The year was 1849 and Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in the U.S. to earn a medical degree. Closer to home, the wife of the rabbi at Congregation Beth Ahabah gathered a group of women and formed the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Association to serve the sick and vulnerable. Over time, the group helped Civil War soldiers, victims of the influenza pandemic and tuberculosis patients.
The Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Association eventually transitioned from a volunteer agency into a modern social services agency, becoming Jewish Family Services in 1954. This Sunday, it will celebrate its 170th birthday with a big party at the Virginia War Memorial.
Wendy Kreuter, chief executive of Jewish Family Services, says its mission always has been to transform lives and strengthen the community.
“What that means has changed over the decades,” she says. “We’ve always looked to help with what’s important right now.”
In the last 70 years, its volunteers and staff established an adoption program, supported homeless youth and welcomed immigrant families from the former Soviet Union. During three crucial periods — 1890, 1938 and 1989 — JFS put its energies into helping Jews escape persecution and resettle in Richmond. It required a tremendous effort that involved meeting the immigrants when they arrived, finding them living accommodations, teaching them to shop in U.S. grocery stores and getting their children into local schools.
In 1969, the group saw a need to help young adults dealing with drug problems and homelessness, so it opened the Rap Center, which eventually became what today is known as the Daily Planet. It is celebrating its 50th birthday in conjunction with Jewish Family Services’ 170th.
A staff of 45 employees with 100 home care aides oversees home care and care management programs throughout the community.
“We customize the care and coordinate with the families to help older adults with money management, navigating doctors’ appointments as well as medical issues,” Kreuter says, adding that the group assumes guardian and conservator roles when requested. “Whatever people need, we have social workers and staff to help.”
Begun in the 1950s, Jewish Family Services’ adoption program helps those hoping to adopt children as well as those considering placing children for adoption in permanent homes. Additionally, it offers a full counseling program for children, adults and couples staffed by licensed clinical social workers and psychologists. Because the U.S. population is rapidly aging, the group has added off-site counseling in assisted living facilities to meet people where they are.
“Our services work as a continuum,” Kreuter explains. “It’s helpful and convenient to be able to access so many programs in one place.”
Those seeking help can call the front desk or email from the Jewish Family Services website to request assistance. Significantly, since the days of the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Association and continuing through the present, it serves the entire community, including all faiths and all income levels. Tikkun olam — a Hebrew phrase that means repairing the world by making it a better place one person at a time — has been its guiding principle since 1849. The original women-only group has evolved into a staff and board of directors reflecting all genders and faiths.
Expansion continues today with JFS establishing a personal care aide school in the East End, from which 14 students graduated in April. Most recently, it launched the Richmond Jewish Care Line to help Jewish individuals and families in crisis.
“In one year, we help almost 1,425 clients and provide over 131,000 hours of service,” she says. “Over the course of 170 years, that’s quite an impact.”
But for now, it’s busy planning a birthday party.
There will be lots of cake, a chance to meet some resettlement families and time to learn about the many facets of Jewish Family Services, which is why it’s extending a community-wide invitation to join in the celebration.
“We’ve been part of the community for so long that everyone is part of the JFS family now,” Kreuter says.
Jewish Family Services’ 170th birthday party will be held Sunday, Oct. 6, from 4-6 p.m. at Virginia War Memorial, 621 Belvidere St., jfsrichmond.org.