the Jewish Family Service of Central NJ tally its 100 years in different ways. They count how many people it has served (over 6,000 per year), how many presidents have been at the helm (21), how many programs it has run (more than 17), how many names it has had (three), and how many homes it has occupied (too many to count).

Tom Beck, JFS executive director since 1987, counts its record in ways the organization has changed — from a small Hebrew Free Loan Society into an ever-expanding and evolving social services organization.

Today it includes a food pantry and adoption services, nurses and home health aides, social workers and therapists.

“We’ve always been a forward thinking agency, always ahead of the times so that we can meet the needs of the people, he said. “Our face is always shifting over the years, because we are here to meet every-shifting needs.”

Beck’s remarks came at the organization’s centennial gala, held Nov. 18 at the Crystal Plaza in Livingston. More than 220 people attended, representing multiple generations and decades of JFS leadership.

“My mother is my entire inspiration for being here,” said Seth Dombeck of Hillside, now in his second year on the JFS board. His mother, Carolyn, in the 1990s chaired benefit concerts for JFS with Gayle Moskowitz; in September, he revived the tradition when he organized the Maccabeats concert at Kean University in Union.

Micky Gottlieb identified himself as a former president, son of a former president, and father of three future presidents. “My mother was president, and she was very good friends with Tom Beck’s predecessor, Mildred Hamilton, the first professional director of JFS,” he said. “They had a very good time together, and they talked together about how they could deal with the problems of the community. Milly would come over and they would have conversations about how to keep the agency going. I always went to events as a child. JFS has been part of my life, always.”

A resident of Livingston, he retains his attachment to JFS of Central NJ because, as he put it, “I’m a central Jersey guy. I grew up in Mountainside.” He calls JFS a place “where the money hits the street,” meaning where donations go directly to serve those in need.

(Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, like its Central counterpart a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, serves residents of Essex, Morris, Sussex, northern Union, and southern Hudson counties; Central JFS, with offices in Elizabeth and Clark, serves Union County and parts of Somerset County.)

Michelle Rosen of Westfield began volunteering with the agency after leaving a job in corporate America to find something “with more social integrity.”

“While I was deciding who I should be and what I wanted to do, I started visiting an elderly woman who was receiving services from JFS,” she said.

The range of services she discovered was seen in the agency’s response to Superstorm Sandy. “Nobody went without for even a day,” Rosen said. “Everyone had what they needed. That’s something worth being part of.”

Newly reelected Sen. Bob Menendez (D), who served as the keynote speaker for the evening, also referred to Sandy in his remarks. He called JFS among the “better angels” who have helped those displaced and in need.

“We will need those better angels to get through the difficult times ahead,” he said. He came back to the storm repeatedly, but also discussed issues central to the local Jewish community, to his platform, and to JFS.

He described how in the middle of touring the devastation left by Sandy in Hoboken with Vice President Joe Biden, a group of young people challenged him in regard to Israel’s attack on Gaza.

“They said, ‘What about Israel and why are they using so much force against Gaza?’ I said, ‘They’re not using so much force. How would you feel if thousands of rockets rained upon your family? And your daily life was disrupted by air sirens so that you constantly had to run to the shelter? And your children’s lives were disrupted every day? And you feel fortunate when you do not lose one another?

“How would you accept your country allowing thousands of rockets to rain on you, here in Hoboken — would you accept that?’”

“Of course not,” he said was their response.

Menendez also spoke in favor of the Affordable Care Act, of extending Medicare and Medicaid rather than turning them into voucher programs, and of avoiding the “fiscal cliff,” but not by getting rid of charitable deductions.

During the gala, David Hutt and Ron Shimanowitz received the Lilly K. Gottlieb Award; Rabbi George Nudell, Rabbi Douglas Sagal, and Rabbi Elazar M. Teitz were honored with Rabbinic Leadership Awards, and Barbara Halberstandter was honored with the Ruth Bilenker Award for Outstanding Service.

David Halpern, whose family have been longtime key supporters of and major donors to the agency, underscored his confidence in its current leadership. “Many towns have had organizations like this that break up and the community suffers. Thank God we don’t have to worry.”

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