Photo of Debbie Zoller

Reflecting on 10 Years by Debbie Zoller

I am celebrating 18 years of being a Jewish Family Service Executive Director – the first eight at JFS of Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina and the past 10 as your JFSLV Executive Director.

Wendy Rapoport, MSW, LCSW, and Marcia Schechter, MS, RN, are the only current staff members who were at the agency before I came. The staff size has doubled to 16 strong and I am proud of the incredible individuals who are so motivated and dedicated to the agency.

I have served under five presidents: Michael Weinstock, Patty Glascom, Wendy Born, Rabbi Allen Juda, and current board president Robin Rosenau. These leaders have presided over strong boards, and each left an indelible footprint on the organization.

When I arrived here, client records were stored in paper files. Today, we have technology which has enabled us to increase the quality of data collection to help connect clients to our complement of services.

In 2012, one clinical social worker operated the food pantry, which consisted of a few shelves of primarily Kosher food and a staff refrigerator. Food was delivered or donated sporadically, and clients dropped by the office to receive one bag of food.

Today, the pantry has three commercial refrigerators and two commercial freezers to store food delivered bi-monthly by our partners at Second Harvest. JFS is committed to ensuring that food pantry clients receive milk, eggs, and butter at every visit, along with shelf-stable products, produce, and protein. JFS receives donations from Giant, Not Just Bagels, Wawa, and Wegmans. Clients select foods in a grocery store-style pantry, complete with shopping carts. Nearly two dozen volunteers support the food pantry along with the Food Pantry Coordinator.

The JFS Mazel Meal program was launched in 2018 as a Jewish Federation Super Sunday Mitzvah Day. Today, JFS volunteers deliver Jewish-themed meals each month to 60 older adults across the Lehigh Valley. This program provides a social and spiritual connection through multiple monthly phone calls, which help relieve social isolation and challenges with meal preparation. Along with our partnership with JFLV, JFS works with ShareCare Faith in Action and GoGo Grandparent for older adult transportation.

JFS has become a leader in creating a more inclusive community by hiring an Accessibility and Inclusion Coordinator. Social work students from Cedar Crest College, Delaware Valley University, and Marywood University are mentored by staff as part of JFS’s internship program. The volunteer program has grown from eight to over 80, with a designated Volunteer Coordinator.

There have been many challenges over the past 10 years – the rise of social media, increases in depression and anxiety, recognition of the importance of LGBTQIA+, a rise in antisemitism, and the changing landscape of Jewish community life. Each of these topics is worthy of attention and discussion.

Life now looks very different from the way it did three years ago. Our amazing JFS staff was able to pivot to serve our clients during the pandemic. They learned how to operate the food pantry safely and our social workers moved to a teletherapy model to deliver services.

As individuals feel more comfortable with in-person events, JFS will continue to provide more opportunities for socialization such as our retired men’s group, Schmooze and Schmear. Volunteers are once again leading holiday programs at long-term care residences.

I am grateful to live in the Lehigh Valley and be part of a vibrant Jewish community. I love the work of JFS and the individuals I interact with. While I am well aware that I cannot solve everyone’s problems, I appreciate the opportunity to listen compassionately.

In the words of Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”