After almost a year in transition, Jewish Family Service of MetroWest NJ (JFS) has a new CEO: Diane Squadron, 54, who took her place at the helm of the social services organization in February. With a professional background in nonprofit mental health agencies, she most recently led a division of Youth Consultation Service, Inc. (YCS), a 100-year-old social services organization headquartered in Newark that focuses on children and adolescents.
Squadron is no stranger to the Jewish world. A member of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, she is the daughter of prominent New York attorney Howard Squadron, who led the American Jewish Congress and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations in the late 1970s and ’80s.
She said her position at JFS represents “the perfect combination” of her personal and professional backgrounds. “This is the air that I breathed growing up,” she said. “I come from a legacy of Jewish communal service and involvement in Jewish civic issues. I’m just beside myself with happiness. This feels like [coming] full circle.”
At JFS she succeeds Reuben Rotman, who stepped down in April 2017 to become the inaugural chief executive officer of the national Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies. In the interim, the organization was headed by Avi Lewinson.
Squadron holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from Yeshiva University. She spent nearly two decades in private and group practices prior to her 10-year tenure at YCS, where she most recently served as vice president of the YCS Institute and its Dr. Helen May Strauss Clinic.
She sat down with NJJN in her office in Florham Park in mid-March to share her vision for the organization, the challenges she sees ahead, the issues facing the community, and some of the gaps she sees in service that she would like to fill.
Her office already carries the imprint of her father, in the form of fine art photographs that were given to him in lieu of payment when he represented artists. (He was instrumental in the creation of the International Center of Photography in Manhattan.) But it also shows aspects of her own personality, most notably in the Mah-Jongg menorah
that sits in a prominent spot near her desk. She acknowledged her abiding passion for the game and all manner of Mah-Jongg ephemera.
She is candid about her learning curve regarding JFS, particularly its work focusing on older adults and Holocaust survivors, but clear about who she needs to be in this moment at the agency.
“I think given the year of sort-of uncertainty, there’s a sense of relief that somebody is here now,” she said. “My role at the agency, first and foremost, is to stabilize.”
JFS, with a staff of close to 60 and a budget of more than $5 million, reaches about 7,000 people annually through 40 different programs; these encompass older adult services (including specifically for Holocaust survivors), counseling for people at every stage of life, programs for individuals with special needs, and support for victims of domestic violence through the Rachel Coalition.
Despite coming into her new position at a time when challenges abound from recent threats to health care and counseling insurance coverage to increasing fear of violence, Squadron did not sound any alarm bells. “I’d say these issues are raging — but they are not new,” she said. “Political challenges, funding challenges, what’s going on in the government, even what’s going on in the current environment with school shootings have always been issues we at JFS have addressed, and [we’ve] had to roll with the punches.” In terms of financial resources, she said, the agency is always trying to develop new ways of raising funds.
“We’re not going to say, ‘Well, the government is no longer going to give the same level of support, and therefore we’re not going to have that program.’ We’re committed to what we do because what we do is so important…. In this day and age, it’s always the role of someone in a leadership position to be aware of funding and to be concerned about it.”
Speaking on the same day as the nationwide high school walkout to protest gun violence, Squadron grew animated discussing issues facing teenagers, including learning to recognize warning signs of troubles in adolescents. She expressed enthusiasm about a program she calls “emotional detectors,” an idea for which she credits JFS counselors and a board member. “Metal detectors? That’s not what our children need,” she said. “What our children need is emotional detectors. So there needs to be education within the community about how to reach out and help children and adolescents in need.”
As for mental health in general, she said that while things have come a long way from when she started her career, challenges remain. “I think part of the goal of JFS is to destigmatize mental health [problems] and anything that smacks of difference. People are very leery of what smacks of ‘difference.’ I think the stigma has decreased but hasn’t gone away.”
Asked how JFS might accomplish this goal, she offered a few suggestions. Providing opportunities to normalize mental health issues is one way, she said.Others include “helping people feel safe. Helping people understand they are heard, and that they are cared about, and that the people they are working with can be trusted. And helping the community have the same feeling.”
She appreciates that JFS has the resources not only to provide counseling services but also to offer community education and outreach through synagogues, schools, and public programming. “We’re really here in the center of all that is going on connected to mental health and community,” she said.
Squadron, who lives with her husband in Millburn where they raised their three children, said she plans to spend plenty of time out of the office, so she can better understand the needs of her constituency. “A big part of my job is to be the eyes and ears out in the community,” she said. “The way to see what the gaps are and the needs are is to be constantly interfacing with the other agencies in the area, with the temples in the area, with the schools in the area, and making determinations together and hearing from the lay people in the population about what they need.”
She already has noticed that not all parts of its catchment region are covered similarly by JFS. “We have a very strong presence in Essex County, and we don’t have as strong a presence in Morris or Sussex [counties], so in the future that will be something to look toward,” she said.
She is also exploring how to expand the agency’s “strong” counseling presence to reach a larger population, and what kinds of additional presentations the broader community would benefit from. “I think that part of the mission of an agency like this is to be constantly getting feedback from the community in terms of what the needs are and then finding a way to provide services for those needs,” she said.
Her overall vision for JFS? “To continue to provide the quality services that JFS has been known for, and to be constantly looking for ways that we can be of help.”
And in the meantime, her biggest challenge is time. “There’s a lot to learn,” she said. “And there’s not enough time to do the things I want to do in a day. I imagine that’s not going to get better; it’s only going to get worse.”
Jewish Family Service of MetroWest NJ, with offices in Florham Park and Livingston, serves residents of Essex, Morris, Sussex, southern Hudson, and northern Union counties. Call 973-765-9050 or visit jfsmetrowest.org.
Jewish Family Service of Central NJ, with offices in Elizabeth and Mountainside, serves residents of Union County and parts of Somerset County. Call 908-352-8375 or visit jfscentralnj.org.
Both are beneficiary agencies of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.