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The Earliest Years: The Jewish Social Service Agency of Metropolitan Washington has its origins in two different agencies. The United Hebrew Charities was incorporated in 1893 “…to assist in relief of needy Hebrews” in Northwest Washington; the Hebrew Relief Society of the District of Columbia was organized to “…provide relief for needy Orthodox Hebrews” in Southeast Washington. The two agencies merged and incorporated in 1921 as the United Hebrew Relief Society of D.C.
Services, delivered by volunteers, were tangible and personal: money, food, clothing and coal for widows with children, needy families, and new immigrants.
“As in years gone by we have acted as a clearing house for every conceivable complaint, and our people have come to recognize this fact. No longer are we harassed with the deserting husband (but one case known in two years is a record any community might well feel proud of, and in this case, the man has been caught and punished with a jail sentence) our sick have been well taken care of, our tubercular fortunately few, less than a dozen reported in two years, all provided for.” Source: 19190-1920 Year Book, United Hebrew Charities
The 1930s: The Great Depression brought the realization that a few dedicated volunteers couldn’t meet growing social and emotional problems. The United Hebrew Relief Society hired an executive director, Arthur Rosichan, in 1932; changed its name to the Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA) in 1933 and began keeping regular written records.
The Agency’s funds came predominantly from allocations from the Community Chest, the predecessor of today’s United Way. Expenditures focused principally on rent, food, and coal for clients — about $4,500 per month. Every eligible relief case was referred to the public Emergency Relief Division (ERD), and a cooperative effort emerged in which JSSA provided casework, while the ERD provided the direct financial assistance. JSSA also subsidized start-up costs of small businesses for needy families, in its earliest effort to focus on keeping families independent.
The early ’30s witnessed the establishment of a group of volunteer physicians and dentists to treat JSSA clients. A new executive director, Morris Klass, arrived in 1934. The middle of the decade brought a wave of European refugees, which prompted efforts to find employment for the newcomers and to encourage refugees to become naturalized citizens, so as to be eligible for public benefits.
JSSA also carried casework responsibility for Jewish foster children in the Jewish Foster Home (JFH) on Q Street, Northwest Washington, and in individual foster homes. JSSA was serving 44 foster children — almost 20 percent of its 245 clients — in 1937. By the end of the decade, Klass was redefining the focus of JSSA’s programs from subsistence to prevention and rehabilitation, a change that had already reduced by one-third the number of Jewish children placed outside their homes.
“…relief was not the main service that the Agency rendered in 1939. The services that the Agency offered in other than financial relief were far more valuable to the community. There have been new problems requiring service this year that did not exist in previous years. Each of the staff is well trained and takes responsibility for one of the following: Family case work, child care, investigating applicants for the Hebrew Home for the Aged, and the Foster Home, work with refugees, employment, affidavits for oppressed and persecuted people from abroad, service to the Center Camp, and many other activities that are too numerous to mention.” Source: Report of the President (Paul Himmelfarb), 1938 Annual Report
By 1939, JSSA was making plans for a child welfare program, in anticipation of the July closing of the Jewish Foster Home, a move generated by the growing awareness that the emotional and physical needs of foster children could be best met in individual foster homes. By March 1940, JSSA had reduced the number of children in foster care to 13, and in September 1942, the last “child” joined the U.S. Coast Guard. At that time, JFH and JSSA casework staff and services were combined.
Also in 1939, the Hebrew Home agreed to lease to JSSA grounds adjacent to its Spring Road building for $1 per year, and JSSA began plans to construct its own building. JSSA had been operating out of the basement of the Community Chest building on M Street.
The 1940s: The new decade found JSSA already grappling with refugee services. The employment and relief needs of European refugees were draining the Agency’s budget and time, as United Jewish Appeal (UJA) allocations were not sufficient to cover refugee relief and administrative costs. The Employment Committee had already found jobs for 273 refugees, lowering the caseload to 34.
The Agency moved in December 1940 to its new building, which had cost $40,000 to build. In mid-1941, a Dental Clinic opened in the building with donated equipment and volunteer dentists who cared for 4-5 patients per day. That same year, Morris Klass resigned as executive director to head the Miami Jewish Federation, and Jacob Kammen replaced him.
The entry of the United States into World War II had a direct effect on JSSA: more foster homes for “children whose mothers are engaged in industry”; increased food allowances for relief cases because of soaring food costs; the use of JSSA’s basement as a Zone Warden’s post and as a Canteen for servicemen; and staff working overtime to help the Selective Service investigate deferment claims for dependents. But the booming economy allowed JSSA to return $3,594 of its $50,000 budget to the Community Chest.
JSSA had always taken particular care to distribute extra food and money at Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah and Passover, and 1943 was no exception. JSSA hosted a 1943 Passover Seder for 950 service men and women In Washington.
Around this time, Jewish families on public assistance became an issue. Regulations forbade public assistance clients from accepting money from any other organization, yet the public allocations left Jewish clients with an unacceptable standard of living. JSSA could not afford to take full financial responsibility for these mostly long-term relief cases. The issue was discussed repeatedly at Board meetings, with no definitive resolution.
The Dental Clinic closed in 1944, with the volunteer dentists who had staffed it continuing to see JSSA clients in their own offices.
In 1947, JSSA faced a new challenge. The Community Chest had failed to reach its campaign goal, as it would for the next several years. The closing years of the decade witnessed the most severe relief crisis since 1935. Newly hired executive director Manuel Kaufman faced soaring deficits, escalating family tensions, public assistance cuts, and case loads of 56 clients per worker. JSSA also opened its arms to the refugees from European displaced persons camps.
The refugees posed the greatest challenge to the Agency’s resources. The Holocaust survivors needed extensive medical care, dental care, housing, employment, and skilled psychological assistance. Despite JSSA’s commitment to refugees, it was forced to stop accepting its quota for lack of funds to assist them.
In 1948, the Agency launched its first membership drive, raising $5,000. The newly hired executive director, George Pikser, warned that the Board must either raise more money or curtail Agency functions. The Agency began accepting only true emergencies for assistance, leaving long-term maintenance up to public agencies and giving JSSA assistance to those families for whom the limited available funds could accomplish the most.
The 1950s: During the next 10 years, JSSA completed the transformation from a mostly relief agency to a mostly social service agency. The greatest accomplishment of tl1is decade was the
establishment of the Child Guidance Clinic, a project spearheaded by Miriam Bazelon, a Board member and chairman of the Child Welfare Committee.
The committee found that in 1953, more than 75 percent of JSSA children’s cases were for “…children in families who have not physical, but mental health problems….just as early treatment of tuberculosis will prevent serious illness later, so early treatment of personality disorders will prevent serious mental illness later.”
Four years later, after an extensive needs and implementation study, major fund raising, and a remodeled JSSA basement, the Child Guidance Clinic opened in January 1957. It was the first outpatient treatment center for children in the metropolitan area. Within two years, the Clinic had served 562 children and parents.
The Agency’s finances were an ongoing problem — the decade opened with a $4,000 deficit on a $100,000 budget. The Board conducted various fund raising efforts to supplement the funds It received from UJA for refugee resettlement, and from United Community Services for its other programs. The critical refugee situation that opened the decade eased within a few years, as intensive casework by staff, and the active involvement of the Board’s Employment Committee, helped most refugee families become self-sufficient.
Another change early In the decade helped ease the Agency’s financial burden. JSSA had opted to provide total relief to needy Jewish families because of the insufficient allocations from public welfare agencies; that relief totaled $50,000 in 1951. In May 1952, the regulation forbidding public relief recipients from accepting funds from other organizations was lifted; JSSA transferred eligible families to public assistance and provided supplements, reducing the Agency’s overall relief expenditures.
Another issue that surfaced in this decade was that of “fee for service.” The Board had rejected the idea in 1950, saying fees were contrary to the Agency’s charter. The issue was raised again in late 1952, “…not as an important revenue source, but as therapeutic value to those who need help and can afford to pay, which would include many more than who now avail themselves of the Agency’s services.” In December 1954, the Board established a trial policy of fees for counseling.
An extensive volunteer training program was established in 1958. In its first 19 months of operation, the Volunteer Committee graduated 69 “mature and well-educated women,” who provided 3,878 hours of service to JSSA.
JSSA also began serving greater numbers of clients from Maryland and Virginia, and overall demand for service prompted the Agency to open two evenings each week. The adoption program also grew in this decade. Greater numbers of childless couples were seeking to adopt, and the waiting list was 2-3 years.
The 1960s: The 1960s witnessed the continuing evolution of JSSA into a full-service family service agency. Demographics changed greatly; by 1962, about 60 percent of clients were from the suburbs. In July 1965, JSSA opened a branch office in Wheaton Plaza.
At the same time, JSSA, the Jewish Community Center and the Hebrew Home were studying a joint purchase of land. ln January 1965, a group of individuals unaffiliated with any one agency bought land on Montrose Road in Rockville, Maryland, in their own names and at their own expense, to hold until the agencies decided whether they wanted to purchase it. JSSA voted to become a part of that complex in June.
The Greater Washington Jewish Community Foundation (JCF) was created to raise $6.5 million for construction and furnishings for the three-agency complex. Ground was broken in June 1967; the Spring Road building was transferred to the JCF for sale, and JSSA rented an office in the Woodward Building at 15th and H Streets, N.W., to continue downtown services. JSSA moved into the Rockville campus building in March 1969 and closed the Wheaton office.
Raising operating funds continued to be a major theme of the 1960s. While the idea of a Jewish federation had percolated for years, local Jewish agencies still conducted their own fund raising events, and UJA raised funds for overseas programs. JSSA had tried membership mailings, contribution cards, return coupons in the Jewish Week, stag parties, theater parties, parlor meetings, office gatherings, and individual solicitations with varying degrees of success.
In 1961, JSSA and the JCC conducted a $92,500 joint fund raising campaign, sharing the proceeds. ln 1962, UJA agreed to distribute a “second card” with its regular pledge card, providing the opportunity for UJA givers to contribute to the JCC and JSSA. This card, known as the “Blue Card,” netted JSSA $37,500 in its first year, and $41,000 the next. In 1965 the Jewish Community Council was added to the Blue Card charities. The Blue Card was abolished in the 1967 campaign; overseas and local appeals were combined on one pledge card for the first time. UJA’s allocation to JSSA grew to $120,000 by 1969.
Programatically, changes in the Agency reflected societal changes. The adoption program realized phenomenal growth in this decade, with waiting periods down from three years to one. The availability of infants for adoption and the decrease in applications from adoptive couples led to the relaxation of eligibility requirements. In 1968, 44 infants were placed; a year later, the trend dramatically reversed, and placements fell 50 percent.
Group counseling found its way into almost every Agency program in the 1960s. This relatively new form of therapy was used for adolescents, prospective adoptive parents, parents of children in treatment, couples with marital difficulties, engaged couples, widowed and divorced mothers, and adolescent girls and their mothers.
As civil rights issues came to the forefront in the late 1960s, JSSA reached out to the greater community, donating social work services to Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign. The Agency also began counseling groups for single mothers and fatherless boys at Valley Green, a public housing complex in Southeast Washington. And after the 1968 riots, JSSA not only assisted Jewish business owners whose stores had been damaged or destroyed, but tried to facilitate the transfer of some of these businesses to “Negro entrepreneurs.”
Services for children and adolescents mushroomed in this decade. JSSA began a program of foster care, casework, and psychiatric treatment for emotionally disturbed children who would otherwise need institutional care. An adolescent counseling service began, initially housed in the Wheaton office, to provide individual and group treatment. The volunteer Friend-to-Friend program, in which older teens befriend younger, troubled teens, began as part of this program; it is still a part of Adolescent Services today.
Aging Services, as the decade opened, consisted of finding foster homes and employment for older adults, with some limited counseling and convalescent care. Friendly Visitors were the core of the Aging program, with volunteers visiting the home bound aged. In 1963, 19 volunteers were Friendly Visitors. In 1967, Friendly Visitors convinced the Agency of the need for kosher meals-on-wheels, a program begun in October 1968, with meals prepared at the Hebrew Home and delivered by volunteers. Aging services dramatically increased by the end of the decade. Two social workers shared a caseload of 108 clients in 1969, and the Agency hired more staff to handle the demand. The decade ended with more than 30 Friendly Visitors, 12 current events discussion leaders at local nursing homes, and the meals-on-wheels program.
With a $7,500 loan from JSSA, the JSSA Women’s Committee leased space on Connecticut Avenue, Northwest, and on May 8, 1967, opened a resale and consignment shop to benefit JSSA. Bombe Chest grossed $2,100 in its first 10 days, and by December, the initial loan was paid in full. The shop’s success continued, and after 19 months, its contributions to the Agency totaled $19,500, in addition to the loan repayment.
Under JSSA’s sponsorship, ”The Lower East Side” exhibit was brought to Washington from the Jewish Museum in New York. JSSA originally intended to use the exhibit as a fund raiser, but was prohibited from doing so by the United Givers Fund; instead, JSSA found benefactors to underwrite the cost of bringing the exhibit to Washington. A Black Tie reception on December 16, 1967, opened the one-month exhibit, which attracted a record-breaking 75,000 people.
Source: “A Century of Service 1893-1993” A Centennial Booklet produced by the Jewish Social Service Agency of Metropolitan, D.C.
For more information, visit: www.jssa.org