JFCS Teen Annex draws in kids for therapy, activism

While news stories about teenagers often focus on guns, drugs and violence, the young people and staff at Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay are working to put a stop to all that.

In the year since opening its Berkeley "Teen Annex," the JFCS is bringing more teenagers in to both give and receive help through counseling and community service programs.

The expansion has been a great benefit to teen services director Kathy Langsam, who points out that the East Bay JFCS is one of the area's few providers of medical and psychological services to lower-income families.

With an eye on younger children, the JFCS also runs several programs on bullying, self-respect and decision-making in El Cerrito's Tehiyah Day School and several area congregations.

In addition, the JFCS' staff is assisting dozens of teens and their families dealing with substance abuse, depression, sexual identity issues, anger management and a number of other trying conditions.

"We have this whole separate wing with a consistent staff," said Langsam of the annex. "We have the ability to create some of our own programs and workshops. And we have more people. We've gone from two people to a department of 10-plus."

The opening also gave the Jewish Youth For Community Action, a 6-year-old youth empowerment and activist organization, the opportunity to move in with its parent organization, the JFCS.

In the past year, some 25 high school-aged members of JYCA have worked for a number of causes, with a concerted effort toward getting out the youth vote against state propositions 21 and 22 on the March 2000 ballot.

"We did precinct-walking through a part of Oakland where people don't actually vote very often and passed out flyers," recalled Vera Shur, a senior at Athenian High School in Danville. "We joined a coalition of about 30 groups all run by youth, focusing on youth empowerment, anti-racist action and anti-Semitic action. We all worked together to fight Prop. 21 [the youth crime initiative]; we organized protests in San Francisco, and JYCA did one in Oakland. Now I feel like I'm much more aware of what's going on in the San Francisco Bay Area."

JYCA also put together a presentation based on the criminalization of youth, and put on 30 performances at nine area high schools.

"JYCA looks at the root causes of things," said JYCA alum Miriam Grant, 21, the program's administrator and facilitator. "We'll go to a homeless shelter and feed people. But we'll also talk about why there is homelessness and what we can do past serving someone a hot meal today to end this."

While JYCA devoted much of its energy last year to combating Prop. 21, (which won at the polls) the past fall's pet project has been an effort toward increased acceptance and awareness of queer issues, which the group calls "Project Q."

"The queer community is largely represented in JYCA; they've found it an open and welcome community," said Anya Goldstein, a senior at College Preparatory High School in Oakland. "Our support group grew out of that."

Rabbi Ted Feldman, the East Bay JFCS' executive director, is ecstatic over the results of the JYCA program and pleased that, after years of being housed in Oakland, the kids are now just down the hall.

"In the early stages, this program was located across town. So when JYCA first came to us, we felt very disconnected. For me, it's made a huge difference to be able to walk down the hall and discover them back here," he said. "Many JYCA youth are often not affiliated with Jewish community institutions, and for JYCA to now be a part of a Jewish community institution [enables the kids to understand] the nature of the Jewish community."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.