JFCS: nurturing 40,000 in its 150th year

During the Gold Rush, a group of 13 Jewish pioneers in San Francisco heard about a very sick "Israelite" aboard a ship that had just sailed through the Golden Gate.

Knowing there was no time to waste, one of the men climbed into a rowboat, paddled out to the docked ship and brought the sick man to shore, where he was nursed back to health.

And the agency now known as the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services was born.

"That was our first case, in 1850," said Anita Friedman, the agency's executive director for the past 15 years. "And in some ways, that's what the agency has been doing for 150 years — helping people in trouble.

"But instead of one case, we now have 40,000 cases."

That's nearly double the number of people the agency was helping 10 years ago across its territory, which covers San Francisco, Marin and Sonoma counties, as well as the Peninsula.

JFCS, which claims the title of the oldest social service agency west of the Mississippi, will celebrate its 150th anniversary Saturday, March 11 at the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco.

More than 600 people are expected to attend. Special honors are planned for the descendants of five families that go way back with JFCS — the Goldmans, Rothmanns, Rothschilds, Fleishhackers and Steinhardts.

The roots of JFCS actually lie in two 19th-century agencies: the Eureka Benevolent Society and the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum. Those two organizations changed names in the early 20th century and then merged in 1977.

The Eureka Benevolent Society started first. Credited as the founder was a 25-year-old Bavarian Jew named August Helbing, who had come from New Orleans to San Francisco to seek his fortune.

As legend has it, his charitable acts included giving up his shipboard cabin so a poor couple and their young daughter could have shelter during the long winter voyage to the West.

As San Francisco grew from a village to a city, Helbing's dry goods business flourished. At the same time, he couldn't help but notice the despair of others.

"It became apparent to me that concerted action should be had in order to take more efficient care of the Israelites landing here, broken in health or destitute of means," Helbring wrote in his memoirs.

As a result, he and a dozen or so other Jews formed the Eureka Benevolent Society in 1850 — about the same time the city's first synagogues were organized. Helbing went on to become the agency's five-time president.

Society members would meet the incoming ships, looking for fellow "Israelites," many of whom arrived ill or almost penniless. The society's members opened up their homes to nurse the fortune-seekers back to health and provide meals.

In 1858, the society began its widows-and-orphans fund, largely because of one tragic case. A Jewish woman died in Gold Rush Country, leaving her husband with a baby boy. Shortly thereafter, while taking the boy to San Francisco on a steamship down the Sacramento River, the father was killed when the ship's boiler exploded.

The community banded together and decided to raise an extra 25 cents annually per member to care for widows and orphans.

In 1872, independently of the Eureka Benevolent Society, the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum was established under the leadership of Temple Emanu-El.

David Goldstein, now an 87-year-old San Leandro resident, moved into the orphanage in 1918 along with his sister, Anna. They weren't orphans, but their 66-year-old, widower father felt he couldn't adequately take care of them.

So the Oakland optometrist placed his 6-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter into the San Francisco orphanage, a rickety Victorian on Divisadero Street.

Built in 1891, "that place…already was a dump when we moved in in 1918," Goldstein said. "It was tacky." The building is no longer standing.

Good times were ahead for Goldstein, however. In 1921, the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum changed its name to Homewood Terrace and opened a new facility by the same name on Ocean Avenue.

"I was lucky. I got to be among the first group of kids that moved in there," Goldstein said. "All of a sudden, there I was in a great new place."

Homewood Terrace was the first cottage-type child-care campus in the United States. The 13-acre property had its own commissary, gymnasium, synagogue and hospital.

It wasn't anything close to resembling the orphanages in "Little Orphan Annie" or "Oliver Twist," Goldstein said.

Goldstein left Homewood at age 11 in 1924, mainly because his sister "put up a fuss. She kept pressing our father to get us out of there…[although] I have fond memories."

Meanwhile, the Eureka Benevolent Society was busy assisting Jews in need of mostly financial help.

A predominant number of the clients at the turn of the 20th century were Russian Jews escaping pogroms and poverty. The Eureka helped 6,000 of them settle in the Bay Area between 1896 and 1905.

Almost a century later, JFCS found itself doing much the same thing. Starting in 1979, as the Soviet Union slowly opened its doors to emigration, the JFCS was there to help emigres settle in the Bay Area.

Mikhail Gurevich and his wife, Shefrina, were two of those emigres. He could barely speak English when he arrived in 1994, and shortly thereafter he lost his job at a warehouse.

Now he is a supervisor of a JFCS project called the "utility workshop."

When the program first started in 1943, it helped secure 35-cents-an-hour jobs for immigrants who couldn't find work elsewhere.

Today, local businesses dole out various jobs — such as order-filling, envelope-stuffing and warehouse work — to the utility workshop, which in turn provides jobs, training and health-care benefits to recent immigrants.

JFCS "helped me to pick up some English and to gain my confidence in this country," said Gurevich, a former director of a manufacturing company in Russia. "I've been helped tremendously by their support and attitude."

The confidence and income has allowed Gurevich's family to settle and get a taste of the American dream. His two sons, Artem, 21, and Alex, 19, are attending U.C. Berkeley and Stanford, respectively. And his wife has worked for JFCS in the Help-At-Home program and as an English tutor.

"Without [JFCS], it's hard to say what my situation would be right now," Gurevich said. "I'm very grateful."

Tens of thousands of others have been able to say the same thing over the past 150 years.

But as much as the S.F.-based agency has evolved in that time, the growth spurt for JFCS was especially pronounced at end of the 20th century.

In the past 10 years, for example, the annual budget has nearly tripled, from $7.5 million in 1990 to $20 million this year.

With the opening of the new L'Chaim Senior Center in San Francisco, there are now 18 JFCS offices — eight of which opened over the past decade.

In addition, JFCS is heading into the homestretch of its biggest project ever: a $50 million senior living center and main office in San Francisco. JFCS plans to move in Aug. 1.

"It's a proud moment for the agency and for the entire community," Anita Wornick, the agency's president from 1996 to 1998, said of the impending opening of Rhoda Goldman Plaza. "It's the first Jewish-sponsored assisted-living facility in the city — and it's about time."

JFCS is growing in other ways as well. Twenty years ago, JFCS had about 25 to 30 volunteers and 100 full- or part-time employees; today, there are 2,100 volunteers and 500 employees.

And 15 years ago, JFCS had fewer than 10 programs. Today, there are 40 — for children, families, the elderly, immigrants, new parents, people with AIDS, shut-ins, the disabled and more.

Thousands of families participate in the Parents Place program, which was established in 1982. It provides counseling, consultation, support groups and workshops for families with young children.

In 1994, Dream House opened, helping women and children escape homelessness or domestic violence by offering shelter, safety and job training.

The Seniors at Home project began in 1996. With the population of frail elderly increasing dramatically, it offers attendant home-care, personal and skilled care, companions and household help to maximize seniors' independence.

There's also a support group for Holocaust survivors; sexual health clinics; housekeepers and attendants for the frail elderly; adoption services; low-cost counseling by social workers and psychologists; meal delivery to people infected with HIV; emergency assistance for those weathering a financial crisis — and much more.

Of the 40,000 people JFCS assisted last year, Friedman said, about 75 percent were Jews.

"It's hard to sum up everything we do because we have so many diverse programs that affect so many people," said Paul Resnick, the agency's president. "We are at heart a social service organization, and our mission is to serve."

The shift to social services occurred in 1938, when the Eureka Benevolent Society changed its name to Jewish Family Services.

Before the change, "the Eureka," as it had come to be known, was mainly a welfare organization. After San Francisco's devastating earthquake and fire of 1906, for example, many Jews relied on the Eureka for temporary shelter and funds to rebuild their lives.

When the Depression started in 1929, reliance on the Eureka grew even more acute. In a span of 2-1/2 years in the early 1930s, the society's caseload and annual assistance nearly tripled, to 635 clients and $19,000 in aid.

But in 1934, private philanthropies like the Eureka Benevolent Society and the Italian Relief Board became overwhelmed. The municipal "community chests" ran dry, and people began to turn to the federal government's newly created welfare programs.

By 1934, the Eureka Benevolent Society's caseload had dropped to 210, said Shirley Tenenbaum, an associate professor and head of the sociology department at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. A few years ago, she researched and wrote "A Credit to Their Communities: Jewish Loan Societies in the U.S. 1880-1945."

"They had to change their name and reinvent themselves, or else they would have gone out of existence," Tenenbaum said. "It's not because people needed less. People actually needed more. But because the government was stepping in, they had to shift their purpose from charity to service."

Jane Steinberg is glad they did. A 52-year-old San Franciscan rendered highly immobile by multiple sclerosis, she depends greatly on JFCS.

She attends support groups, receives attendant care at home, and gets meal deliveries from the JFCS' Chicken Soupers and book deliveries from the a mobile library called the Jewish Roving Reader.

"I would be in really bad shape on many levels if not for Jewish Family and Children's Services," Steinberg said. "They have really made a tremendous impact on my life."

Hearing such words is what makes it all worthwhile for Friedman.

"Our mission," she said, "is to practice what Judaism teaches."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.