JFS was founded in 1918 by the “Jolly Sixteen”—a group of sixteen women who were committed to making a difference in people’s lives. They united four Jewish women’s groups—Hebrew Sisterhood, Jolly Sewing Circle, Junior Charity League, and the Ladies Hebrew Aid Society—and established Federated Jewish Charities.
The women didn’t have a staff of professional caseworkers, but they did have Rose Neumann—founder and first volunteer director. And they had drive. And a sense of purpose. They were our first rescue squad.
Early on, the agency’s efforts were dedicated to welcoming new immigrants—those who came from the other side of the country, and those who were seeking refuge in the United States for the first time after World War I. Needs were mostly short-term and specific—a place to sleep, a warm meal, a clean shirt for a job interview.
Over the next two decades, the agency’s work was shaped by the global crises that defined the era – the Great Depression, World War II, and the Holocaust. Resettling Jewish refugees from war-torn Europe required considerable focus, energy, and funds.
The tremendous population growth during this period also led to the establishment of San Diego’s first Jewish senior care facility. Agency volunteers visited the residents, arranged their medical and dental appointments, and transported residents to these and other appointments—services that JFS still provides for seniors across San Diego County today.
“We have worked, stumbled, and despaired because the job just grew too big for us. We’ve recognized our own inadequacies and failings, and our inability to do a big job as it should be done. But now, we are hopeful. We are looking to the future of Jewish Social Service in San Diego with enthusiasm and vigor, and we know that in 1950, all of these yesterdays and todays, will become bright tomorrows.”
In the postwar decades, under the direction of Henrietta H. Rubenstein, our focus shifted from meeting immediate needs to family strengthening and counseling. Beyond casework, we developed a range of services to address everyday challenges, including stress, relationships, financial security, and aging.
The early 1970s marked the establishment of the agency’s first drop-in center, providing seniors with access to healthy lunch as well as social, educational, and enrichment opportunities. Many other programs were developed to extend the agency’s impact in strengthening families.
From 1979 through the early 1990s, under the direction of Maryanne Kaye and Jill Spitzer, JFS helped to resettle hundreds of Soviet Jewish refugees in San Diego. In partnership with the Hebrew International Aid Society (HIAS), the agency also broadened the scope of its resettlement work, extending the possibility of a new home, a new life, and a better future to persecuted people everywhere.
Today, JFS has grown into a premier human services agency in San Diego, touching the lives of more than 70,000 people a year. With a focus on uplifting individuals and families and supporting aging with dignity, we help people of all ages and faith backgrounds build stable, secure, and connected lives.
With more than a century of experience behind us, we remain committed to believing in people. At every age. And every stage of life. We’re committed to meeting people where they are — and providing the compassionate services that have helped generations of people move forward.
The agency is founded by the Jolly Sixteen, a group of 16 women from four Jewish women’s groups — Hebrew Sisterhood, Jolly Sewing Circle, Junior Charity League, and the Ladies Hebrew Aid Society.
Operating as Federated Jewish Charities, the agency strives to serve as a safety net and surrogate family to San Diego’s growing Jewish community, providing help to old and young, religious and secular, native and newcomer.
Rose Neumann, founder and president from 1918–1947. Her spirit and determination leads the agency for three decades as the agency’s work is shaped by global crises — World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Holocaust.
The agency operates under a new name: The Jewish Welfare Society, listing its purposes as: “to promote a social welfare program, foster cooperation among social welfare agencies, and to educate the public to adequately support the social welfare work in and throughout the County of San Diego.”
“Do you remember how comfortable you felt when you first arrived in San Diego reveling in its moderate climate as compared with the icy cold of ‘back east’? Multiply that feeling a million times and you still won’t know the glow of human warmth of a group of war-displaced persons who came to San Diego yesterday.” – Charles G. Hull, 1949
Henrietta Rubenstein serves as Executive Director. She leads JFS to become a professionally staffed, nationally accredited organization. During this time, the agency creates a diverse menu of services for the community, shifting its focus from casework to counseling.
The agency adopts a new name, Jewish Social Service Agency, and expands the sense of the agency’s mission as one of service. It continues to help with refugees and the elderly, while also offering counseling to support the day-to-day problems of living.
The agency assumes a new name, Jewish Family Service. The name signifies three core elements of its work: (1) Informed by Jewish history and values, (2) putting family at the center of its work, and (3) valuing the service of volunteers, as well as professional staff.
Jill Spitzer transforms the agency during her tenure as Executive Director and CEO. She helps JFS grow from an agency with a $500,000 budget into a $20M enterprise with more than 50 programs that address the needs of the community at every stage of their lives.
“I feel privileged to have led JFS for 26 years, during which time we helped thousands of people lead happier and healthier lives. Together, we moved JFS from a small counseling agency to a multi-faceted social service organization with a comprehensive array of programs and services.” – Jill Spitzer
JFS quadruples its space by moving from the 6,000-square-foot Leichtag Family Building in the Hillcrest area to the 25,000-square-foot Turk Family Center on Balboa Avenue in Kearny Mesa.
In January, the agency opens its new campus named in honor of Joan and Irwin Jacobs. It includes a 1,800-square-foot industrial kitchen and The Corner Market, a client-choice food pantry.
“The Joan & Irwin Jacobs campus is intentionally designed as a reflection of our principles of being client-centered, promoting collaboration, and improving our ability to deliver life-changing services.” – CEO Michael Hopkins.
In October, JFS opens its main campus to individuals and families living out of their vehicles — providing a safe place to park overnight, as well as supportive services to help them transition back into stable housing.
In December 2017, the ACLU partners with JFS to launch the San Diego Rapid Response Network (SDRRN), a coalition of human rights, service and faith-based organizations, and attorneys determined to help immigrants- including refugees and asylum-seekers. The SDRRN operates a 24-hour hotline and trains volunteers to document dehumanizing enforcement activities, provide emergency assistance and legal aid, and connect affected people with resources. In late October 2018, federal immigration authorities begin releasing asylum-seeking families onto San Diego streets without food, clothing, transportation, or shelter.
“With each generation, we have adapted to new situations, challenges, and advancements. We’ve lived through periods of war, scarcity, and crisis. Our dedication to changing lives has never wavered.” – CEO Michael Hopkins
Our Centennial Celebration Year includes a Kick-Off event, a Gala, and a campaign to create a $50M endowment with a generous matching gift from Evelyn and Ernest Rady and the Rady Family Foundation.
“We are overwhelmed by the generosity of the Radys and our donors. This campaign will sustain JFS long into the future, ensuring our ability to help our neighbors facing hunger, hopelessness, and significant challenges that we can’t even imagine today.” – CEO Michael Hopkins
As the pandemic progresses, many more individuals and families turn to the agency to ask for help for the very first time. JFS adapts to meet our community’s changing needs and helps thousands of people make it through a challenging time by expanding our food distribution efforts and home meal deliveries for older adults isolated by the pandemic.
The agency releases a new Strategic Plan, recognizing that the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted racial disparities compounded by widespread social unrest. The plan recognizes that past actions as an agency to address equity, diversity, and inclusion have not been enough, and charts a course to guide our evolution and make JFS’s impact even more profound.
In October, the San Diego Rapid Response Network (SDRRN) Migrant Shelter Service, operated by JFS, marks its four-year anniversary and welcomes its 100,000th guest. The shelter continues to provide healthy meals, shelter, clothing legal, medical, and transportation to help asylum seekers reach their family and friends around the country.
“They are the gold standard. They have really shown organizations around the country about how it can be done and how it should be done.” – Naomi Steinberg, HIAS