History of Jewish Family Services of WNC

In the beginning…

In November 1998 Alison Gilreath approached Rabbi Robert Ratner of CBHT, and Marlene Breger Joyce, Executive Director of the JCC, with a proposal to establish programs to address the unmet needs of older adults in the WNC Jewish community. With their support the Jewish Council On Aging (JCOA) was established as a program of the Asheville Jewish Community Center, with Alison appointed as volunteer Chairperson of the Council. In March 1999 the community was invited to a luncheon at the JCC where Alison delivered a talk entitled “Aging in Asheville: A Jewish Perspective.” The talk emphasized the growing need for older adult services and the moral imperative within historic and modern Jewish literature to honor and provide for our elders. The newly established JCOA was cited as our Jewish community response to this imperative.  Around the same time, while on a Shabbat walk, Alison had the idea of delivering kosher holiday meals to Jewish seniors as a service of the newly created JCOA. In April 1999 she supervised the first Kosher Holiday Meal Delivery for Passover, prepared in the Congregation Beth Israel kosher kitchen by Nancy Forester, of blessed memory, and delivered by volunteers with flowers and cards, to elders residing in facilities and in their own homes. These meal deliveries continue to the present day, including elders in Buncombe and Henderson Counties, with outreach begun in 2019 to other adjacent counties. Throughout the spring and summer of 1999, Alison developed plans for a unique new program for seniors designed to provide those who had good cognitive function with socialization, activities, exercise and kosher lunches, in order to combat isolation. In addition, the program provided appropriate supervision and structure to accommodate the needs of elders with mild to moderate dementia. Family caregivers would benefit from the respite time to care for their own health and personal needs. Once funding was received from the United Way, Federation and other funders, as well as from individual donors, Alison became the Director of JCOA as an employee of the JCC, and proceeded with establishing detailed policies, procedures, schedules and activities for the new program. With recruitment of many dedicated volunteers to help facilitate the program, including Shirley Cohen and Roberta Atkins, the Elder Day Club Group Respite program was launched on October 12, 1999 at the JCC. Additional unique qualities of the program included visits by the JCC pre-k children facilitated by their teacher Carolyn Myers, and music and singing with Penny White, both of which continued for many years. 

Watch us grow…

Over the next several years, additional services were developed for caregiver support, case management and guided access to community resources for older adults and their families. The Kosher Meal Delivery program continued on for the major Jewish holidays. In 2006, under the leadership of Heather Whitaker Goldstein, JCC Executive Director at the time, the JCC conducted a strategic planning process, and the community affirmed Alison’s report that identified the need for social services and assistance for individuals of all ages and families at all stages of life. From the JCC Strategic Plan February 2006: “Under the umbrella of the JCC, a Jewish Family Services program will provide safe and caring resources for families and individuals who are dealing with challenging social, family, emotional, or personal issues.” Alison was then authorized to chair a task force to identify specific needs and to evaluate the feasibility for potential Jewish Family Services programs. The task force conducted a Jewish community needs survey, evaluated social service programs in other Jewish communities, and visited other local social service agencies. The task force then made recommendations to the JCC board, which in 2007 approved a change of name from JCOA to Jewish Family Services of WNC (JFS), to include the Elder Day Club and to develop additional programs to meet identified needs in the Jewish community, as well as to serve individuals and families of all faiths. Also in 2007, JFS partnered with the WNC Jewish Federation to identify and qualify clients in need of emergency assistance and to request and administer funds from the Federation Keren Ami Fund for those clients. Additional social work staff and Elder Day Club staff were hired as programs continued to develop and grow. A JFS Advisory Committee was established to provide oversight of programs, chaired by Carol Brothers, PhD, while the JCC Board continued as the formal governing body. During this time, while continuing to direct the JFS programs and in order to be optimally prepared to lead JFS into the future, Alison attended graduate school and in 2010 obtained a Master of Social Work degree from the UNC- Chapel Hill School of Social Work.

The path to independence…

In 2011, after detailed planning and mutual consent between JFS, the JCC, and other Jewish community organizations, and with consultation from the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies, JFS began the process to separate from the JCC and to formally incorporate as an independent nonprofit 501(c)(3) agency.  During that year, the JCC maintained operations of the Elder Day Club, separate from JFS, anticipating that JFS would not have the space or resources to manage it after separating from the JCC. CPA Ed Fidelman provided the accounting expertise and many hours of work to fulfill the requirements and submit the application for non-profit status to the IRS, and became the first Treasurer on the JFS Board. Attorney Kerry Friedman provided the legal expertise to complete the incorporation process for the nonprofit 501(c)(3) designation, which was finalized as of June 7, 2011. At that time, the JFS Advisory Committee was transformed into a formal governing Board of Directors, with George Lindenfeld, PhD, as its inaugural President. However, in order to provide adequate time for developing funds and infrastructure to manage and pay personnel, the JCC very generously retained JFS staff as JCC employees through December 2011. From June to December 2011, multiple committees of the Board commenced to provide months of professional work, along with Alison, to develop detailed operating procedures, personnel policies, financial procedures and program structures to support best practices in a non-profit agency. Some key members of those committees included Michelle Tracz (who later succeeded Ed as JFS Treasurer), JoAnne Rosenblum, Judy Duncan, Bonnie Cooper, Adele Gurevich, Ed Fidelman, Henrietta Cutler, and Julian Biller. In addition to Kerry Friedman’s legal assistance, Attorney Robert Deutsch provided significant consultation and support to the JFS staff and Board throughout the years. As of January 1, 2012, all JFS staff members were hired as employees of JFS, and Alison formally became the Executive Director of the agency. The JCC, as part of a financial reorganization, announced that they would be closing the Elder Day Club at the end of 2011. The JFS Board voted to keep the program open as a part of the newly independent JFS. In January 2012 the Elder Day Club temporarily moved to Congregation Beth Israel, generously rent-free for the first six months followed by a nominal rent, while the JFS office and other services remained housed in the JCC building.  Board members and staff launched a search for a new facility to move all JFS offices and programs into one independent space. At this time, JFS employed Jenny Gay, a BSW social worker, who provided case management services, supervision of the offsite Elder Day Club, and assistance to Alison in every way needed in various agency tasks. Judy Duncan and Ed Fidelman generously provided volunteer bookkeeping and accounting services, after which JFS hired a part-time Bookkeeper, Liz Drake, who eventually became JFS Staff Accountant. In 2012 Heather Whitaker Goldstein resigned from her JCC position to return to practicing law, and Lael Gray became Executive Director of the JCC, continuing to support JFS during its transition to independence. Also in 2012 JFS became the WNC Local Administrator for the Jewish Educational Loan Fund based in Atlanta. Thousands of dollars of interest-free college loans are administered each year to Jewish students from the WNC region.

A place of our own and program expansion…

In September 2013 with Judy Duncan’s search expertise, JFS found and signed a lease for independent agency space at Doctors Park on Biltmore Avenue. Renovations were completed after a special “relocation” fundraising campaign, with support from 35 individuals and businesses. One of our most generous annual donors, Ann Wakcher, made a major contribution to the relocation fund. Local contractor Dan Thurman kindly provided pro bono renovation design plans and advising for the new space. Jeff Slosman generously donated most of our furniture from the former offices of his dad Fred Slosman, of blessed memory. In November 2013, under the leadership of Board President Carol Falender, JFS and all social service programs moved to the new independent space. The Elder Day Club moved to the same space and was renamed the “Elder Club.” In the new space, an expanded food pantry was established in partnership with MANNA FoodBank, case management services were increased, and Alison undertook the necessary search for funding to launch mental health services. Along with expanded Case Management responsibilities, Jenny continued as supervisor of the Elder Club, and Jennifer Isaac Thomas was hired as Elder Club Facilitator.  In 2014, with major funding secured from several foundations, JFS established Mental Health Counseling Services, accepting Medicare and other insurance policies and offering sliding scale fees for uninsured and underinsured individuals. Dayna Guido, LCSW was contracted to provide clinical supervision to the staff. The first of several Licensed Clinical Social Workers was hired, followed by Deborah Wood, LCSW, who helped build the program client base. Liz did the painstaking work of applying for JFS to become a provider for Medicare and other insurance companies, and developed the processes for billing insurance and clients for mental health services.

Many transitions ahead…

Jenny Gay left to get her MSW degree, and subsequently went to work at the JF&CS agency in Atlanta Georgia. Ariella Fleet, MSW, was hired as the new JFS Case Management Social Worker. Anne Wainer, MSW had been in place as the first JFS Administrative Assistant, providing invaluable assistance with many aspects of the agency. When Ariella left to work elsewhere, Anne was promoted to be the new Case Management Social Worker and Elder Club Supervisor. In 2015, Julian Biller became President of the JFS Board, and served for two years. Also in 2015 our long-time Elder Club cook/caterer Nancy Forester, having prepared thousands of kosher meals for the program participants, sadly passed away. Bruce Brown very generously stepped in on short notice as our cook/caterer, and didn’t leave until he retired at the end of 2018. Rachel Kalin took over in January 2019 to provide the kosher meals for the Elder Club.  In 2017, Belinda Brandon, PhD, became Board President, and continues through 2019. Also in 2017, Debra Bergman, MFCC was hired as Facilitator of the Asheville Elder Club, and was tasked to lead the project of launching a satellite location of the Elder Club in Hendersonville, as well as supervising and facilitating the program. Agudas Israel Congregation generously provided the space for the program. Nicole Peirolo became the Elder Club assistant and eventually became Facilitator of both locations when Debra completed her work. In July 2017 JFS contracted with the Senior Employment program and was fortunate to have Judy Avalon re-establish the Administrative Assistant position after a lapse since Anne’s promotion. In January 2019, Judy became a direct employee of JFS, continuing and expanding responsibilities to support the rest of the staff and the programs of the agency.  In 2018 Anne reactivated her clinical license (LCSWA) to provide mental health counseling in addition to her case management and Elder Club supervision responsibilities. Debbie Wood continued in her LCSW role, and in 2018, Christina Jacob, LCSW was added to the staff. In 2019, an additional therapist, Debbie Crane, LCSW-ACSW was hired to begin working with JFS mental health clients. The Mental Health Counseling program continues to grow each year. In 2018, with increased requests for support for end-of-life, illness and other crisis situations, JFS began to utilize two independent volunteer Jewish Chaplains (Rabbi Wolff Alterman and Cantor Deb Winston) to fill the need for spiritual and emotional support in those situations. The JFS Case Manager collaborates with the Chaplains to provide that specialized assistance. Funding continues to be sought to formalize this program and support these professionals in their work for JFS. Expansion of the Jewish Community Chaplaincy Program is planned to include community education, volunteer training, and other relevant programming. JFS was established in Asheville relatively recently compared to many other southern Jewish communities. Historically, charity in the Jewish community often relied on contributions from Rabbis, local businesses and individuals to help a specific person or family in need. Rabbinical and community support emerged for a more professional and confidential means for helping those in need. The JFS Board of Directors and committees of the Board have demonstrated a commitment to share their collective and individual professional expertise to support the Executive Director and the entire staff, collaborating to assure best practices in all aspects of agency operations. JFS clients are assisted with traditional social work values, viewing each person in their environment with all their family, community, work and spiritual systems. JFS staff collaborates to provide services in an integrated and seamless manner, resulting in improved quality of life for hundreds of individuals each year.

Our supporters…

Through the years, Alison Gilreath built relationships with many community members, donors, corporate sponsors, as well as many major funders, including: WNC Jewish Federation, BJH Foundation for Senior Services, The Leon Levine Foundation, Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, Perry N. Rudnick Fund in the Henderson County Community Foundation, Buncombe County Aging Services, and Henderson County Aging Services. All of the local Jewish congregations and their Rabbis continue to provide support for JFS, including Congregation Beth HaTephila, Congregation Beth Israel, Chabad of Asheville, Jewish Secular Community of Asheville, and Agudas Israel Congregation in Hendersonville. An annual “Friends