As we at JEVS Human Services celebrate 70 years of service to thousands of people of the Greater Philadelphia community, I don't know how many times I've been asked: "What's Jewish about JEVS?" There's another question that usually accompanies this one — "So what is it that JEVS does?" These are the most frequent queries people voice about an organization that those of us involved like to think of as one of Philadelphia's best-kept secrets.
The simple answer is that JEVS helps people actualize themselves, which constitutes the highest form of Jewish ethical behavior. And we who are involved do it not by providing charity but rather the ability to support oneself and be as independent as possible.
That, at heart, is what JEVS does and also what makes it Jewish.
JEVS is not an employment agency; it's not a vocational training school; it's not a rehabilitation facility; and it's not a government program. It's all of these — and more. It's an array of constantly responsive activities centered on one goal: helping individuals realize their full potential.
It's helping returning veterans, or escapees from some war-torn or disaster-stricken part of the world; it's helping people who have never known anything but welfare transition to work — or assisting those who've never been able to work because of drug dependency; and it's helping those who've just been released from prison or who have intellectual or mental health disabilities.
The organization's name used to be Jewish Employment and Vocational Service. It's now JEVS Human Services. But its tag line — Making Hope Happen — has remained the same.
To work to help further that mission is the reason I joined JEVS nearly 40 years ago and why I continue my involvement today. People simply feel better about themselves if they're self-reliant and contributing rather than being dependent upon society and always taking from it.
With an incredibly dedicated and conscientious staff, along with the lay leadership — which includes an energetic pool of past presidents and chairs who stay involved long after their terms are completed — JEVS Human Services has consistently responded to the needs of our society.
It's the responsiveness of JEVS to community needs that makes the difference. For example, when Pennhurst State Center and Philadelphia State Hospital closed, new and better services were provided for those who'd been displaced (our now statewide Supports for Independence provides in-home care for people with physical disabilities and the elderly). When Welfare-to-Work was implemented in the mid-1990s, we were able to offer training and employment tailored to recipients' needs through the Maximizing Participation Project.
With the recession and the jobless recovery of recent years, I was reminded of JEVS' original mission: As our brothers and sisters came through our doors seeking work, I realized that we were still every bit as necessary as we were on the eve of World War II when we began.
Moreover, seeing our Center for New Americans continue to place valuable workers — including those who have recently fled troubling places such as Iraq — helps demonstrate to the world that assisting all those we can is what truly puts the Jewish in JEVS.
Howard D. Scher, a local attorney, served as president of JEVS Human Services from 1998 to 2002.