JFHN fills important role in reaching out to help

BY JILL KASSANDER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

People are hurting. Many have faced losing their jobs and sometimes their homes. Families are forced to make choices between paying for food, clothing or gasoline in their car.

Many families are holding down two or more jobs to make ends meet. And yes, there are people in economic crisis living in West County.

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A letter from the Rabbi Robert P. Jacobs Jewish Fund for Human Needs (JFHN) quoted Glenn Koenen, the director of the Circle of Concern Food Pantry in West County. Koenen reported their agency is receiving a “19 percent increase in requests for food over the same time last year, and we do not see this situation changing in the near future.”

The new face of poverty is one of the reasons for the continued importance of the JFHN.

“We believe every human being has infinite potential — just like it says in the Talmud,” said JFHN Consultant Marilyn Ratkin. “Sometimes they just need a little help to reach it.”

The JFHN was started in 1985 by the late Rabbi Robert P. Jacobs to help provide a way for the Jewish community to help non-Jewish agencies.

It is a joint effort of the Jewish Community Relations Council and the St. Louis Rabbinical Association with major funding from the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and its Lubin-Green Supporting Foundation.

“We recognize the Jewish Federation does a wonderful job providing services for the Jewish community,” Ratkin said. “But we also have an obligation as Jews to help others.”

JFHN Chair Holly Bernstein found out about the organization when she and her husband Marc decided to be more “thoughtful” about their giving.

“We wanted to give in a Jewish way but we also wanted to help the community at large,” Bernstein said. “Rabbi Mark Shook directed us to the fund.”

Bernstein started as a member-at-large and has just completed the first year as chairperson.

She is passionate about the organization which gives her an opportunity to see the variety of needs in the community and to try to do something to help them.

“Being involved with the Fund has made me more grateful for all the things in my life,” Bernstein said. “And I feel smaller about the little I do in the community when I meet all the amazing people who are trying to help.”

One of the unique things about the JFHN is to provide Jewish involvement in non-Jewish charitable organizations. The point is to put a Jewish presence in the larger community, thereby contributing to the valuable work of tikkun olam and building interfaith relations.

“Our obligation to tzedakah doesn’t end in the Jewish community,” JFHN Board Member Rabbi Daniel Plotkin said. “We are commanded to spread wealth to all in need. It is important for us to reach out and show the community that Jews care about other people as well.”

The organization has grown over the years. Some of the organizations it helped with its allocations have outgrown the requirements for funding. Bernstein finds that especially gratifying.

“We were there to help them get started,” Bernstein said.

Grants are given to not-for-profit agencies which provide significant human needs without discrimination. The allocations are typically around $2,000. The organizations cannot have significant Jewish funding or involvement.

Agencies receiving funding in Spring 2008 include: Bi-Lingual International Assistant Services, Episcopal City Mission, Five Star Senior Center, Fortress Outreach, Griffin Center, Helping Hands Healing Hearts, Joe’s Place, Let’s Start, Near Southside Employment Coalition, St. Louis Christian Chinese Community Service Center, The Family Center and Women in Charge.

These agencies provide a variety of services such as: counseling, health clinics, mental health and social services, housing and educational programs.

They provide direct services for many age groups and needs including: assisting children in public housing, those who suffered abuse, chaplaincy support for children in detention and older teens needing support services.

Agencies also provide support for adults looking for jobs and those seeking to break the cycle of incarceration. Older adults, adults with disabilities, the needy and new immigrants are among those offered assistance to help them live independently with dignity.

The importance of the organization really hit home for Bernstein when she was on a site visit to one of the agencies.

“A woman arrived carrying everything she owned in a trash bag,” Bernstein said. “I was really grateful to be part of this organization that would be providing the money to help her.”

For more information visit www.JFHN.org or call Marilyn Ratkin at 314-442-3873.