National confab here asks if JVS agencies need radical change

At the same time, these agencies aren't ignoring their mandate to serve Jews. They are trying to meet the changing needs of Jews, such as professionals hit by corporate downsizing, highly educated mothers seeking work and college graduates who have no idea what to do.

About 100 JVS leaders from across the continent met last week in San Francisco to address such issues at a joint conference of the International Association of Jewish Vocational Services and the Association of Jewish Vocational Service Professionals.

At one conference session, nationally known demographer Gary Tobin called for radical change within the agencies based on population trends and shifting needs.

JVS has the potential "to be something different" to America's Jews and can be in the forefront of reshaping the communal agenda, he said.

"Jewish Vocational Services need to redefine their mission," said Tobin, director of Brandeis University's S.F.-based Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.

Tobin tossed out ideas as rapidly as a ball-machine spitting out tennis balls.

His suggestions for the two dozen JVS agencies scattered across the continent include defining themselves as community relations organs, aiding Israel-diaspora relations via professional exchange programs, turning to family foundations as a source of money, and training Jewish community professionals.

Later, half a dozen JVS executives asserted that their agencies are already working on a number of ideas Tobin raised.

"We recognize the changes and are doing our best to move along with them," said Ron Coun, executive director of JVS MetroWest in New Jersey, who also addressed the group.

Tobin suggested, for example, that the agencies should use the growing trend of helping non-Jews as a way to promote themselves as community relations agencies.

The vocational agencies serve a lot of non-Jews and should "quit being ashamed of it," Tobin said. The Jewish world needs to move beyond dialogue groups as a way of relating to the non-Jewish world, he asserted.

In Chicago and Minneapolis, for example, non-Jews now make up about 50 percent of clients. In San Francisco and New Jersey, the figure is 40 percent. In Detroit, the figure is 20 percent, but is expected to grow as new programs kick in.

Several executives said they are proud of their work with non-Jews. They also point out that while the percentage of their Jewish clients is shrinking, the sheer number of Jews served is actually increasing because the total number of clients has grown.

Abby Snay, executive director of San Francisco's JVS, asserts that assisting non-Jews aids the broader community and helps build community relations. Jewish clients, she said, also benefit from "economies of scale" — the idea that the greater the agency's overall resources, the greater the number of Jews who can be served.

San Francisco's JVS, for example, has 70 employees today — compared to 15 in the mid-1980s before the agency began reaching out to non-Jews.

Barbara Nurenberg, executive director of Detroit's JVS, said that with the exception of a Hillel group, hers is the last Jewish agency left in the city. The rest of the organizations have moved to the suburbs. That fact gives her agency the opportunity to work with large numbers of African Americans.

The shift to helping non-Jews has at least two sources.

For one, the reputation of JVS agencies has attracted contracts from the government and from industry. These contracts wouldn't allow the agencies to serve only Jews.

Also, at the same time that outside funding sources are growing, Jewish federations are contributing smaller percentages of the agencies' budgets.

Federation funding as a percentage of each JVS budget varies greatly — from 2 percent in Philadelphia, to 8 percent in Detroit, to 22 percent in New Jersey's MetroWest, to 40 percent in Montreal.

San Francisco's JVS, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, is part of the trend as well.

In the mid-1980s, federation money accounted for 90 percent of the San Francisco JVS' $300,000 budget.

Today, federation funds make up 25 percent of its $3 million budget. The other 75 percent comes from government and private contracts, fees, grants and donations.

Several executives expressed frustration at what they see as the shrinking importance of JVS agencies in the eyes of federations, as interest in other subjects has risen.

Jay Spector, executive director of Philadelphia's JVS, said the vocational agencies will serve fewer Jews as federation funding comprises smaller percentages of their budgets. Federation money, he noted, is the only funding that pays specifically to aid Jews.

In the San Francisco area, for example, the Jewish Community Federation has pushed education to the top of its list of priorities.

"What JVS does is at the bottom of the list. It creates an interesting challenge for us," Snay said.

Snay and others still emphasize the need for JVS to help Jews seeking employment.

"Sometimes I wonder if the Jewish community shares the same stereotype as the general community"– that Jews aren't poor, have no disabilities and don't struggle to find work, Snay said. But these Jews do exist.

"It's really important," she said, "that the Jewish community doesn't turn its back on these people."