Linda Foster Reflects on 150 Years of Jewish Family Service

Nov 7, 2022

“He who saves one life saves the entire world.”

For 150 years, Jewish Family Service (JFS) has followed the principle of pikuach nefesh, saving the world, one life at a time. JFS serves anyone in need, no matter their religious beliefs. Its website highlights more than 30 programs and services focused on “food security, housing stability, mental health counseling, care for the aging, spiritual guidance through the Jewish Community Chaplin, employment support, and disability services.”

To mark this remarkable sesquicentennial, we spoke with JFS President and CEO Linda P. Foster about the organization’s mission—past, present, and future.

JFS 150 Years Logo

If we were to go back to 1872 when JFS was founded as the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society, what was the original mission of the organization?

“Francis Wisebart Jacobs, a founder of the organization that we now know as JFS, was committed to helping people in need. Originally, her focus was on Jewish pioneers—300 immigrants in Denver—and the great and growing needs of those refugees as they resettled in a new country. But she was a remarkable woman who quickly realized that there were people outside the Jewish community also in need, and she helped them regardless of race, faith, income, or ability. She went on to be a co-founder of the organization that today is the United Way.

“Jacobs became known as the ‘Mother of Charities.’ I so admire her because she was a strong woman unafraid to pursue her vision of service to the community. Think about it—she took it upon herself to support people who were vulnerable and needed help to be successful. She was a woman and a Jew who led with compassion and empathy at a time when women did not have the same opportunities as men. It really is amazing.”

Has the mission of JFS changed in the past 150 years?

“Our mission today has not changed. We continue to improve the lives of individuals and families in need in Colorado. That was Jacobs’ mission—and that is our mission today. We are following in her footsteps.

“We have really gone back to our roots with our work around immigrants and refugees. The state of Colorado asked us to serve as a temporary resettlement agency for Afghans fleeing their homeland. Also, working with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which is one of nine resettlement agencies authorized through the federal government to resettle refugees, we are now officially a HIAS Reception and Placement affiliate partner.

“Jacobs started the organization’s work with immigrants and refugees, and we have come full circle. At the same time, we are expanding on the original mission, always assessing needs and responding with programs and services. We take an integrated approach, look at the whole needs of people, and evolve with changing times.”

Can you give some examples of how JFS is evolving today?

“One example today is the great effect current inflation is having on people, and we see that in our efforts to address food insecurity. Before COVID, we would see 40-45 families at the Weinberg Food Pantry every pantry day. When COVID hit, that number went up to 120-180 households every pantry day. It dropped slightly after the height of COVID, but now, every single pantry day—that’s three times a week—we are seeing 25-30 new households and averaging 150 each day. It is not slowing down, and the people are coming from all over the world, including Ukrainian refugees. I’m already concerned about a recession when needs may be greater.

“We stepped up home deliveries of food during COVID, and we anticipate at Thanksgiving and the holiday season this year, we will see a huge number of needs.

“We are also evolving to meet the needs of the aging community. We have had an intergenerational pilot program where teens work with older adults to help them learn technology.

“In terms of employment services and housing, we are constantly growing in how we respond as we help by placing people in homes and jobs so they are resilient and sustainable. That homeless prevention need has increased as well, and we are giving out more financial assistance for rent and mortgage payments. We have formed a new department to help people find jobs, including those who have barriers to employment. My son has Down Syndrome, and he worked with one of our employment specialists to write his resume, apply for jobs, practice interviewing, and now he works at Prologis.

“We are always assessing how we can continue to help with the mental health crisis. Currently, we have therapists at 15 Denver schools, working with youth and children, parents, and teachers and administrators. We also offer mental health services to refugees. We are partnering with synagogues to expand mental health support in congregations.

“Honestly, every day we evolve! Needs change, and we cannot stand still, we cannot be stagnant. We need to be nimble and responsive.”

How are partnerships important to the work of JFS?

“For us, partnerships are critical. Responding to COVID meant a need for greater financial assistance throughout the area we serve and responding to the Marshall Fire meant a greater need within Boulder County. JEWISHcolorado has been very involved as an instrumental partner, helping us provide that assistance.

“We assess the real needs, JEWISHcolorado raises the money, and then we see to it that every penny goes to help people in the community. This was true during the Marshall Fire when JEWISHcolorado raised funds to support people who had endured loss and trauma because of the fire. It was also true for the funds that JEWISHcolorado raised during the worst times of the pandemic.

“During COVID, we had to become incredibly flexible, transforming our services into different models. Within one week, we moved all our counseling services to virtual platforms. Not everyone had laptops, so we provided the technology they needed. We turned our pantry from a shopping model into a drive-through pick-up model. We converted our day program for people with disabilities into a virtual program so they would not be isolated. With precautions, we increased the amount of contact we had with older adults because they could not survive without support.

“All the money we received from JEWISHcolorado went to individuals and families to keep them in their homes and survive during the pandemic.

“We also receive partial funding from JEWISHcolorado for the Baskin Jewish Community Chaplaincy program which serves unaffiliated Jews in the greater Denver area. Rabbi Rick Brody visits retirement communities, mental health institutions, correctional facilities, and homes. He does rounds at hospitals to support people who are ill or at the end of their life and leads funerals for people who have no congregation.”

JEWISHcolorado sees its partnership with JFS as a way for everyone to do their part—together. Do you agree?

“The partnership with JEWISHcolorado is important. For example, together we provide resources and support to those who have experienced crises. By collaborating, we are more effective in responding to the needs of the community. And we have different types of partnerships which strengthen the work we do. One enables us to offer English as a second language classes to Afghan immigrants. We have partnerships that help us serve medical and dental needs. Our partnership with HIAS helps us with resettlements of refugees. Our partnerships with synagogues are huge because so many of our volunteers and donors come from synagogues. We partner with corporations that also send us volunteers.

“Mile High United Way has been a tremendous partner. Rose Community Foundation provides us with funding, training, and professional development.

“In every aspect of our work, our partnerships help us expand our resources. I believe that in a strong partnership, you work with others who have strengths you do not have. You value each other. We value our partners greatly, and we try to show it all the time because we could not do it alone.”

JFS provides more than 30 programs and services to the community. Do you feel like you are doing enough?

“As much as we are serving the community now, I feel like we could do more in the future. In 2018-2019, Rose Community Foundation did a study of the Greater Denver Jewish community It was clear that Jewish economic vulnerability is greater than we thought. So many people felt like they could never retire and make ends meet. So many were living in poverty, barely making it. We realized that we have to do a better job serving vulnerable Jews, older adults especially.  

“We have made a real effort, partnering with JEWISHcolorado, synagogues, and other Jewish organizations, doing numerous presentations, sharing this economic data.  We just completed an assessment of older adults in Denver and Boulder so our programs can evolve in response to their needs. We are targeting the Jewish community, trying to get the word out. We want to do an even better job of sharing our breadth of services with people to help them navigate life’s challenges.”

You are obviously very passionate about your work. What drives your passion on a personal level?

“This is the best job I have ever had. It fits my personal and professional views of life.

“Every day, we are having a tremendous impact on the diverse community we serve. But I carry the problems of the world heavily. I never feel like I have done enough. I always feel like I could do more.

“When I was a child, my mother would sew and cook during the week. On weekends, she would take me with her to another neighborhood, where she would bring clothes and food she had made to people in need. She believed in helping where she saw help was needed. My father was a doctor who would volunteer to see patients in facilities for older adults.

“I started bringing my guitar to sing for Shabbat at an older adult facility. In high school, I had a friend who was deaf and blind, and I would pick him up from the institution where he lived and we would go on outings together.

“My parents modeled this way of life. This was our family’s norm, and then I married someone who shared my values.

“We had six exchange students who came for high school, and we are still close to all of them to this day. When you have that experience, you learn about the world.

 “All of those experiences have influenced me. I never feel like I am doing enough, but at least now I am in the perfect job. I can ask, ‘What is needed? What is changing? Where are the vulnerabilities?’ And I can make sure that we at JFS can use our strengths and stay aligned with our mission as we respond.”