Our History

For more than 100 years, Jewish Family Services has continually evolved to meet the needs of our diverse Jewish and non-Jewish Columbus community. The organization was originally established to meet the needs of the newly arriving refugees. As community needs expanded, so did the services at Jewish Family Services. Our services continue to focus on strengthening the community by working with individuals and families to support them in their work and home.  Our goal has always been to provide the necessary supports and skills to empower a person and family to create a vibrant, connected, and sustainable community.

Jewish Family Services provides education, intervention, counseling, and advocacy for at-risk populations, from young adults to the elderly.  We help individuals to create vibrant futures by obtaining and retaining employment.  We also work closely with Caregivers as they support their aging loved ones to maintain independence.

The agency’s core competencies focus on: customer service, integrity, and trust.

Centennial Story

Jewish Family Services’ Work With Immigrants

Jewish Family Services, a multi-purpose social service agency, is a vital part of the Jewish community in Columbus, Ohio.  Established in 1908, the organization provides counseling services, unemployment aid, senior assistance, adoption guidance, and many other services.[1]  In its infancy, Jewish Family Services (JFS) defined itself by its work with immigrants, or what they called “New Americans.” The organization’s work with immigrants continued to intensify throughout the late 1940s. In the 1950s, the federation began to move away from immigration work; however, immigration acts in 1965 and 1975 caused Jewish Family Services to revert to its past practices. The agency played a significant role in the settling of Jewish immigrants during the twentieth century, and this work ultimately culminated in the immigration of numerous Soviet Jews to Columbus in the 1960s and 1970s.

Although few records exist of Jewish Family Services’ work during the first half of the twentieth century, evidence suggests that the nascent organization assisted incoming immigrants in many ways. For example, in 1935 the Jewish Family Services, formerly known as the Jewish Welfare Federation, sponsored an unnamed family from Germany. Through this experience, the Federation became aware of the immigration challenges they would encounter in the future. The new family required help with problems such as childcare, child placement, insufficient income, unemployment, and illness.[2]  In many ways, these challenges were representative of the challenges facing all immigrants and, in particular, those wishing to settle in the Columbus area.  Columbus, Ohio, was not a particularly popular place for Jewish immigration, and in part because of its large distance from coasts and ports. Consequently, very few Jewish immigrants had existing families and support networks to help them upon their arrival. Instead, the New Americans relied on the assistance of organizations such as Jewish Family Services to help them secure basic needs. In the early 1930s, the importance of food, shelter, and work emerged as a common theme that would continue throughout the rest of the century. According to Raphael, “The care of Jewish [immigrants] necessitated housing and employment.”[3]  Finally, the immigration of the unnamed German Jewish family in 1935, and the subsequent focus on the essential needs of food, home, and employment, helped to provide the organization with a template as to how they would respond to immigrants seeking assistance. Jewish Family Services, in essence, recognized that the basic needs of immigrants should come first.

In the years after World War II, Jewish Family Services expanded and developed into a “multiple-function counseling agency.”[4]  The organization began to provide a number of services including marital and vocational counseling, adoption, and resettlement of “New Americans.” This growth and focus on immigration continued through the late 1940s and into the 1950s. In 1948, the Jewish Welfare Federation sent delegates to an assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds.[5] Those who attended the meeting in Chicago discussed many topics including “Refugee Aid.” After the federation’s reorganization in 1953, Jewish Family Services became one of the major providers of assistance to “New Americans”.[6]  An article published by the Columbus Jewish Chronicle, for example stated that, “services for New Americans,” were an important part of the aid that Jewish Family Services provided.[7]  Finally, social security programs and other governmental assistance allowed Jewish Family Services to increase their caseload and scope of services to the New Americans.[8]

Although Jewish Family Services had previously defined itself by its work with immigrants, in the early 1950s it began to focus its attention on the needs of the preexisting Jewish community. In 1954 Herbert Schiff, the then-president of Jewish Family Services, noted the organization’s movement away from refugee assistance.  He described this pattern by stating, “Formerly, the agency served primarily new Americans, whereas today, approximately 65% of those seeking help  with their problems are residents of the community.”[9]  Just two years later, this statistic had grown to 86%.[10]  Schiff attributed this shift to the decreased number of refugees coming to the United States.  Despite this increased commitment to the Columbus Jewish community, Jewish Family Services continued to work with immigrants.  In 1956, the United Jewish Federation gave additional funds to Jewish Family Services to assist the agency in resettling refugees who had been displaced by the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. These increased funds allowed Jewish Family Services to accept six additional families, thus bringing the organization’s total caseload in 1956 to eleven families of Hungarian Jewish refugees.

Jewish immigration to Columbus during the late 1950s and the early 1960s did not follow the typical pattern seen throughout the United States.  While the rest of the country experienced an influx of Jews from Latin America, Columbus, Ohio, saw the arrival of numerous Jews from Eastern Europe and North Africa.[11]  At the end of 1958, Jewish Family Services assisted in the resettling of a Jewish family from Egypt by providing employment assistance and housing.  In 1963, the United HIAS Services (UHS) of Columbus also helped Jewish Family Services obtain visas for incoming immigrants from Cairo.  That same year, Jewish Family Services promised the UHS to accept responsibility for seven New American families every year.  Between 1963 and 1964, a total of eight families came to the United States due to the sponsorship of Jewish Family Services.  These families came from Egypt, Poland, and Rumania.  The organization provided the families with necessities such as monthly allowances for one year, living arrangements, employment assistance, English classes, and school accommodations.[12]  Jewish Family Services also tried to welcome these families into the community by giving them membership to the Jewish Center along with a day camp scholarship.  Fortunately, many of the immigrants who came to Columbus during this period were relatively successful.  One prime example was a husband and wife where the man became an accountant in a prominent business, while his wife received the position of assistant librarian at The Ohio State University.[13]

In the mid-1960s, immigration patterns to the United States began to shift due to the large increase in Russian immigrants.  In fact, the period from the 1960s to the 1970s was an important time in the history of Jewish Family Services, as it marked the culmination of the organization’s work with immigrants. During this time period, Jewish Family Services sponsored a number of Russian families and provided countless funds to immigrants in need.  In 1966, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) noticed that immigration to Columbus from the Soviet Union was low.  HIAS asked Jewish Family Services to meet with families with relatives in in the Soviet Union in order to assist in the immigration process.[14]  Jewish Family Services attempted to reach these families by printing advertisements in the Ohio Jewish Chronicle. In 1974, the United HIAS Service requested that agencies across the United States take two to five times the number of Russian families they had helped the previous year.[15]  This growth continued, and in 1975 the New Americans Committee was officially established.  Finally, the size of the Committee doubled in 1978 due to the large number of Soviet Jews being released from the USSR.[16]

One factor that helped to propel this immigration was the passage of two different immigrations acts during the 1960s and 1970s.  First, The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 had a profound impact on the activities of Jewish Family Services because it abolished the quota system put in place by the National Origins Act of 1924.[17]  The quota system had severely limited immigration on the basis of national origin; furthermore, it had numerous flaws because it set quotas based on the numbers of immigrants who had come to the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Influenced by the events of World War II, policy makers began to view this practice as discriminatory and antiquated.  Instead, they adopted the Hart-Cellar Act, which based immigration requests on skill and possibility for family reunification.  Refugees with large support networks were given preference over those with no family and little possibility of employment.  In addition, visa requests were granted on a first-come/first-serve basis, with a specified maximum number permitted.  Consequently, the United States government granted 75% of the visas to persons with relatives in the US.[18]  For persons without college degrees or vocational skills, the United States Department of Labor required that job assurance be provided.  Jewish Family Services responded to this need by obtaining positions such as bookkeepers, clerks, and automobile workers, and lab technicians for incoming immigrants between the years of 1966 and 1968.[19]   A second amendment in 1975 further affected immigration patterns to Columbus. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment of 1975 stated that countries, such as the Soviet Union, who refused to allow their citizens the right to emigrate would not receive certain trade privileges.  The Jackson-Vanik Amendment caused the Soviet Union to reduce practices that discriminated against Jews and loosen emigration laws.  As a result, many Jews left the Soviet Union, and a large majority of those immigrants settled in the United States.

The large influx of Russian Jewish immigrants to Columbus received considerably publicity, both in the Jewish community and in the larger Central Ohio area.  In 1978, The Columbus Dispatch published a lengthy article titled “100 Russian Refugees Choose Columbus.”[20]  The article highlighted the challenges that the new immigrants faced.  Many of them had not even heard of Columbus prior to arriving in the United States.  Their lack of support networks caused them to rely heavily on the services of organizations such as Jewish Family Services.  Jewish Family Services helped the immigrants by providing furnished apartments, counseling, financial support for three months, and many other services. According to The Columbus Dispatch, Jewish Family Services assisted approximately thirty-five individuals a year at an annual cost of about $50,000.[21]

One newspaper article documenting the arrival of numerous Russian immigrants to Columbus stated that, “Learning English is the No. 1 problem for all but those who are either too young to talk or who are natural linguists.”[22]  Jewish Family Services recognized the need for language assistance and began to provide English classes to New Americans.  The organization enrolled each immigrant in intensive English classes taught by qualified English teachers.[23]  Classes were offered during both the day and the evening in order to provide flexibility to employed immigrants. In addition to organizing English classes, Jewish Family Services also provided the necessary funding by hiring and paying the instructors.[24]  These classes were an important part of the immigrants’ assimilation to American life, and they ultimately helped the New Americans become financially independent.

Jewish Family Services was financially responsible for sponsored families for three months, and after this time the organization expected the families to largely provide for themselves.  Jewish Family Services recognized that the families needed a steady income in order to become self-sufficient.  In fact, the organization went as far as to say, “Employment is the key to successful integration into the Columbus community.”[25]  Accordingly, Jewish Family Services devoted much time and energy to job placement for immigrants.  In addition to seeking out open job positions, Jewish Family Services actively pursued businesses by handing out pamphlets.  During the 1970s, Jewish Family Services printed and distributed a brochure asking businesses to consider hiring Soviet Jewish Refugees.  The brochure included frequently asked questions from employers such as, “Are these refugees dependable workers?”, “Do the refugees have green cards?”, and “Do they speak English?”[26]  By assuring businesses that the immigrants were hard workers, Jewish Family Services was able to provide jobs to numerous New Americans.  This effort, however, did not always succeed as planned.  When the job market was limited, Jewish Family Services was presented with challenges and sometimes failures, which would affect the organization in the years to come.[27]

Jewish Family Services not only helped to settle immigrants in the Columbus area, but also tried to welcome and embrace them into the preexisting Jewish community.  For example, in 1981 Jewish Family Services sponsored a fair in order to introduce new Russian immigrants to the Columbus Jewish community.  The Russian Festival and Fair consisted of children’s activity, Russian Scrabble and folk dancing, and a musical production titled “From Russia With Songs.”[28]  In addition, Jewish Family Services personally invited the New Americans to attend the Bexley Parade on July 4, 1978, by sending out letters.[29]  These activities represented attempts to integrate the New Americans into the Columbus Jewish community, a goal that Jewish Family Services deemed worthy and essential.

Jewish Family Services relied heavily on the assistance of volunteers during their work with New Americans.  Geraldine Ellman, who served as vice-president and president of Jewish Family Services between the years 1978-1980 and 1981-1983, respectively, commented on the importance of volunteers.  According to Ellman, Jewish Family Services provided the “people power” needed to resettle the Russian immigrants.[30]  This came in a number of forms, including help moving in, setting up Mezuzahs, and integrating into the Columbus Jewish community.  Because Jewish Family Services desperately need the help of volunteers, the organization worked tirelessly to recruit persons to help them with multiple tasks.  Jewish Family Services reached volunteers by placing advertisements in The Ohio Jewish Chronicle and distributing pamphlets. Jewish Family Services used a unique, two-fold approach in order to obtain volunteers.  The organization appealed not only to a person’s sense of responsibility as a Jew, or tikkun olam, but also his or her standing as a good American.  This is evident in the numerous pamphlets Jewish Family Services distributed.  For example, the organization appealed to the patriotism of employers by stating, “Be a good American… Help New Americans the American Way… with employment.”[31]  To the organization, being American meant being patriotic, and with this patriotism came a desire to share one’s American wealth with others.  In addition, Jewish Family Services appealed to women, an important sector of the Jewish community.  This is evident in the alliance Jewish Family Services formed with the National Council of Jewish Women.  Together they created the VITAL campaign, which stood for “Volunteers in Training, Absorption, and Living”.[32]  Finally, Jewish Family Services did not limit volunteer assistance to just monetary and time donations.  The organization sent letters asking for used furniture and appliances to furnish the homes of the New Americans.  In this manner, Jewish Family Services was able to obtain assistance from members of society who had little time and money to spare.

Due to the limited funds available, Jewish Family Services often had to make hard decisions regarding who would be sponsored.  In the 1974 Jewish Family Services Annual Report, the Board discussed a complicated New American case involving a Czechoslovakian writer that was under evaluation.  As a result, the Board felt it necessary to identify the factors that directly influenced their decision to provide assistance.  According to the Director, the following areas had to be clarified before a commitment would be made:

  1. Was he Jewish; i.e. what is his commitment to Judaism?
  2. What is his visa status?
  3. What are his chances of fulltime, steady employment?
  4. What magnitude of financial commitment is being asked?[33]

In many ways, this case helped to define the selection process used by Jewish Family Services.  First, it elucidated the idea that the federation’s philanthropic work was devoted primarily to Jewish individuals.  In addition, the New Americans Committee was committed to helping people who could help themselves.  Although Jewish Family Services was willing to take on the financial responsibility of many families, the organization did so with understanding that these families would become self-sufficient in a relatively short period of time.  This expectation was particularly evident in the organization’s evaluation of possibility for future employment.  Finally, Jewish Family Services wanted to be certain that new immigrants would be able to succeed in their new lives, and this concern proved to be an important one in the following years.

Although Jewish Family Services had previously encountered few difficulties in their settlement of immigrants, the organization was confronted with unexpected problems from the new Soviet Jewish immigrants.  Although Jewish Family Services characterized itself as an organization devoted to helping Jews, many of the Jews who came from the Soviet Union did not emigrate due to religious beliefs.  In fact, most of them were neither discriminated against nor poor in their country of origin.  Rather, they came to the United States in order to pursue “a better life in America.”[34]  Despite Jewish Family Services’ efforts to provide employment, many of the immigrants were dissatisfied with the menial jobs given to them by the organization.[35]  As a result, they expressed anger against wealthy Jews in Columbus and Jewish Family Services.  Jewish Family Services responded to the complaints of the new immigrants by stating that they had done everything possible.  The organization reminded the Soviet Jews of the difficulties faced by immigrants before them.  One vice-president of Jewish Family Services described the situation by saying, “We met quite frequently to help the Russian immigrants as best we could.”[36]  These attempts proved to be relatively futile.  Many Soviet Jews continued to experience disappointment, and some went so far as to say that their economic status was worse in the United States than it was in the Soviet Union.[37]

Eventually, the immigration of Soviet Jews to Columbus dwindled and ultimately subsided in the early 1980s.  Jewish Family Services scaled back their work with immigrants in the immediate years, and the New Americans Committee was phased out in the late 1990s, thus putting an end to an important chapter in the federation’s history.  In conclusion, Jewish Family Services was an important actor in the immigration of Jews to the United States.  Despite the many challenges that Jewish Family Services encountered, the organization was able to help over 96 families, or 557 individuals, come to the United States between the years of 1954 and 1973 alone.[38]  The numbers provide evidence for the great commitment Jewish Family Services had for New Americans, and the great measures the organization took in order to assist these individuals.

Chelsea Walton

Dr. Robin Judd

17 November 2007

  1. Jewish Family Services Information Sheet. Columbus, OH: Jewish Family Services, 2007.
  2. “Jewish Welfare Federation Holds Advisory Case Committee Meeting.” The Ohio Jewish Chronicle (Columbus, OH), 22 March 1935.
  3. Raphael, Marc Lee. Jews and Judaism in a Midwestern Community: Columbus, Ohio, 1840 1975. (Columbus: Ohio Historical Society, 1979), p. 288.
  4. Raphael, Jews and Judaism, p. 400.
  5. “Local Delegates Attend CJFWF Assembly.” The Ohio Jewish Chronicle (Columbus, OH), 23 January 1948.
  6. Raphael, Jews and Judaism, p. 400.
  7. “Columbus Jewish Family Service Re-elects Ben Yenkin President.” The Ohio Jewish Chronicle (Columbus, OH), 2 January 1953.
  8. “Regional Conference Reviews Family Agency Plans.” The Ohio Jewish Chronicle (Columbus, OH), 6 April 1956.
  9. Schiff, Herbert H. “President’s Report.” The Ohio Jewish Chronicle (Columbus, OH), 19 February 1954.
  10. “Mrs. Harry Goldberg Elected President of 1957 Jewish Family Services; Herbert Schiff Recognized.” The Ohio Jewish Chronicle (Columbus, OH), 28 December 1956.
  11. Raphael, Jews and Judaism, pp. 401-402.
  12. Raphael, Jews and Judaism, p. 402.
  13. Raphael, Jews and Judaism, p. 402.
  14. “Families With Relatives in the USSR Sought.” The Ohio Jewish Chronicle (Columbus, OH), 23 December 1966.
  15. Jewish Family Services. Annual Report (Columbus, OH), 1974.
  16. Jewish Family Services. Annual Report (Columbus, OH), 1978.
  17. Raphael, Jews and Judaism, p. 402.
  18. Raphael, Jews and Judaism, p. 402.
  19. Raphael, Jews and Judaism, p. 402.
  20. Brill, Ken. “100 Russian Refugees Choose Columbus.” The Columbus Dispatch Magazine. 2 April 1978.
  21. Brill, Ken. “100 Russian Refugees Choose Columbus.” The Columbus Dispatch Magazine. 2 April 1978.
  22. Brill, Ken. “100 Russian Refugees Choose Columbus.”
  23. Raphael, Jews and Judaism, p. 402.
  24. Refugee Employee Questions and Answer Sheet. Columbus, OH: Jewish Family Services, 1970.
  25. Refugee Employee Questions and Answer Sheet. Jewish Family Services.
  26. Refugee Employee Questions and Answer Sheet. Jewish Family Services.
  27. Raphael, Jews and Judaism, pp. 402-403.
  28. Jewish Family Services and Columbus’ New Americans Present a Russian Festival and Fair. Columbus: OH. Jewish Family Services, 1981.
  29. Bexley Parade Letter. Columbus: OH. Jewish Family Services, 1978.
  30. Jewish Family Services. Annual Report (Columbus, OH), 1983.
  31. Refugee Employee Questions and Answer Sheet. Jewish Family Services.
  32. You Are Vital: Our New Americans Need Your Help! Columbus: OH. Jewish Family Services.
  33. Jewish Family Services. Annual Report (Columbus, OH), 1974.
  34. Raphael, Jews and Judaism, p. 403.
  35. Raphael, Jews and Judaism, p. 403.
  36. Jewish Family Services. Annual Report (Columbus, OH), 1979.
  37. Raphael, Jews and Judaism, p. 403.
  38. Raphael, Jews and Judaism, p. 401.
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