Armed with new skills, hope, they found work that matters

As Jewish Vocational Service marks its 30th anniversary, one question arises: Exactly whose vocations have been served? Over the decades, the S.F.-based agency has helped thousands of clients achieve the dignity of work. In advance of its 30th anniversary luncheon on Monday, April 19, here are the stories of a few.

Miriam Rozental remembers wearing the yellow Jude star as a little girl in Paris. The French capital was but one stop on her family’s desperate flight from the Holocaust, a wartime journey that took them from Latvia to France to the outer reaches of Uzbekistan.

Fortunately, her immediate family survived, and after earning a medical degree in her native Latvia, Rozental worked as a hospital doctor. But there was a downside to life in the former Soviet Union.

“We decided to move because we had always been ‘dirty Jews,'” she recalls. “It was the same story for everybody.”

In 1980, at the height of the Soviet Jewry movement, Rozental immigrated to America with her husband, daughter and son-in-law. They settled in the South Bay, speaking little English and knowing nothing of American ways.

“I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “I was totally lost.” Three months after moving to California, Rozental contacted JVS. She spoke fluent Russian, French and Latvian, and was an experienced doctor. But in every sense she was starting over.

“They worked with me for a few weeks,” she remembers. “It was in my nature to help people.”

At JVS, she got more than mere job leads and resume tips. “It was the first place that gave me assurance that I would find a place. … They helped me find a way to use my previous education and knowledge in this new life.”

She soon got a lead through JVS for a post at San Francisco’s Department of Social Services, which needed a Russian-speaking employee. “I was interviewed in French,” she says, “and was hired in five minutes.”

Now 23 years later, Rozental recently retired from her job as a social worker, having helped improve the lives of thousands of clients, many of them immigrants like her. Even San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom honored Rozental when she stepped down in January.

She lives in the South San Francisco home she bought with her husband more than 20 years ago, and her family is thriving. But she remains grateful to the opportunities JVS provided her when she first arrived in a new world.

“It was,” she says, “the pleasure of my life in the USA.”

By the time Aviva Shiff Boedecker applied to Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, she knew what she wanted to do with her life. “I wanted,” she says, “to save the world.”

It was an easy call to make. The Toronto native grew up very active in Jewish communal life. Her father, Murray Shiff, was associate director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. Boedecker herself served as president of the federation’s Young Adults Division.

But after five dreary years as an attorney doing civil cases, she had one of those “light bulb” moments: She came across the essay she wrote as part of her law school application. “In the essay I said that I wanted to make a difference. I thought, ‘No wonder I don’t like this.'”

That led her to consider the next chapter in her career, which led her to JVS. There she received valuable job-hunting assistance. “We refined what it was I really wanted to do,” she says, “and how to use my legal background in a way that would make sense.”

In time, JVS got a heads-up that the San Francisco Ballet intended to open a planned-giving division. “My counselor knew that I loved ballet,” says Boedecker, “and told me I should apply.”

She got the job and found herself a niche. After her tenure at the ballet, Boedecker applied and landed the position of assistant director of planned giving at U.C. Berkeley. Ten years later, she became director of planned giving at the Marin Community Foundation, a philanthropic entity where she has worked the last seven years.

“I’ve helped artists, given scholarships, aided medical research, social services and education,” she says. “I did end up ‘saving the world,’ and I think JVS saves the world. Helping people find the right job is really one of the most important services you can do.”

If you like “Six Feet Under,” you’ll love Edward Sankin, the Russian-born physician turned embalmer at San Francisco’s Sinai Memorial Chapel.

Leaving behind his pediatric practice in Leningrad, Sankin came to San Francisco in 1989 with no knowledge of English. But he dug in his heels and sought a new path.

“I tried to get a medical license,” he recalls, “but I didn’t speak English. I had to find a job, and worked as a waiter and office helper. Then I got an opportunity at JVS.”

Thanks to his JVS counselor, Sankin learned the ropes of the American workplace and gained invaluable job leads. “I wanted to be close to the medical field,” he remembers. That’s when he got a bead on a post at Sinai Memorial.

“They hired me,” he says, “but to become a funeral director and embalmer, I had to go to mortuary college and pass the state and national boards.”

That was 10 years ago. Today Sankin is a sterling example of a JVS success story. “I do everything,” he notes. “I work with the body, serve as grief counselor, serve as translator for Russian clients.”

And though the former pediatrician now makes his living at the other end of the lifecycle, he is gratified with his work and with the help he received from JVS. “If you don’t feel compassion, you can’t do this job,” he says. “If I can help people, I’m satisfied.”

Twenty years into a distinguished career as a corporate manager and trainer, Alice Parker abruptly found herself grappling with a strange new concept: unemployment.

“I had been living in Japan and Hawaii,” recalls the Chicago native, “and then moved to San Francisco for a job. Just as I was ready to start, the company got sold. To say I was in a state of shock is putting it mildly.”

Part of the shock came when she failed a basic computer skills test. Though she knew her way around a PC, a lack of formal training tripped her up at interviews.

That’s where JVS came in.

Parker was familiar with JVS, and after a few fruitless months of searching, she made that first appointment.

“I got instant assistance,” she remembers, “and I didn’t have to pay. They could not have been nicer.”

She took computer classes, boned up on Word, Excel and other essential programs, and the next time she took the dreaded test, she passed.

But she wasn’t yet out of the woods. Many months went by without even a nibble. They were the times that tried Parker’s soul.

“It was very demeaning,” she says. “Without the support at JVS, I would have gone off the deep end. I dragged myself there every day where I had the camaraderie of a people doing the same thing I was doing. You don’t feel the great big capital L [for loser] on your forehead.”

After 10 months of searching, Parker finally got a lead on a good job, and she nailed it. Today she is regional human resources manager for ABM Security. Her happy ending gets even happier: Because of her position in personnel, Parker has hired three other JVS referrals in the last few months.


On the job

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.