JFS Marks 150 Years of Help in L.A.

Miss N., 20, was homeless, the daughter of divorced parents who did not financially support her. Although weak and underweight, she struggled to complete a business course in order to obtain a job and become self-sufficient.

Her fate remained precarious, however, until caseworkers from what was to become Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) stepped in to supplement her income. The funds allowed Miss N. to board in a good home until she could support herself.

That was back in 1932, decades after JFS became this city’s first charitable organization in 1854. Now Los Angeles’ largest private nonprofit social services agency is still providing the same kind of personalized care for more than 60,000 clients annually, inincluding the homeless and the mentally ill.

This month at the Skirball Cultural Center, JFS celebrates its 150th anniversary with a simple but moving exhibit, “Still Listening,” which tells its story mostly through case histories like Miss N.

On a wall of collaged social workers’ reports, viewers learn of Mr. Y. and Mrs. S., employees of a traveling Ukrainian chorus stranded in Los Angeles after their troupe folded in 1927. Case workers promptly verified the performers’ New York address and arranged for them to receive affordable transportation home.

Another report, dated October 1947, describes how family therapy empowered the parents of a “rebellious, overly sophisticated adolescent who … prefers the dance halls of the beach area to the Girl Scouts.”

Interspersed throughout the exhibit are original works by contemporary artists and the case histories that inspired them (see sidebar on page 11).

“By clustering a quantity of short, meaningful documents, we hear the voices of those served and get a sense of how these small, individual moments had a huge impact on people’s lives,” said artist Benny Ferdman, who designed and curated the show with Shari Davis.

That impact continued as the agency grew from a one-room office staffed by a single volunteer to more than 50 programs run by 476 employees, with an annual budget in excess of $24 million.

An exhibit video features interviews with current clients: For example, Bita (who requested that only her first name be used) is a 32-year-old Iranian immigrant who felt overwhelmed after her family left their spacious Isfahan villa in 2002.

The Jewish orthopedic surgeon, who had faced job discrimination in Iran, told The Journal about how her mother suffered debilitating fevers a month after arriving in Vienna for processing. The diagnosis was grim: her breast cancer, previously in remission, had returned and spread to her lungs, bones and liver.

“They said if you want to treat your mother here, you will have to stay in Vienna for a long time and you will have to pay for everything, even though we had no insurance and couldn’t afford it,” Bita said, in the cramped but elegant Pico-Robertson apartment she now shares with relatives. Another problem was that, according to her understanding, Iranians were required to remain in Vienna for at least six months before traveling to the United States.

Enter JFS, which arranged for the family to immediately fly to Los Angeles and for the patient to begin chemotherapy weeks before her government benefits came through. Nevertheless, she died in the intensive-care unit two months later, leaving Bita’s sister and father — subsequently diagnosed with prostate cancer — paralyzed by grief.

“I was so sad, but I understood I had to support them,” said Bita, who put her medical studies on hold to run the household.

A JFS social worker lessened the burden by providing bereavement counseling for the family; she also hooked Bita up with English classes to help her resume studying for exams she must pass to practice medicine in the United States. “Jewish Family Service was there for us minute by minute,” Bita said.

Across town in North Hollywood, another JFS client, 84-year-old Joshua Knobler, sat on his neatly made bed in a shabby single apartment that, despite his best efforts, is infested with cockroaches. Vibrant and robust despite two back surgeries and a bypass operation, the retired tailor was unsentimental as he recalled life’s hard knocks: six years in Nazi concentration camps, two divorces, four estranged children, a fall that left him in chronic pain and a drunk driver who totaled his car five months ago. He can’t afford to replace the car, which is why he rides the bus to his card games in Plummer Park and Spanish dancing at a club on Sherman Way.

Making ends meet is a struggle for Knobler, who subsists on a monthly Social Security payment of $917, $513 of which must pay the rent. Eviction could mean ending up in a Medi-Cal home.

“They take everything away from you when you go into those places,” he said. “They don’t take good care of you. You die there.”

To avoid that fate, Knobler relies in part on Elinor Marks-Gordon, clinical supervisor of JFS’ Holocaust survivors’ program, who is trying to find him a subsidized apartment. She’s also provided taxi vouchers, money for prescriptions and an aide who cooks and cleans for him twice a week.

“Joshua is totally on his own,” Marks-Gordon said in a phone interview. “But he wants to remain independent for as long as he can.”

Across from the video installation at the Skirball, severe, black-and-white photographs show 12 of JFS’ 30 founders, who represented half of Los Angeles’ Jewish population of 1854. On June 21 of that year, the businessmen gathered at Joseph Newmark’s whitewashed adobe house to create a Hebrew Benevolent Society for people in need, both Jewish and non-Jewish. The benefactors included Kaspare Cohn, whose mansion became Los Angeles’ first Jewish hospital, and Solomon Lazard, whose dry goods store appears in another vintage photograph.

“The image conveys the rough, crude quality of L.A. at the time,” Davis said of the photo. “Murders occurred often, everyone owned guns and gambling was rampant. It was against this rough and tumble backdrop that JFS’ founders came together with the very refined idea of establishing an aid society.”

Four bulletin boards chronicle how the organization evolved, focusing on issues such as tuberculosis after World War I, Holocaust refugees in the 1940s and domestic crises at mid-century. (“Is your marriage on the rocks?” a 1950s brochure queries.)

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Florence Candee, who was born in the Kaspare Kohn hospital in 1923, tacked a postcard to the bulletin board upon which visitors are encouraged to recount their own JFS experiences. The card described how her parents struggled to maintain their produce stand on Temple Street until the agency granted them financial aid. Her father went on to found his own business in the Los Angeles produce market.

A new JFS program, Parent Empowerment Unidas, is enabling other Angelenos to become self-sufficient. Maria Gonzalez, a 33-year-old clerk, is among approximately 15 Latina mothers who attend the Unidas support group at Rio Vista Village, a subsidized housing project in East Los Angeles. Last Friday, she clutched a worn, Spanish-language copy of “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” which she’s reading in the group, as she outlined how the program has transformed her from a recluse to a more conscientious single mother.

It all began when she started speaking to participants about her own childhood.

“My father used to drink a lot and spend all our money,” she said. “We always lived in other people’s houses, and they didn’t want us there.”

Gonzalez repeated the cycle by marrying a drug addict and moving her children from house to house until she obtained the Rio Vista apartment in 1997.

“But I was always depressed, and I wanted to be alone,” she said. “I would keep the kids in their rooms so they didn’t bother me…. [Or] I would use profanity and scream at them.”

After joining Unidas six months ago, the sharing and self-esteem exercises boosted Gonzalez’s confidence and led her to more appropriately discipline her children.

“The group offers a comfort zone for the women,” said Hugo Garcia, Unidas’ social service coordinator.

Finding a comfort zone was also key for Marlys Nunneri, a 65-year-old born-again Christian, who attends group therapy at JFS’ Family Violence Project. Wheezing as she climbed a short flight of steps to her Canoga Park condominium, she said her partially paralyzed diaphragm is a reminder of how her ex-husband shot her, point blank, with the gun he kept under his mattress in 1999.

“The blow was indescribable,” she said. “The bullet went right through my heart.”

It was the culmination of 47 years of battery that began soon after Nunneri met her ex-husband, a Teamster, at age 13. After she became pregnant and married him two years later, she used makeup to hide bruises inflicted when he kicked her with his steel-toed boots.

“He spit at me, slugged me, shoved me, held a knife to my throat,” she said. “But I never talked about the abuse.”

The change began when a JFS social worker visited Nunneri in the hospital in 1999 and gave her a voucher for four free counseling sessions. Although initially hesitant about psychotherapy (and a group called Jewish Family Service), the devout Christian started attending group and individual sessions. Encouraged by her social worker, she began publicly speaking about her experiences and became active with Women Against Gun Violence.

“I went from being a shy, retiring person who didn’t think she could make it on her own to someone who is out in the world,” she said, beaming. “It’s like Jewish Family Service saved my life. They really gave me the confidence I needed to make a new life.”

For information about JFS, call (323) 761-8800. For information about the exhibit, call (310) 440-4500.

We Need You!

The famous musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” which celebrates life and Jewish family tradition during turbulent times, is coming to town, and what better time than now?

Originally written by Shalom Aleichem and turned into a film by Joseph Stein and Norman Jewison in 1971, “Fiddler” has withstood the test of time. What happened in the Jewish ghetto of Anatevka, Russia, in 1904 is representative historically of the persecution Jews have faced, from the Nazis in World War II to the ascending tension in the Middle East between the Israelis and Palestinians today. The play is a celebration of togetherness and perseverance; fighting for Jewish pride and keeping the faith even when there is little left to believe in and no one else to turn to.

Marla Gam-Hudson, director of the upcoming play at the Huntington Beach Playhouse agrees. “Every day I listen to the radio and find moments of the play that I relate to the current situation in Israel. This play has lasted for so long because of the passion that all of these characters have, from the villagers to Tevye and his family, to the constable and his band of men. They are all fighting for their homeland. It even applies here with 9/11,” she says. “I think ‘Fiddler’ is a simple yet universal story about people finding balance in their lives. This is what the fiddler represents.” Tevye must learn to balance his personal religious beliefs and his love for his daughters, who have strayed from the tradition by marrying the men of their choices.

According to Gam-Hudson, “Fiddler” has appealed to everyone regardless of race or religion. It just so happens that the play is based on the struggles of a poor Jewish man and his family, but could easily relate to the story of a Muslim, Methodist or Buddhist. “It is a universal story about people finding balance in their lives and their determination to survive in difficult situations. The Jews in the pogrom are brave for standing up for their beliefs and integrity, but then Romeo and Juliet did the same thing as did the Greeks and Romans,” she says. “We find that part of our soul that allows us to see past the differences and find out in how many ways we are all the same.”

Gam-Hudson’s family came to America after being exiled from Prussia shortly after the turn of the 20th century. Born in Los Angeles and now residing in Orange County, Gam-Hudson teaches theater at California State University Northridge and is the producing artistic director for the New Voices Playwright’s Theater at the Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills. She has directed more than 200 plays since age 17, and at age 6 she auditioned for a tour with Zero Mostel, famous for playing Tevye on stage, and regrets not accepting the part. When she was 18, she contemplated the idea of becoming a rabbi but instead attended Cal State Fullerton, where she received her master’s.

Attempting to bring her personal journey into the production, Gam-Hudson says, “I am at a place in my life now where I am finding a great deal of peace, joy, beauty and love. This story is the encapsulation of all those things.”

Tevye will be played by Tim Nowiki of Redondo Beach, who according to Gam-Hudson is a triple threat with his ability to act, sing and dance. Nowiki has played the part before.

Traditionally, most productions of “Fiddler” use dull costume colors to represent poverty and exile. However, Gam-Hudson will use bright colors to symbolize life. “This is an idealized version that will use color to highlight the emotional levels of the story and its characters,” she says.

Yet, throughout history, from the slaves in ancient Egypt up until today’s conflict in Israel, regardless of the freedom and lives lost, Jews have always found a way to bounce back and prevail. Tevye and his family could not fight the approaching army, so, just as Gam-Hudson’s family had done in Prussia, they flee to America in search of a better future.

“They all head off not in different directions but in the one direction that God tells them there is hope for a future,” she says. “America was the hope, and I think, still is.”