Women’s Auxiliary for Jewish Aged flourishes in new role

In 2014, Jean Payuk, Ruth Cohn and Susie Harris (seated left to right) of the Women’s Auxiliary for the Jewish Aged, raise a cup of coffee in celebration of their challenge grant to Crown Center for Senior Living’s Circle@Crown project, along with Crown’s Executive Director Nikki Goldstein (standing). The Auxiliary teamed up with Jewish Federation to form a supporting foundation focused on helping seniors. 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

The Women’s Auxiliary Foundation for Jewish Aged is gearing up to consider new grant applications due March 14 as it completes its initial funding cycle in a new, revamped role under the auspices of Jewish Federation.

“This was the first time with the infrastructure of the Federation we were able to put that request out to the whole community,” said Mindee Fredman, director of foundations for Jewish Federation. “We wanted to keep it open. We didn’t want too many specific criteria or guidelines. We wanted to see what the needs of the elderly were in our community and be able to respond to that.”

The Women’s Auxiliary Foundation for Jewish Aged, created in 2014, distributed about $65,000 to a variety of programs ranging from a Shabbat event for the Alzheimer’s Association to assisting the new Covenant Place building slated to open next spring.

Fredman said the effort garnered a response from across the community highlighting new ideas to meet specific needs.

“They were things that we didn’t even know people were thinking about,” she said.

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

A new beginning

Unlike three other foundations Federation manages — family foundations with the recognizable surnames Lubin-Green, Kranzberg and Staenberg — this foundation is derived from an organization. The Women’s Auxiliary for the Jewish Aged supported efforts at the former Jewish Center for the Aged before its transition in recent years to the Cedars of Town and Country.

Founded in 1906, the auxiliary spent most of its existence helping the JCA with everything from entertainment and  bedspreads to medical equipment and drapes.

“They bought whatever they saw the need was,” said Susie Harris, acting chairwoman of the group.

Harris said it was a way to help the elderly but also was  important to those involved in the philanthropic giving.

“It was a very large organization because prior to the women’s movement, most Jewish women did not work, so their outside interests were, of course, volunteering,” she said.

An early figure in the organization was Bertha Sloofman.

“She was a very tiny woman who was a very large fundraiser,” Harris said. “She would go to businesses and she would sit in the lobby and she would wait until she could speak to the president and she would come out with a large donation.”

Sloofman’s daughter Jean Payuk also played a big role in the group for many years. 

Today, Payuk’s daughter Joni Silverstein-Sexton, a member of the Auxiliary, said her family believes in helping the elderly.

“There was just a very strong commitment to Jewish seniors and to making sure that their lives were bettered in a way or were as fulfilling as they could be,” she said of the organization. 

She’s glad to still remain a part of the group.

“It is kind of a humbling experience for me because of my grandmother and my mom’s involvement,” Silverstein-Sexton said. “It is a chance for me to carry on a tradition in the family.”

Harris became involved in the auxiliary in the fall of 2003 when her husband, Irwin, became a resident at the facility for seniors  then known as the Cedars at the JCA, and she began talking with Jean Payuk who told Harris that she should join the auxiliary.

By the following spring, Harris was named president of the group, with Payuk acting as one of her mentors.

But it turned out to be a time of transition for the auxiliary. The next decade saw the financially troubled JCA coming under new ownership and obtaining a new name.

Yet, despite the auxiliary’s struggle to find a new role, it continued to have substantial resources thanks to trusts left by two women. Eventually, the group amassed more than $1 million, which made it eligible for forming a Federation foundation.

Harris had been reading stories in the Jewish Light and her thoughts eventually turned to the money that was sitting in the bank. She thought the auxiliary could do something more productive and called the Federation’s Ken Weintraub to inquire about the process of setting up a foundation.

“He said that was one of the happiest days of his life,” she laughed.


Coming home

Ultimately, Harris began having conversations with her own board.  Some members were concerned that the Federation would “take over” the money, but Harris said those fears were quickly allayed. Federation’s involvement expanded opportunities for the group’s mission.

Amy Pakett, Federation communications manager, said that’s the idea. Federation handles the foundation’s back office, does the administrative work and facilitates grant-making through a formal process while the funds become part of the Federation investment pool.

“They get our marketing services, our PR services and all those things,” Pakett said. “When you think of a freestanding family foundation or organization, they might not have any staff. It’s all volunteers. They don’t have the resources or the capacity to have a graphic designer or a PR contact doing media follow-up. Many of those things we can offer through our in-house department.”

A board consisting of Federation representatives and members of the auxiliary run the foundation. The auxiliary remains as an organization but the active grant work is now done by the foundation.

This time, that work included partnering with three local congregations to make gift bags for the elderly and assisting St. Louis NORC in purchasing a Wii console to help seniors exercise.

“It’s a total win-win situation from every aspect,” said Harris, who called Fredman “her angel.” 

“It is our desire, given all the avenues that we have now, that we can expand not only where we give but that we can meet greater needs. That’s because we are part of the Federation now.”

Harris, who has done community service work for decades, said this is one of the most important things she’s been involved in.

“I feel like I’m home,” she said.

To apply for a Women’s Auxiliary Foundation for Jewish Aged grant, visit www.JFedSTL.org/about-us/Womens-Auxiliary-Foundation or email [email protected]. Grant applications are due March 14.