By Rabbi Will Berkovitz, CEO
Ten years ago, I started as CEO of Jewish Family Service. When I think back on the past decade I think primarily of people. What better way to measure time than through relationships? Their ebb and flow seemingly pulled by the gravity of some unseen celestial object orbiting our lives. People fading in and out of our days, months, years. The increasing height of a child. The reconciliation with loss. The success or fallout of good and bad decisions. Ten spins around the sun.
For the past decade I have witnessed the stories and memories of JFS. From my vantage point, JFS reflects the best of us: a more selfless version of what society could be and the aspirations we bring as a community. I have encountered this vision through the ways people have responded to the myriad of crises we have faced — from our crisis of civility to the global pandemic, as well as the economic and emotional toll the pandemic has wrought on so many people.
Yet through it all staff and volunteers at JFS have continually given so much of themselves to ease the challenges our neighbors face. People they may never know but who are part of the threads, the individual lives, making up the fabric of our community. I have profound gratitude for the countless people I have met over the years and consider mentors, colleagues, and friends.
Working with the people connected to JFS has unequivocally made me a better person. Just by showing up, doing the work, and living lives of service they have helped me raise the bar for my own personal expectations and made our community a better place to live.
I see the dedication of our colleagues who work directly with community members every day. But it’s not just them. It is everyone at JFS. It’s Mark, Sabia and Jill, who greet people at our reception desk when they come to our Capitol Hill campus and Svetlana who welcomes people in our Kent office. And it’s Mike, Sasha, and Brenda who work to ensure our financial operations run smoothly. Every person at JFS strives to make the best decisions for the people who come to us in need of support, with the limited resources we have.
I was in our food bank yesterday introducing myself to Matt, a new member of the JFS team. I saw some old friends and volunteers, some who have been working in the food bank for longer than I have been at JFS. In fact, they were some of the same people who taught me how to help in the food bank all those years ago: Where to put various types of food or how not to crush the produce when restocking. They showed me how to provide food based on the individual preference of a client; what kind of beans they like or who needs diapers for their baby.
These are the things that make JFS truly unique. It isn’t only the depth of the expertise of the staff or dedication of the volunteers, but the way everyone cares so deeply about the people who turn to us. This is the essence of being an agency founded on the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam, “repairing the world.” Our community of staff, volunteers, and donors challenge me to work harder and try to be better every day. And always remember JFS exists to help people.
It has not always been easy.
We humans are complicated. It takes effort, support, and trust to evolve into better versions of ourselves. I witness the vulnerability of so many people who turn to JFS for support and, in turn, I have learned to be more vulnerable with others. Rather than justify my mistakes, I try hard to own them, and then sincerely ask for forgiveness when it’s appropriate.
I have learned to slow down, listen more, listen harder, and genuinely try to understand. I question my assumptions rather than hold them as truth, and I remind myself that the same story can hold vastly different meanings for different people. And fundamentally, I trust everyone is doing their best in a challenging time when the needs are overwhelming.
The past decade has revealed a truth that is the essence of JFS. For over 130 years it has always been about people and our relationships. Those we serve, those who serve alongside us and all those in our community who aspire toward a better vision of our society.
After my first decade at Jewish Family Service – a decade of evolving, making mistakes and learning from them, there are many things I am less sure about, and a few things I am even more certain of. Above all, I am grateful for the remarkable people JFS attracts and the relationships I have developed with them – mentors and teachers who are willing to share their wisdom and knowledge. I am truly blessed to work alongside these extraordinary people.
A reading of this message is available here.