‘Change agent’ faces a change of her own
Retiring from the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County on June 30, executive director Linda Meisel leaves 32 full- and part-time staff members, four times as many as when she joined the agency.
In her 18 years as head of JFCS, the agency created many new programs that serve different populations in the Jewish community. Secure@Home provides transitional post-hospitalization care for seniors. Kosher cafes bring inexpensive hot lunches and programming so that seniors who live alone can connect and learn. Through Gesher LeKesher, older teens serve as mentors for younger ones, and the Jewish Community Youth Foundation trains teens in Jewish philanthropy.
“When I was hired to be executive director, my charge was to really expand both the services and sources of revenue,” Meisel recalled, ahead of a March 5 gala where her tenure and accomplishments were to be celebrated.
Meisel came to the agency in 1998, after learning to raise funds, manage a budget, run programs, and supervise staff during 10 years as director of Corner House, which serves Princeton youth with substance abuse issues. When Byron Pinsky announced his retirement as executive director of JFCS, Meisel was drawn to the position because, she said, the agency serves a much broader population and would allow her to grow professionally.
JFCS, she said, “had a combination of my strong belief in being a change agent, and it is rooted in Jewish values.”
She arrived at JFCS at a pivotal moment, “at a time when agencies like this were moving from just focusing primarily on financial assistance and therapy to being a broader kind of communal agency, being involved with teens, Jewish families, and seniors.”
Meisel has led the agency through four accreditations, ensuring “best practice standards in all areas of functioning — not just programming and therapy but finance, governance, ethics, and facilities.”
She has also shepherded the agency to a new and bigger space in Princeton.
Meisel said that many of the programs created during her tenure “percolate[d] up from the community.” Staff members would hear reports of people who didn’t have enough money for groceries, or seniors who lacked support in an emergency.
The needs of JFCS clients ebb and flow, Meisel said. The time of greatest crisis was the 2008 downturn, but Hurricane Sandy brought its own challenges.
Other needs that are constant, for example, include people who have disabilities or chronic illnesses that interfere with their capacity to work.
“I like to feel like we’re all just one catastrophe away from needing help,” Meisel said. “There are circumstances that happen to people: people lose their jobs, people get sick. And those with more limited resources — their lives start to unravel, and we are their safety net.”
For Meisel, one of JFCS’s biggest pluses is its “working board.” “They are extraordinarily dedicated to the mission and purpose of the organization,” she said. “They truly believe in both creating the safety net and expanding the reach, and helping to educate the community about what we do.”
The second strength is a dedicated and effective staff. “They really care about people, about the agency, about excellence, and they are a good working team,” she said.
A search committee headed by former board chair Joyce Kalstein is now fielding candidates; an announcement will be made in the spring.
Looking ahead to her successor, Meisel noted that although raising money and managing finances can be a challenge, the agency today is stable both financially and in terms of staff. “What I would hope is that it will give the new person the freedom to take a few months, look around, and figure out what the next initiative might be and to deeply learn about what the agency is doing,” she said.
Her successor will face an aging population and a decreasing number of Jewish families in the area. “This community is beginning to have an aging Jewish population and is not replenishing its younger families at the same rate of growth,” Meisel said.
Meisel, who graduated in 1968 from Brooklyn College, said her strong interest in social justice motivated her to pursue social work. “In the context of the times I was going to be a change agent, which is what social workers are,” she explained.
After college, she said she “paid her dues” during three years with the New York City Department of Social Services, and then 18 months at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.
After earning her master’s degree at Rutgers University, Meisel spent 15 years working variously at a secular family service agency in Princeton and Hightstown. During her tenure there, she took a year of maternity leave, and gave birth to her second and third children. That experience taught her as a boss “the capacity to be flexible, to be a mentor, to be family friendly, because I do believe that especially given the kind of work we do, which is so family intense, you really need to have your own house in some kind of an order.”
At Corner House, she started prevention and leadership programs for teens. She was also an active volunteer at The Jewish Center in Princeton — where she and her husband, Arthur, are members — as chair of the youth and school committees, vice president of education, and trustee.
Meisel’s retirement “will be bittersweet for the JFCS board and staff,” said president and board chair Audrey Wisotsky of West Windsor. “She has been instrumental in transforming JFCS from an agency with a $300,000 budget to an annual budget of over $2 million. Her insights into the needs of our community have ensured that our agency does and will continue to provide essential services to meet the needs of the community.”
JFCS is a partner agency of Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks. Its executive director, Mark Merkovitz, wrote in an e-mail: “Linda has not only been a visionary leader of JFCS, she has also been a catalyst for building ‘community,’ both in our Jewish community and the greater Mercer community as a whole.”
Meisel said she loves her job, but is ready for a change. Her future, she said, may include some combination of consulting, mentoring social work graduate students, and possibly teaching, with time left to be with her eight grandchildren and maybe visit a museum or two.
“I’m looking forward to the new executive director bringing their energy and new ideas to the agency,” she said. “If you really feel like you’ve done a good piece of work, you feel confident that someone can take that piece of work and make it their own.”