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On the rebound, agency celebrates 75 years
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On the rebound, agency celebrates 75 years

Vocational service helps clients through good times and bad

Retired JVS executive director Leonard Schneider presides at the 2011 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the agency’s Career Center for Individuals with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.    
Retired JVS executive director Leonard Schneider presides at the 2011 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the agency’s Career Center for Individuals with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.    

What began on High Street in Newark in 1939 — as the Jewish Employment Service — to help refugees from Nazi Germany is about to celebrate its 75th anniversary. 

In its first 15 years, the organization now known as the Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest helped 5,000 unemployed people find jobs — working in connection with Americanization classes offered by National Council of Jewish Women and financial assistance from the Hebrew Free Loan Society. 

Through good times and bad — including digging itself out of deficit during the 2012-13 fiscal year — the JVS has substantially expanded its services and its client base. 

“We work with some 16,000 people a year,” said Jane Hecht, JVS coordinator of marketing and program development. “A good many of them are in corporate services training. We go out to 120 different companies throughout New Jersey to customize training for people they have already employed. It could be in customer service, computers, or other services the employers want.”

Funded in part by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, which supports the JVS career center, and in part by state and federal government grants, JVS is also financed in great measure by corporate and individual gifts. 

In celebration of that support, JVS will salute a major backer, Barry Ostrowsky, president and CEO of Barnabas Health, on May 12 at its annual “Taste & Toast! A Festive Evening” at the Crystal Plaza in Livingston. Another strong supporter, the Kessler Foundation, will receive the JVS Community Partner Award. 

Their backing came in handy during a major financial challenge.

“Last year was the first time I can remember that we had a deficit. It was a large deficit,” said the agency’s codirector, Caren Ford. 

Ford declined to disclose the dollar amount of the shortfall, but said, “It happened because some state government money that we expected for grants and fees for service didn’t come through. The state money was frozen. But we rectified that by finding new sources of funding and some restructuring here, and we are working under a break-even budget and the agency is moving in a very positive direction now.”

“The focus for everything we do is putting people to work, and right now it is getting harder,” said Ford’s codirector, Nancy Fisher. 

Ford and Fisher, both 25-year veterans of the agency, began sharing its leadership post after executive director Leonard Schneider retired in 2013.

A search committee is now forming to find a permanent successor.

New clientele 

“There are a lot of people out of work, and employers who hire for what we consider ‘low-level work’ are now looking for high school diplomas,” Fisher said. Our population does not necessarily have that, and their language skills are not always great. So employers are going to choose people with those skills over any of our population, even though our people are really very good and very consistent workers,” she said.

Unlike the early days, when it served mainly Jewish refugees from Europe, the JVS of 2014 works in ways the agency’s founders never conceived. With clients from some 30 different nations, the agency runs an English as a Second Language school and other initiatives to prepare them for jobs and life skills.

Working with the Kessler Foundation, the JVS runs a two-week summer camp program for individuals with cognitive and physical disabilities to help them learn job-seeking skills.

“We have 70 clients in our career center for individuals on the autism spectrum,” said Hecht. “We give them job skills and social skills workshops and we help find them employment. This is a real need. Many have college degrees, but due to their social skills, it is hard for them to find a job.”

The sluggish economic recovery has also brought older clients with years of experience but dim job prospects. 

“We now have 267 active clients from the Greater MetroWest Jewish community who are unemployed or underemployed whom we are currently helping,” said Ford.

“We are providing them with job placement and career counseling assistance. We are teaching people in their 50s and 60s how to network on social media. It is not just knowing how to use a computer anymore.”

“We are also trying to make our programs more work-specific and gear our classes to jobs that are presently available and give them the skills that respond to the needs of those occupations,” said Fisher. 

Fisher remains wary about the economy and its impact on nonprofits like JVS.

“We rely heavily on state money, and right now our corporate training program brings a lot of state money to the agency,” she said. “It is unclear what is going to happen and how much money is going to be available statewide, so that really impacts our financial security.”

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