JFCS of East Bay is celebrating 120 years of service

Back in 1877, a circle of genteel ladies with a desire to help the Oakland area's sick, poor, transient and jobless organized the Daughters of Israel Relief Society.

To raise money for these efforts, the all-volunteer group organized balls and fairs.

Ninety years later, the times and the needs in the East Bay had changed. So had Daughters of Israel, which became Jewish Family Service.

"LSD Discussion Draws Overflow Crowd," reads a yellowed 1967 newspaper clipping about an agency-sponsored lecture aimed at worried parents of hippies.

Today the organization, now known as Jewish Family and Children's Service of the East Bay, will celebrate its 120th anniversary by hosting a Thursday, May 29 dinner.

The event also will honor JFCS board member Chaim Friend and 17 East Bay congregational rabbis who have worked closely with the agency.

"Often rabbis are not acknowledged in the community for the work they do," Ted Feldman, JFCS executive director, said last week. "We want to thank them and let the community know how important their work and their support of this agency has been."

Feldman added that Friend has been a major force in the agency's fund-raising and development while JFCS has been reorganizing during the past couple of years.

After focusing for many years primarily on counseling services and refugee resettlement, JFCS wants to return to its origins of offering broad-based social services.

"We're really going back to our roots, in some sense," said Bob Kane, JFCS board president.

Such a move isn't unusual for JFCS, which today serves both Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Over its long history, the agency has contracted or expanded its realm of coverage numerous times — and it's changed its name just as frequently.

In the beginning, the Daughters of Israel set up its headquarters in the president's home and offered food and clothing to the needy.

After the 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco, great numbers of newly homeless individuals moved across the bay. To deal with this influx, the Daughters of Israel moved its headquarters to a rented office. A "financial secretary" began to interview families and hand out aid based on her own judgment.

In addition, the group raised money to send to Jews in czarist Russia who were facing pogroms and persecution.

The Daughters of Israel hadn't changed too dramatically when a 1908 edition of a local Jewish newspaper reported that the group had found jobs for many of the "idle men who this winter gathered here in large numbers from all over the Pacific Coast."

But a decade later, Jewish communal efforts had grown sufficiently to require additional organizing.

The Oakland Jewish Welfare Relief Federation formed in 1918 to consolidate the efforts of several charities, including the Daughters of Israel. In the mid-1920s, the Daughters of Israel hired a professional social worker for the first time.

The 1930s and 1940s witnessed another major change as Jewish refugees from Europe began arriving. The Daughters of Israel changed its name to the Family Welfare Committee and hired a special immigrant aid worker to handle the load.

After World War II, the refugee resettlement program become the committee's main priority.

The agency became known as the Jewish Family Service in the 1950s and opened an office in Walnut Creek as the suburbs bulged in the 1960s.

The agency began to focus primarily on refugee resettlement and psychological counseling.

Then last year, the agency now known as the Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay broke off from the federation and reincorporated as a separate entity.

Today, the agency is a far cry from its original circle of volunteers.

Its annual budget tops $1 million. It has eight full-time and 17 part-time workers. The number of client "contacts" averages 4,000 to 5,000 per year. And besides its main headquarters on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, JFCS has four satellite sites in Contra Costa County to handle refugee resettlement, senior services and counseling.

The services include premarital counseling, parenting workshops and adoption services. JFCS also offers emergency food and shelter, consultations to schools dealing with behavioral problems and support groups for Holocaust survivors and their children.

But in many ways, Kane said, the agency is trying to return to its origins as a "safety net."

"In the beginning, it was designed to help people who were in need," he said. "We sort of became known in the East Bay as doing immigrant services and counseling services. Now we're going back to our roots. We are becoming more of a social service agency, providing a full range of services…We want to do more advocacy work."

Besides the basic counseling and refugee work, Feldman said, the agency wants to expand into other fields such as conducting court-ordered child custody evaluations for divorcing parents and developing services for people with disabilities. It also hopes to expand its vocational services beyond the emigre community and increase its social work among seniors.

"The more we offer, the more we can help," Feldman said.

In whatever ways JFCS has changed and will further metamorphose, Feldman believes the founders of the Daughters of Israel would be amazed at how much wider their once-small circle has grown over the years.

"I think they would feel proud about what they've done."