On Dec. 15, Deena Gerber was recognized as a Champion of Change during a ceremony at The White House in Washington. The executive director of Jewish Family Service of Greater New Orleans was one 10 honorees invited to share ideas “to win the future.”
The honorees were introduced as “ordinary citizens doing extraordinary things.”
The 10 honorees spoke on two panels of five during the ceremony. Gerber was asked about the role faith plays. She said JFS is “based on the Jewish principle that everyone can make changes in their lives.” While the agency has a “primary responsibility” to the Jewish community, it serves the entire community.
Gerber has headed the agency since 1994. JFS provides mental health counseling, case management, educational programs and in-home services for older adults.
She and the agency were recognized for being one of the first social service agencies to reopen after Hurricane Katrina. In less than two weeks, JFS established emergency locations in Baton Rouge and Mandeville. The agency provided financial assistance, trauma counseling and crisis management to thousands after the storm.
In 2009, Jewish Family Service conducted a comprehensive study, funded by the Administration on Aging, on the psychological effects of Hurricane Katrina on older adults.
Gerber was most proud of the financial assistance distribution after Katrina. “People needed the money, but they also really need to talk,” she said. She emphasized that agencies should not underestimate the importance of having resources for mental health.
During the discussion, Gerber noted that she was inspired by her grandfather, even though he died in 1918. “His job in his little community in Lithuania was giving out on Friday afternoon the charity to the poor people in the community so they could celebrate the Sabbath,” she said.
While he might be baffled at the technology she uses in her work, such as her cell phone, “if I would tell him my job was to help those in need, he would very much know what I was doing.”