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History of Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County

The roots of Jewish Family Services date back to the late 1970s when a group of dedicated volunteers came together to address the needs of the growing number of refugees arriving in Ann Arbor from the Soviet Union. This resulted in the creation in 1978 of the Soviet Jewry Absorption Committee (SJAC) of Washtenaw County that was founded by Rabbi Allan D Kensky, Helen Aminoff, Claire Bernstein, and the late Rae Lampe. Later they were joined by Bassia Genkina, Irina Chernomordik, Angela Keselman, Myrna Miller and Rabbi Kensky’s successor, Rabbi Robert Dobrusin. For almost two decades, these and other individual volunteers were instrumental in helping to build the resettlement program.

Among the most pressing issues that the Committee had to address were providing initial assistance to the arriving families—locating suitable housing, providing basic furniture and furnishings, arranging for medical and dental services, opening bank accounts, teaching English language and Civics courses, arranging transportation and assisting with job placement/employment . When the “new Americans” arrived, they were entitled to receive government assistance, but there was a waiting period of 90 days before funds became available. How were those families to be supported during that period? It was then that Helen Aminoff arranged for association with Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), overcoming HIAS’ initial insistence not to recognize Ann Arbor as an independent refugee resettlement area but rather merely a “suburb of Detroit”. This resulted in the creation of a program under which immigrants received immediate grants from HIAS for the first 90 days prior to receipt of government funding.

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In the late 1980s, the Jewish Federation of Washtenaw County took over the resettlement project, as the wave of immigration in 1989/90 was the largest since the turn of the century. Lora Shapiro and Temma Klibaner served as the first official coordinators of the new resettlement program.

When Jewish Family Services was officially founded in 1993, the resettlement of new Americans became a major program of the agency.

The need for a social service agency for the Washtenaw County Jewish population was also identified in a community needs assessment during the early 1990s. The survey was conducted by the Jewish Federation, with leadership from Sydney Bernard, Professor Emeritus of Social Work at the University of Michigan. Acting on survey results, the Jewish Federation Board of Directors formed a planning committee, chaired by Phyllis Herzig. Meeting in 1991, the group explored JFS models in other communities, consulted with professionals in the local and national Jewish communal service movement, and developed an organizational structure and a mission statement. With the recommendation of the planning committee at the annual meeting of the Jewish Federation in the spring of 1992, the Federation board gave their approval to plan for the development of a Jewish Family Services in Washtenaw County. Linda Shain was hired as a consultant in the fall of 1992 to implement operation of the planning efforts.

Charles Garvin, Professor Emeritus of Social Work at the University of Michigan and Phyllis Herzig, director of programming for older adults at the JCC, were involved in all of these early efforts and have remained continuously involved to the present day. As social workers, as well as active participants in the Jewish Community, they have consistently believed that a Jewish Family Services devoted to meeting the human and social welfare needs of this community in a compassionate way is an essential component of a strong Jewish Community and one that demanded their efforts. Their memories form the basis for the remainder of this history.

In August, 1993 the Federation Board appointed the Advisory Council which immediately began to work toward hiring a director for the program and conceptualizing the kinds of services that might be offered. Brian Ashin was the first chair of this council and, under his leadership, the first director, Sue Sefansky, was hired in August 1993. In the following month, JFS began operations by engaging in the process of serving individuals who approached the agency with a broad variety of needs.

The JFS Advisory Council created several committees to help it carry out its work. In those days, the staff was quite limited and included Sefansky and Temma Klibaner, who provided resettlement services to people, primarily Soviet Jews, who were new to our community. Because of these staff limitations, the Advisory Council members often aided in staff functions such as recruiting therapists willing to offer services and planning educational programs for these therapists. Another Advisory Council committee helped to plan Family Life Education programs for the community. These included sessions on intermarriage and caring for aging parents. Still other committees were concerned with organizational development. The Advisory Council consisted of individuals who were enthusiastic about the agency, eager to serve, and in their own right brought many relevant skills to the agency.

Sue Sefansky served as the first director of Jewish Family Services from 1994-1995, followed by Aliza Shevrin, from 1995-1996. In 1997 Anya Abramzon was hired as Executive Director and the agency’s first full-time employee. Since then, the agency has grown substantially. JFS has expanded from a single person agency with two programs to an organization with nine staff members working in two different locations on a wide variety of services. In 2010 JFS served more than 2,500 clients, providing them with direct and support social services, including:

  • Refugee Resettlement
  • ESL
  • Employment / Career services for all non-English speaking clients in Washtenaw County
  • Case Management
  • Family Life Education
  • Mental Health Referral program
  • Volunteer Services
  • Senior Services

Case management, assessments, crisis intervention and referrals for social service assistance are provided regularly, dealing with a wide range of problems and needs from handling evictions to finding special education programs or appropriate senior facilities or nursing homes.