Jan Abrams puts people first at JF & amp;CS

BY PAM DROOG JONES, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Jan Abrams says she was bitten by the community-service bug when she was seven years old. “My aunt gave me and my cousin a can and let us stand on the street corner to collect for multiple sclerosis. We practiced and practiced how to say, ‘Would you like to give to multiple sclerosis?’ Those are some big words for little girls!” Abrams says. “I know that’s when my community service began.”

Later Abrams was a candy striper at local hospitals and in college she participated in her sorority’s fundraising activities. “I was always the one to volunteer for whatever needed to be done for anyone less fortunate,” she says. Through the years, her caring spirit and endless energy have allowed Abrams to make a real difference for countless people.

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School Teacher to School Board

Abrams was born and raised in St. Louis. Growing up, she planned to become a singer. She attended the University of Colorado as a voice major — briefly. “When I got there I discovered they taught very serious opera voice training and I just wasn’t that serious,” she says. She switched her major to secondary education for English and eventually transferred to the University of Missouri.

After earning her degree, Abrams taught at the all-girls Catholic school, St. Joseph’s Academy. “I was one of two Jewish teachers,” she recalls. In the three years she worked there, she shared a lot about Judaism with her students. “I told them about our holidays and traditions, and especially our values,” Abrams says. “It was a really good thing for them.”

Earlier, the former Jan Tureen had met Bob Abrams. “He was good friends through high school with my cousin, but we had never met,” she recalls. “He would pick up my cousin from family events at my house but he never came in. He’d just honk and my cousin would run out.” Finally, an aunt officially fixed them up. “Three weeks later I asked Bob to marry me and he said yes,” Abrams says. “We got married nine months after that, and that was 38 years ago.” She quit teaching when their first son, David, was born in 1974; second son Peter followed in 1976.

As the boys grew up, Abrams did volunteer work for Clayton public schools. In 1986 she made the decision to run for the Clayton School Board. “I believe very strongly that every child, not just in Clayton or Missouri but throughout the world, deserves a quality education. I think every child who comes to the doors of the schools in this community deserves the best education we can give them,” she says. “We were at the start of the desegregation program in which I believe wholeheartedly. I wanted to fight aggressively for that to be maintained, and to be maintained in the right way. And I believe I had a lot to offer and I had the time and energy and resources to devote to the schools at that point in my life. So I did it!”

Plunging into the election, Abrams admits, “I was the dumbest I’ve ever been. I had no idea what to expect. I think no school board candidate can possibly know what he or she is facing.” Going door-to-door to every home in Clayton, she encountered some anti-Semitism as well as “a little of the let’s-keep-the-old-establishment-who-needs-new-people attitude,” she says. She won the election and served on the board for three years.

But when she ran for re-election, she lost — and was devastated. “I have no idea how that happened,” Abrams says. However, she suspects it has something to do with the fact that at least 60 supporters didn’t vote. “So now I’m a real advocate for the responsibility of voting,” she says. “No matter who you vote for, just vote!”

After a mandatory year off, Abrams ran for the school board again and won. Three years later she also won re-election and served a total of 10 years on the board. The last two years she was the board’s president. “When I retired from the school board, I decided on my own not to run again,” she says. “I decided someone else needed to do this work.”

Also, her husband had asked her to come work for the family printing business. Abrams ran the company’s photography division. “I had my own building and staff and I loved it,” she says. She worked there 11 years until last December.

Although she’s not employed at the moment, she’s not exactly taking it easy. Don Senti, superintendent of Clayton Schools (whom Abrams helped to recruit) asked her to co-chair a comprehensive Facility Master Plan for the district; the last one was completed in 1993. Senti says, “I do not believe you can teach or learn leadership. You either have the skills or you don’t. Jan has them. She was a leader on the Clayton Board of Education during a move toward a ‘balanced’ curriculum and she has been a consistent advocate for the voluntary transfer program.” He adds, “I suppose it is obvious but I think Jan is wonderful and a real credit to the community and the school district.”

Also, Abrams also has been a volunteer in the OASIS Intergenerational Tutoring Program for several years, reading to kindergartners at Glenridge Elementary School every Monday. “The best way to describe Jan is she’s such a dynamic person in a small package,” says Harriet Spilker, program coordinator. “She is so profound in reasoning and solving problems, and she always listens and is supportive of other people’s ideas. She just brings out the best in others.” Spilker adds, “Not many people can deal with both adults and children effectively but Jan can. The children love when she comes to read to them!”

JF &CS Advocate

When Abrams retired from the school board nearly a dozen years ago, she searched for some community service to get involved with. “I knew I needed something to fill that hole,” she says. “I looked and looked and found Jewish Family & Children’s Service and knew that it was just the right thing. It does the right things for this community.”

At first, Abrams says, she didn’t know a lot about JF &CS, except for the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry. But as she learned more about the agency’s work she took on increasingly responsible positions within it; in fact, she is the immediate past president of the board. “Jan started out as a fundraising volunteer and eventually became board president,” says JF &CS Director Lou Albert. “As president she made it her business to go to every committee meeting and she participated in all agency activities, and still does. She’s still an active board member and she has had a real impact in making the agency more visible in the community. It’s very fortunate for us she chose JF &CS as her focus in the Jewish community.”

Abrams says one of her main goals as president was to spread the word about JF &CS. “I just think it’s so important that people in this community, Jewish and not, know that we are here, that we serve needy people as well as those who can afford to pay. We turn no one away,” she says. “We find needs and we try to fill them, and also we look at what we’re doing currently and make sure we do those things well. We also want to do them in the best way for Jewish values. We always keep that in the front of our minds.”

Abrams notes JF &CS offers counseling for families, children, adults, couples, the elderly, those with ADHD, adults with mental illness and victims of spousal, domestic and child abuse, and more. And then there’s the food pantry. “We really are a full-service agency,” she says.

During her term as president, Abrams made a commitment to personally call JF &CS donors. “It took hours and hours!” she says. “Many of these people told me they had never been contacted by anyone in any organization, ever. I talked to some who said thanks and goodbye. I talked to others for 30 or 40 minutes, people who wanted to tell me their stories.”

Notes JF &CS Director of Development Barbara Barnholtz, “So many people told me, when Jan was making her calls, sometimes she’d leave a message they’d save it and listen to it over and over again. That’s just because Jan has a gift for connecting with people in a way that makes them feel so special and good about what they’re doing for JF &CS, whether they’re volunteering or making a gift. Because of that we have been able to build our base of donors and volunteers.”

‘A Very Lucky Person’

“I’m always on the go,” Abrams says. “My husband is amazed when I am home.” However, she notes that her husband attends all JF &CS functions, as do her two grown sons and their partners. When Abrams does have some down time, she loves to knit and bake and is quite accomplished at both. Above all, she likes to be with her family. “Also we love our neighborhood,” Abrams says. “We probably never will move out of Clayton.”

Abrams belongs to B’nai El where her father was president. “I’m not the most observant Jew but I am Jewish because I feel Jewish,” she says. “I look at the world and its diversity as extremely important. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without diversity. There is room for everyone at my table.”

Abrams says, aside from her family, “JF &CS is my passion. I’m as committed as I was on day one. In general, I consider myself a lucky person. I’m lucky that my husband gives me the support I need and that I have a great family and a huge circle of friends. If I could change anything,” she says, “I might be a little taller.”