In 1937, several Jewish organizations in Pittsburgh merged to better serve the city's orphans, indigent, refugees and immigrants. The new agency was called the Jewish Social Service Bureau, and the newcomers it assisted were mostly Jews fleeing the Nazis in war-torn Europe.
Today the same organization -- now called Jewish Family & Children's Service -- is still resettling new arrivals, but instead of European Jews they are ethnic Bhutanese from refugee camps in Nepal or tribal Burmese who'd been exiled to Thailand.
That's only one example of how much JF&CS has evolved beyond its origins. Its goal today is to build a continuum of care through all the life cycles.
Now celebrating its 75th anniversary year, the agency runs more than a dozen nonsectarian programs for the Jewish and general communities of southwestern Pennsylvania: elder care services; critical needs and emergency aid; immigration-related legal assistance; refugee resettlement; a sizable food pantry; career and outplacement services; outpatient psychological counseling; foster care and adoption; guardianship; special needs; scholarship and loan referrals.
"We respond to the needs of our clients regardless of religion, race and ethnicity," said Aryeh Sherman, who has run JF&CS since 1999. He spoke in his office on Bartlett Street in Squirrel Hill, where the lobby features a colorful mural of the neighborhood and its residents by artist Robert Qualters.
Reaching out beyond one's immediate circle is part of the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, Hebrew for repairing the world, Mr. Sherman said.
With a $5 million budget, 60 staff members and 400 volunteers serving 8,200 people, JF&CS gets funding from local, state and federal government, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, individual and corporate contributions, foundations and the United Way of Allegheny County.
Clients also pay fees on a sliding scale if they're able.
"The refugees and immigrants are a direct link to our origins," Mr. Sherman said. "By helping them build new lives here we help create a diverse workforce for the region. Our programs are responsible for keeping 1,000 people a year in Pittsburgh."
The agency's overall purpose is best summed up by the motto on its website, www.jfcspgh.org: "Helping people through life cycle transitions and crises."
"We're a resource where anyone going through life transition can get support through the process. We're all doing that one way or another, with aging parents, children and careers," Mr. Sherman said.
One emphasis is ensuring that elderly residents can live safely and independently in the community. Day programs, in-home caregivers, transportation, meal and medical services all help in this regard, and JF&CS collaborates with AgeWell Pittsburgh to provide access, reaching 2,000 residents.
Another issue is food insecurity, addressed by the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry on Hazelwood Avenue. With 4,500 square feet, it is twice the size of the Kosher Food Pantry that it replaced, and instead of providing food bundles it functions like a grocery store. People roam the aisle with baskets and can choose what they want from the shelves, freezer and refrigerator. Kosher food is available in a special section. Last year, the pantry distributed more than 200,000 pounds of food to almost 600 households.
Helping unemployed and dislocated workers transition to jobs as quickly as possible is also a big focus. Working with several partners and funded by United Way, the agency helped 1,200 people with workshops, job fairs and weekly emails on job openings, as well as resumes, cover letters, interview and computer skills. The reported placement rate was 71 percent, with most finding work within six months.
In the past year, JF&CS resettled 289 refugees, mainly from Bhutan. The annual report says 86 percent achieved self-sufficiency within three months.
The agency also partnered with several legal organizations to help 1,160 immigrants, many of them Hispanic, with various legal issues -- double the previous year's number.
Even after 75 years, keeping up with new needs is a challenge, especially with reduced public funding.
"We're looking at a world with 30 percent less government funding now," Mr. Sherman said.
One response could be more fee-for-service programs, such as employers reimbursing the agency for outplacement assistance. Another could be leveraging technology to deliver more cost-efficient services.
"The main goals at this point," he said, "are to respond to needs, build the organization and make it sustainable for the future."
Sally Kalson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1610. First Published December 12, 2012 5:00 AM