JFS celebrating 150 years of helping St. Louisans


Bill Motchan, Special For the Jewish Light

A key mission of JFS (Jewish Family Services) is to help seniors in the St. Louis Jewish community age with dignity.

On the milestone of its 150th anniversary, JFS itself is aging quite gracefully.

The organization continues to make a difference in the lives of many families by supporting seniors, alleviating hunger, promoting mental health and preventing child abuse. JFS has also  adapted to new challenges without missing a beat.

It all began in 1871 in the aftermath of the great Chicago fire, explained Brian Braunstein, JFS board chair.

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“I’m not sure that a lot of people know how the organization started 150 years ago,” Braunstein said. “The United Hebrew Relief Association in St. Louis was formed and rallied around the Chicago community to offer support to victims of the fire. That was really the kickoff to JFS way back then.

“In the late 1800s there were a lot of immigrants coming over to the states and we had a lot of Jewish immigrants coming to St. Louis,” he said. “Jewish Family Services, as it was called then, provided a lot of support and assistance to Jewish immigrants. Reflecting back to the founders of the organization, I’m sure no one could have imagined what the organization would grow into today and how much it serves the community.”

JFS now provides services for more than 50,000 children, families and seniors annually in key areas like hunger management, suicide prevention and services for seniors.

Timeline: How JFS grew

As Braunstein noted, in the 1890s JFS helped with resettlement efforts of Jewish immigrants from Russia. In 1897, JFS helped create United Jewish Charities of St. Louis (now Jewish Federation of St. Louis) to help the Jewish poor. In 1957, the organization launched its first JFS homemaker services program to address the needs of Jewish elderly in St. Louis. That program remains one of JFS’ most popular senior services today.

JFS was incorporated as a Missouri non-profit organization in 1964 and in 1985, JFS received its first accreditation from the Council of Accreditation. In 1991 the food pantry was established, serving 40 families in its first year. JFS helped create the Child Abuse Prevention Program in 1992. It is now the only program providing sexual abuse prevention education to pre-school and elementary school students in St. Louis.

In 2002, JFS dedicated the Hoffman Building and moved into its current home on Schuetz Road. Another significant elder care initiative began in 2009 when JFS and Jewish Federation of St. Louis launched Elderlink. In 2012, the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry outgrew its former space and moved to a stand-alone building to serve more clients.

Progress on key initiatives

Two years ago, Miriam Seidenfeld, JFS’ CEO, told the Jewish Light she saw three priorities for the organization to focus on. Those were to ensure that seniors are able to maintain their independence or maintain a sense of dignity as they age; food insecurity in St. Louis, and the alarming issue of despair in children who attempt suicide. As JFS enters its 151sth of service, Seidenfeld offered a progress report on those key initiatives.

“COVID challenged all three of those areas and it also allowed us to shine,” Seidenfeld said. “We had fewer people in the Jewish homemaker program last year, but those who were getting the services—which ranged from 150 to 200 people—were being supported in their home and maintaining their health and they were in a safe space.

“We also found that with seniors we could make an increased number of phone calls because we weren’t going into people’s homes unless there was an urgent need to,” she said. “They maintained their quality of life and their health and safety with regular check-ins. We learned that a combination of in-home visits and phone calls allowed us to stay in touch and address needs more quickly because we were talking to them more frequently.

“In social services we look at the simple solution. What’s the one thing we can do that is going to make people safer, healthier and improve the quality of their life. That’s what JFS does really well. We work together with all the institutions. It’s the same with food insecurity. Over the last year, the need skyrocketed. JFS succeeded wildly in getting food to people who needed it because the system was strong, the foundation was strong.”

The pandemic increased the demand at The Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry. There were 15,100 visitors to the food pantry in 2019, and 21,500 visitors in 2020, a 30 percent spike. In 2021, the demand remained high, but it returned to a pre-COVID level. Seidenfeld said that was consistent with food banks across the state.

“The government implemented some policy changes and provided food for families with children, especially those that were struggling,” she said. “But the amount of money people were getting is really small and doesn’t help feed a child nutritious food for a day. The increased SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits with the child tax credits decreased, and the number that were coming to the Hardy Kornblum Jewish food Pantry, people who are in immediate crisis, shot up.”

Progress on suicide prevention

Seidenfeld said JFS made sure it continued to address suicide prevention among children. The pandemic actually made it somewhat easier to discuss the topic during the lockdown and sheltering-in-place because so many people were feeling stressed by the sudden change in their lifestyle.

“JFS has worked really hard the last three years involving everybody in the conversation and COVID affected everybody,” she said. “It didn’t just affect kids or adults who had persistent mental health issues. It affected people who generally have pretty good coping skills. They were feeling more lonely than ever have or depressed. So it started to normalize the conversation, the way JFS has had been wanting to normalize the conversation for a long time.

“We still have work to do. But we did a better job of responding, saying we’re here, and let’s talk about how the problem can get solved in the community. We’re here to teach people and this is what we’re getting really good at. One of our Jewish institutions called us about a month ago and said, ‘One of our staff people is suicidal.’ The director called us immediately and said, ‘What do you think we should do?’ It was the perfect conversation. The person didn’t need to come to JFS. They needed to get immediate help and they needed to know that we were an option and  they did exactly the right thing.”

Expanded services for the elderly 

The JFS Elderlink hotline is never quiet for long. Seniors and caregivers frequently call for information and resources. The Jewish homemaker program is a JFS staple, offering homebound seniors an additional level of care and support. Home health care workers are in high demand and often can be quite costly. The JFS program provides subsidized care with a sliding scale so clients pay for services based on their income.

JFS’ Elderlink resource specialist Abby Wolner has begun to see patterns from the frequent callers who seek assistance.

“About half the callers are adult children of older adults in some kind of stage of service coordination or finding housing,” Wolner said. “The other half are older adults, usually looking for some support in their homes. Depending on their needs, they’ll either get referred to our homemaker services or an external service if they have higher medical needs.”

Seniors spiritual and emotional guidance are also addressed by JFS. Rabbi Janine Schloss, the organization’s chaplaincy coordinator, keeps in contact with nearly 500 Jewish residents at 32 residences for older adults. They include independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing facilities. Add a few private residences and group homes, and it makes for a busy schedule. On the fifth night of Hanukkah, Schloss lit the menorah at Delmar Gardens West. The two dozen Jewish residents at the lighting applauded her singing and storytelling skills.

“It’s incredibly rewarding,” Schloss said.  “Working as a chaplain, it’s important for me to simply be present with the person. That’s been a slightly different role. I just came from the Sheridan memory care facility and I was listening to an elderly woman who was speaking as if her mother and her father and her brother were still alive. She was telling me all about the latkes that her mom baked last week. She was telling me all of these stories and I just sat and listened. It’s a gift to be able to help people share life stories and their life experiences. It’s amazing.”

An evolving, nimble organization

From the great Chicago fire to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 to COVID, JFS has been a constant presence, providing services to stabilize families in times of stress. Those situations are unpredictable and can wreak havoc on the community, like the tornados that ravaged southern Illinois and Kentucky last weekend. If and when COVID diminishes, there could be another pandemic on the horizon. JFS learned much from the past two years about weathering tough times.

“What we’ve learned for over 150 years and over the last two years is that JFS has to be here and have people who can pivot to whatever the needs are,” Seidenfeld said. “We learned that we have to keep this institution strong because every year there’s a different COVID.”

Where does JFS go from here? Its leaders plan to continue serving the St. Louis Jewish community and meeting the goals of its mission. Those needs evolve, so the organization will adapt to address them. Tellingly, both Rabbi Schloss and Miriam Seidenfeld referred to JFS as being nimble.

“This is really a transitional moment,” Schloss said. “How can we best serve you at this exact moment? We can try something new and then if things change in three months, just let us know. And we’ll let you know will be nimble and we’ll try to adapt.”

“Our staff has become more nimble,” Seidenfeld said. “They’ve been doing that for years. That’s how the Child Abuse Prevention Program developed. People in the community noticed that the Jewish community was having the same issues as the rest of society was and we wanted to do something about it. We’re always here to address whatever the needs are in the community.”