JVS honors director for 25 years of vision, tenacity

When 23-year-old Abby Snay showed up to work at Jewish Vocational Service in 1975, the agency had three full-time employees and four binders of job listings.

Today, the S.F.-based nonprofit has 75 employees and 40 binders.

And that only begins to scratch the surface of how much JVS has expanded in Snay's 25 years there, including her last 16 as executive director.

Many credit Snay with turning JVS into one of the nation's premier job-assistance agencies, one that serves a clientele that is now split 50-50 between Jews and non-Jews.

"JVS is what it is today because she is continually willing to think outside the box and reinvent the agency," said Lynn Bunim, JVS board president.

"Whatever the new barriers have been for individuals seeking employment, she has creatively put JVS at the forefront of matching those people up with jobs."

Snay's quarter-century dedication to the agency and the thousands of people it has served will be in the spotlight Thursday, when she'll be honored at JVS' annual Strictly Business Luncheon.

The honor is well-deserved, according to Anita Friedman, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services.

"Abby always puts the programs and the goals of the community first. She never loses sight of why the work is so important," Friedman said.

"Her vision, her drive, her charm and her tenacity have made JVS in San Francisco one of the leading agencies of its kind in the country," added Wayne Feinstein, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

JVS provides special assistance to anyone who needs help in overcoming obstacles to employment. In particular, JVS has done extensive work with emigres, welfare recipients, the homeless and people with disabilities.

When Snay became executive director in 1984, she set up programs to help the area's many refugees from the Soviet Union get jobs.

"We were able to mobilize and meet their needs in substantive, immediate ways," said Deborah Louria, the director of Jewish programs at JVS. "One of Abby's strengths is her very unusual ability to be both a visionary and a hands-on manager."

Now, a new target group is people with HIV/AIDS. "Thanks to new medical treatments, people with HIV can think about returning to work — and we're there with skills training and counseling," Snay said.

"She is extremely astute to understand the economic and social factors of the time, and to move quickly in areas where the services are needed," said Marilyn Waldman, a longtime Jewish community leader who formerly worked at JVS. "Not only that, but she's always ahead of the game."

Sure enough, Snay is already focused on two future directions for JVS.

"One is helping to bridge the digital divide," Snay said on Monday. "We've been building a technological access center to help people who haven't had access to technology or the skills they need to survive in the 21st century workforce."

A second focus will be career advancement, Snay said. "Thousands of people are stuck in low-wage jobs" because they lack English language, technical and customer service skills. "In San Francisco, minimum wage doesn't cut it."

Snay, 48, joined JVS as a part-time counselor for teens in 1975, when it was a 2-year-old agency. She was armed with a master's degree in counseling and a bachelor's in English from Washington University in St. Louis.

"The country was in its first real economic slump since World War II," she remembered. Young adults were coming out of college without good job possibilities, and Snay was in charge of helping out.

"At that time, the focus was more on the Jewish community," Snay said, though JVS has always been nonsectarian.

Snay soon advanced to supervisor and then became assistant director in 1981, taking over as executive director from Larry Lucks in 1984.

The agency's annual budget in 1984 was $250,000. This year, it's $4.5 million — a nearly 20-fold increase.

JVS has become one of California's leading welfare-to-work training organizations, and is a model for other employment assistance agencies both locally and nationally.

"I think the agency has become as successful as it has because of Abby's personality," said Irving Rabin, who founded JVS some 27 years ago.

Steven Sockolov agrees. He's the vice president of Rochester Big and Tall Clothing, a company that has worked closely with JVS for 10 years.

"She is the most positive and upbeat professional you could ever find at a nonprofit — even though she's a Cubs fan," he said.

Snay, a Chicago native, is a 23-year resident of San Francisco. The mother of a teenage daughter and son, she is married to Ed Yelin, a professor of health policy at University of California San Francisco. They are members at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

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.