Connections to the past mark agency’s 150th birthday
History of JFS told through documents, artifacts, and stories
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
In the 1860s, Newark’s Hebrew Benevolent Society delivered coal to needy families in Essex County to ensure their homes were warm in the winter.
One hundred and fifty years later, Jewish Family Service of MetroWest NJ still makes sure people’s homes are warm in the winter. Instead of delivering coal, however, it pays PSE&G bills.
Connections like these are at the heart of “Past Forward: Celebrating 150 Years of Jewish Family Service of MetroWest” on display through Nov. 17 at the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany.
The exhibit, curated by the Jewish Historical Society of Metro-
West, offers a meticulous study in the roots of the social service organization and the forces that shaped its evolution.
Featured are early-20th-century photographs, uniforms from the community orphanage, a ledger of minutes from the first years of the organization’s operation, and even children’s medical records.
Confidentiality issues prevent the display of client photographs in the exhibit. Curator and JHS executive director Linda Forgosh said she stayed up nights contemplating how to create an engaging visual display. “There have never been photos of clients for public use,” she said.
Sandra Rosenbaum, cochair of the JFS 150th anniversary committee, thinks that particular obstacle was overcome. “The exhibit really brings to life, visually, how Jews have been helping Jews through JFS since its inception going all the way back to the Civil War, and how it has constantly evolved as our community’s needs have evolved,” she said.
The exhibit is just one of many events in the year-long celebration of the agency, which will culminate in a June gala where an updated history of the organization will be distributed.
Funding support for the exhibit was provided with a grant from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey and additional contributions from Hebrew Free Loan of New Jersey and Rachel Coalition.
‘Grounded in values’
Begun simply to “assist the needy, succor the helpless, and protect the weak,” the Junger Manner Wahltatigskeir Gesellschaft (Young Men’s Benevolent Society) was established in 1861, when its focus was mainly on providing for orphans.
Just 15 years after its inception, the organization changed its name to the Hebrew Benevolent and Orphan Asylum, and ran the Hebrew Orphans’ Asylum until 1955. Other services were added and changed as necessary. The agency helped resettle members of the first wave of Russian immigrants in the early 1900s, provided services for Holocaust survivors mid-century, and again helped a second wave of Russian immigrants toward the end of the century.
The message? Adaptability has enabled the agency to survive, according to JFS executive director Reuben Rotman.
“We have always responded as the needs of the community evolved,” he said. These shifts in service include the creation, for example, of the Rachel Coalition to combat domestic violence and services for caregivers of the area’s growing elderly population.
“While the orphanage no longer exists,” Rotman said, “the agency does provide adoption services as well as services for parents who lose a child.”
Staffing changes were happening behind the scenes, with volunteers culled from among the women of Newark eventually replaced by professionally trained social workers, as documented in the exhibit. Today the JFS, a partner body of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, is a nonsectarian agency serving residents of Essex, Morris, Sussex, north Union, and lower Hudson counties.
But while times change, the JFS’ core mission hasn’t, said Rotman. “We do the work we do today grounded in the values, history, and foundations of the community,” he said. “There has been a permanent role in this community for the work of this agency for 150 years.”