Decades of Service: Jewish Family Service celebrates 75 years of helping New Orleans

Council Member Jennifer Van Vrancken presents proclamation to JFS President Debbie Pesses and JFS Executive Director Roselle Ungar. Photos by Donna Matherne

Seventy five years ago, what is now Jewish Family Service of Greater New Orleans started with refugee resettlement, case management and financial assistance.

“That’s where we started,” said Executive Director Roselle Ungar, “and 75 years later, that’s the core of the work we’re still doing.”

Much has evolved over the past 75 years, though, and on June 25 at the Ritz Carlton, the “Decades of Service for the Decades Ahead” were celebrated with a platinum jubilee.

A lobby display featured posters with JFS history through the decades since its founding, and during the brunch, Jefferson Parish Council Member Jennifer Van Vrancken and New Orleans City Councilman Joseph Giarrusso III presented congratulatory proclamations on behalf of their respective bodies.

Moving into the next 75 years, Ungar said the agency’s central mission is still taking care of members of the Jewish community “during challenging times in their lives,” while she is “very proud that we service the entire community. That’s part of our Jewish values and our belief in tikkun olam.”

She sees the agency continuing to grow and evolve “based on the needs of the community, trying to listen to the members of the community, hear what their needs are and try to accommodate them.”

When the Jewish Children’s Home closed in 1948, several social service committees were formed under the umbrella of the Jewish Welfare Federation. One of those was Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

The new committee worked with the National Council of Jewish Women on refugee resettlement and case management, which was the primary focus in the early days. Those services expanded in the 1950s with helping recent refugees acculturate and find jobs and housing. Meanwhile, more seniors in the community began to access the committee’s services, and adoption became part of the portfolio.

In the 1960s, JFS embarked on a relationship with the Tulane School of Social Work to provide case management services. It was also during the 1960s that JFS moved from being a committee to being a division of the Federation, then by the late 1970s became a constituent agency of the Federation.

Also in the 1960s, the committee worked with Travelers Aid, which provided services for the homeless and crisis intervention counseling. Starting in 1971, the executive director of Travelers Aid was Julanne Isaacson, who had previously worked at Family Service Society of New Orleans.

Isaacson was also president of NCJW, overseeing a study of community needs, which led to the creation of a recreation program at the Youth Study Center and a two-year social work scholarship for a probation officer. With that background, Isaacson became the executive director of JFS in 1973, a position she would hold until 1994.

Resettlement activities began to focus on Soviet Jews, as well as non-Jewish refugees from places like Uganda, Vietnam and Cambodia. The 1970s also saw increased demand by couples seeking adoption — but a relative lack of children to adopt.

In 1982, the newly-named Jewish Family Service opened its services to the entire community and formed numerous new programs. Deena Gerber, who served as executive director from 1994 to 2013, said United Way was a major funder of JFS, and wanted agencies they funded to be open. “Catholic Charities was open to everybody,” she explained.

Opening up to the community at large also allowed JFS to approach other places for funding.

The 1980s also saw the introduction of the Family Life Education Committee, which later became Teen Life Counts, providing educational resources on suicide prevention at area schools. Ellie Wainer headed that effort for almost three decades.

Ungar said that last year, over 2,000 students were reached, with the goal of increasing that number this year. The program has progressed “to where we are going to be able to offer it through a dedicated website and train professionals around the country to use our curriculum,” with a licensing fee outside the state.

Also in the 1980s, the Helping Hand sitter registry and the Homemaker program providing light housekeeping and transportation for older or disabled adults were established. The Lifeline electronic personal alert systems in partnership with Touro Infirmary were introduced, as well as an initiative to help older adults with housing issues.

The Passover Food Distribution, which provides baskets of kosher-for-Passover items for community members in need, also began under Isaacson’s administration.

In 2016, JFS honored Isaacson at the annual gala. She said “it is a privilege to be honored by an agency which I led for 21 years and that has continued to make me proud by remaining on the cutting edge of high-quality innovative services for children and families.” She died on May 27 at the age of 98.

Gerber, who had worked at JFS for over a decade before becoming executive director, was originally hired to oversee the Homemaker program. “That was a program that was near and dear to me,” she said.

When Issacson was looking to retire, Gerber said “she really encouraged me” to become her successor, and mentored her. “She had confidence that I could do it… I owe her a lot.”

Gerber said Isaacson “really was a visionary” and an important part of her legacy that resonates today is continuing professional education, sending staff to different programs so they could learn new techniques in family counseling and individual counseling.

“I was very proud of the strides we made in our counseling program, keeping on top of cutting edge innovations,” she said.

In the 1990s, New Orleans became the first JFS in the country to reach out to the LGBTQ community, and Teen Life Counts expanded into more schools. Group therapy classes expanded the counseling program, and there was also outreach to interfaith couples.

Historic challenge

Perhaps the biggest challenge came in late August 2005 with Hurricane Katrina and the levee breach, which happened shortly after JFS had expanded its territory to the Northshore. As the community began to rebuild, JFS was charged with distributing $700 grants from United Jewish Communities, and to work on recovery loans to members of the Jewish community, as well as other forms of financial and counseling aid.

“Everybody was hurting” after Katrina, Gerber said. “A lot of money came to us, and we were really charged with distributing it wisely.”

She added, “We tried to do it with as much respect and dignity as we could, and reflect on how to make people not feel bad about needing.”

There were many outright grants, financial assistance to those out of work or who needed rent money. A loan program was modeled after Hebrew Free Loan, with a five-year payback. “That really helped a lot of people.” Gerber said that Sandy Levy, then the executive director of JEF, was “remarkable in getting funding, and then we helped distribute it to people.” Allan Bissinger, the new Federation president, “was really helpful, thoughtful. He really made things happen.”

She was grateful for the national support and how the JFS staff reacted. “The staff was really committed to their clients,” she said. There was no such thing as Zoom back then, and none of the staff were able to return to their homes, “and yet, most came back by October.” Their office in Metairie was not affected by the storm, and in mid-October the building was reopened.

After the trauma of Katrina, there was a huge need for counseling. They received funding from the Jewish philanthropic world, and from the government.

With the assistance of Mary Landrieu, the agency received a grant to do research into resiliency as part of a larger study — what makes some people more resilient than others, how one’s outlook on life affects responses. Working with Tulane, JFS interviewed older adults in their homes. “The ability to talk about their experiences and to feel they were being helpful to future generations really helped people,” Gerber said.

In 2011, President Barack Obama honored Gerber with the Champion of Change Award for her work leading JFS following Katrina.

Refugee assistance came back to the forefront in the 2010s, with serving unaccompanied minors through the U.S. Committee of Refugees and Immigrants, along with partnering with the National Human Trafficking Victims Assistance Program.

Gerber said Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service contacted JFS to see if they would be interested in becoming part of the program. She remembered JFS’ roots working with NCJW and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and how often Sara Stone would speak of the community’s immigration response from decades earlier.

Ungar said JFS serves refugee children from central and South America, working with them through the asylum process and finding sponsor and family homes, acculturating them and ensuring that they are in school. “We want our kids to be an asset” to society, she said.

A big part of the effort is to make sure that the children are not trafficked.

There are 13 staffers working in that program, and Ungar anticipated that number going to 16, as they work with hundreds of children each year.

The agency also launched a Behavioral Health Intern Training Center, and with assistance from the Jewish Endowment Foundation, developed enrichment programs for parents and students at Jewish Community Day School.

Ungar said “we love” the Day School program, which has a therapist at the school for 12 hours per week, working with faculty, staff and students.

The 2010s also saw a professional transition, as Gerber stepped down in June 2013. Michael Steiner became the new executive director for a brief time, then Ungar, who had been with the Federation during the aftermath of Katrina, took over in January 2015.

Gerber said she had “the best social work job in the city,” with an agency that had the right values and resources, and lay leaders committed to the mission. “We always tried to keep Jewish values,” she said. “Even with the non-Jewish staff, we would have a rabbi or other Jewish educator talk about something connecting social services to Judaism, mental health and Judaism… even though we were helping all kinds of people, it was Jewish values directing it all.”

Another major challenge

The 2020s started off with a new set of challenges, with the shutdowns of the Covid pandemic, along with recovery from Hurricanes Laura and Ida. The financial assistance programs and case management were in great demand, and the Teen Life Counts program’s importance was highlighted by a crisis in youth mental health after the pandemic.

During Covid, Ungar said, “we didn’t close. We went virtual.” The JEF provided funding to JFS for Covid response, and JFS immediately went to work. “We’re designed to do that,” Ungar explained. “We have the skill set and expertise, and all the tools in place to turn on a dime and start doing.” The funding enabled them to continue working with case management clients and expand as needed.

The pandemic gave the agency an opportunity to “stop and evaluate our priorities.” She expects to expand the number of mental health professionals in the counseling department, in response to demand. Growth will be “cautious but strategic.” Several additional possible new programs for seniors are being evaluated.

The agency was also called upon once again for hurricane response. Funds raised through the Jewish Federations of North America after Hurricanes Ida and Laura were distributed to affected members of the Jewish community by JFS, which also provided other forms of case management and support.

Ungar said “we’ve done a lot over 75 years. We’ve had amazing professional leadership, amazing lay leadership, and we are still true to our mission.”

“It’s a pretty remarkable legacy,” she added. “This is an agency that’s going to be here a very long time. The need doesn’t go away.”