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The little agency that could

Jewish Family Services of Greater Danbury proves that grassroots is still alive and well

By Cindy Mindell

DANBURY – When the Jewish Federation of Greater Danbury and Putnam County, New York closed its doors at the end of 2014, its board left a unique bequest to one of its committees, Jewish Family Services (JFS). The social service referral resource, seen as the Federation’s most important offering to the community, received $30,000 to cover operations for the next three years, and moved into donated space in the United Jewish Center in Danbury, which also made a financial contribution. Over the next six months, Dr. Rosalind Kopfstein, the part-time social worker who had helmed JFS since 2002, led the transition and then retired.

At the time, JFS had just marked its 20th anniversary, having come into existence thanks to a local grassroots effort. Dan and Ruth Wolinsky had moved in the early ‘90s to Danbury from Long Island, where they had received assistance from a Jewish Family Services agency for their Down-syndrome son. In 1994, Ruth joined the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Danbury.

“People would call Federation with questions and the executive director or another staff member tried to help them but most times, they had to refer them on to another Jewish community member and a well-seasoned social worker,” says Dan, “and I said, ‘Why can’t we get a Jewish Family Services started?’ The reaction was that the Jewish community had been surveyed in the past and no one was interested. I said, ‘I’m a believer in ‘If you build it, they will come.’”

And they did. Ruth received a small allocation from the Federation to hire a part-time social worker, Ellie Kohn z”l, who was succeeded by social worker Rosalind Kopfstein in 2000 and guided by a volunteer committee chaired by Dan. JFS provided free, confidential information, resources, and referrals to the Federation’s catchment area of Greater Danbury and western Putnam County. When the Federation closed, Wolinsky volunteered to take on the chair position once again and now leads a 10-member advisory board that includes a rabbi, an attorney, a retired high-school principal, social workers, and others with backgrounds in the helping professions.

“This is a labor of love by all the members of our committee,” Wolinsky says. “You reach certain points in your life where you’ve accomplished the necessities and you now want to essentially represent the spirit of Judaism and reach out and help others. That’s what is involved in Jewish Family Services.”

Since last July, JFS has been managed by social worker Donna Prywes, who serves as part-time administrator, connecting with Jewish community leaders to publicize JFS’s continued presence and work: providing free and confidential information, resources, and referrals to residents of Danbury, Bethel, Bridgewater, Brookfield, New Milford, Newtown, Ridgefield, Sherman, and western Putnam County. JFS focuses on senior-related services – home care, housing, assisted living, longterm care and transportation – as well as disability-related resources and legal referral information; mental health services, support groups, caregiver resources, and bereavement resources; and information to assist those dealing with normal life transitions and stressful life events.

The shoestring budget provided by the Jewish Federation covers half of JFS’s annual expenses, Wolinsky explains, and has been supplemented this year by two private donors and community response to the agency’s first-ever fundraising campaign.

“We certainly have enough money, based on what we know, to sustain us this year and next year,” he says. “Beyond that, we don’t know. It depends on the fact that our fundraising is able to continue, that benefactors are interested in what we are doing, and that the community finds us a necessary component. We want to let people know we’re here if they need our services.”

For more information: Donna Prywes, MSW, Jewish Family Services of Greater Danbury/Putnam, (203) 794-1818

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