Al Benarroch, Executive Director, JCFS

By BERNIE BELLAN
In another article on this site, I had written about the “bureaucratization” of Jewish agencies in Winnipeg, noting how many agencies which used to rely on volunteers have now become very large institutions – and have in some cases greatly expanded their roles.
Of those agencies, one in particular stood out for me: Jewish Child and Family Service.

 

 

 

 

 

Over the years that I have been covering Jewish Child and Family Service, I have noted that it has come to take on an ever-increasing workload. Although the Jewish population of Winnipeg has either remained stagnant – despite a large-scale influx of newcomers, particularly from Israel and Argentina, or has actually declined (according to both the most recent census, which was conducted in 2016, and the more comprehensive National Household Survey, which was conducted in 2011), Jewish Child and Family Service has seen its budget consistently grown over the years, along with the types of services it now delivers.
As a result, I asked Al Benarroch, who has been executive director of Jewish Child and Family Service for the past five years, whether he would be willing to sit down and discuss what has been driving the growth in requests for service from lJewish Child and Family Service.
Before I get into that interview, I wanted to highlight some key moments in JCFS history that provide some background as to how JCFS has grown. The following is taken from a History of JCFS on the JCFS website:
1951 – The United Hebrew Social Service Bureau is renamed the Jewish Family Service Bureau of Winnipeg. It then merges with the Jewish Children’s Home and becomes JEWISH CHILD AND FAMILY SERVICE.
1952 - JEWISH CHILD AND FAMILY SERVICE is incorporated as a Children’s Aid Society for the care of Jewish children in the Province of Manitoba.
1963 – JCFS establishes Chevrah, its first residential group home for boys.
1966-1968 - JCFS offers support to a new wave of Jewish immigrants to Winnipeg, among them Moroccans, Israelis, and Czechoslovakians fleeing their country’s uprising.
1970’s - JCFS expands its counselling, financial assistance and homemaker services, which evolve into specialized services for the elderly and the establishment of the Older Adult Services department.
1975-1981 – JCFS helps 1,200 Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union resettle in Winnipeg.
1982 – JCFS establishes a volunteer program, for the first time in its history permitting non-professionals to become involved with clients.
1990 - JCFS creates a Homemaker Registry for clients in need of caregiving and domestic services. JCFS assumes responsibility for the Jewish community chaplain, a position jointly funded by the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg and the WRHA.
2000 – The agency closes the Chevrah group home and expands its Foster Care program to better meet the needs of its young clientele. JCFS launches the Jewish Community Volunteer Bureau’s HOURS TO SHARE initiative, funded by the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba.
2001 – JCFS creates a Domestic Violence Task Force after identifying a need for support services for survivors of domestic violence
2003 - JCFS introduces COVER OUR KIDS WITH CARE in support of Jewish children in foster care, and creates special tribute cards to support the initiative. JCFS establishes the ASPER HELPING HAND interest-free loan program.
2007 - JCFS establishes the JACS program to help Jews in recovery from addictions.
2009 - JCFS begins offering employment services for new immigrants, incorporating the initiative into its Resettlement and Integration department.
2014 - JCFS spearheads “Opening the Door: Conversations about Addiction,” a two day conference addressing issues related to addictions, treatment and recovery. Al Benarroch is appointed JCFS Executive Director.
2015 - JCFS assumes a leadership role in a community-wide initiative to rescue and resettle Yazidi refugees in Winnipeg.

The total budget for JCFS in the 2017/18 fiscal year was $3,250,000. There are over 40 staff – either full or part-time, working at JCFS. The situation now is such that JCFS is desperately in need of more office space – something that was discussed at length during my interview with Al Benarroch.

I began by noting that in the JCFS’S most recent annual report, it noted that it had an impact on 5,8000 Winnipeggers in the 2017/18 fiscal year. I asked Benarroch whether anything, in particular, has been driving the growth of JCFS in recent years?
Benarroch: The main area (of growth) would be Operation Ezra numbers. We’re dealing with almost 200 Yazidi refugees – it’s about 40-45 families. That’s a new blip for us – since the whole initiative started in 2014-2015.
We started receiving federal funding (to provide services for Yazidi refugees). One of the things our board discussed is that we would start partnering with Operation Ezra, but it can’t cost us community dollars. It has to be a cost-neutral initiative for JCFS. We will provide our expertise and our staffing know-how.

I asked what else would be driving the growth in JCFS?
Benarroch: Our counseling program is the biggest provider of services.
JP&N: Does the counseling program cater to non-Jews as well?
Benarroch: It caters to anybody – not that our other services are “faith-based”.
It’s a 50-minute therapy hour – the same as any other counseling program, whether it’s a psychologist or social worker, at any other kind of clinic. You come in, you pay your sliding scale fees – anywhere from $10-65 – it’s the best deal in town.
JP&N: Is that also offset by WRHA funds?
Benarroch: United Way funding was always attached to that core program for decades. About five years ago – around the time I took over, United Way took a look at their funding and said: “We’re not just going to fund the one specific program. Here, put it into your core programming. So really now it goes into the ‘pushka’ (Yiddish for the little can into which people used to toss coins for charity), like the way it is for (Jewish) Federation funds. That’s how all those services that are not immigration or child welfare get funded.

JP&N: Is the addictions program part of that blanket funding then?
Benarroch: Addictions is part of it. It’s part of the almost $800,000 the Federation gives. We got about $200,000 from the United Way. It was about a 3% bump – they also had a very good year.
Those two together – then we take all the funds that come in from our endowment, various donors.
JP&N: My point in asking all these questions about funding and growth in the JCFS is to show that Jewish agencies have matured and grown and that as they’ve developed, they offer services that are available to the non-Jewish community – sometimes on a fee basis, sometimes not.
Benarroch: I’d say you’d have to do an analysis on an agency-by-agency basis. We haven’t gone down that road yet.
JP&N: But if someone walks through the door, you don’t necessarily ask them if they’re Jewish.
Benarroch: Correct, but it depends on the program. (Benarroch then went into a detailed explanation how JCFS was forced to deal with the question: “Can it ask a client if he or she is Jewish?” He noted that when the Jewish Child and Family Service Act was actually rewritten in 2012 – and it is an act of the Manitoba Legislature, “it very specifically says that we exist in order to provide services to people of the Jewish faith. By virtue of the fact that we have a piece of legislation that prescribes us to be able to do that, we have a right to ask people: ‘Are you Jewish?’ “
So, we look at it from the perspective that we’re accountable to the Jewish community for Jewish community dollars. We won’t turn people away. We will always provide them with another resources if we can’t provide them with that resource.
We’re always balancing that with opening the floodgates.

Benarroch proceeded to describe something that happened when the “current” (PC) government came in. “There were cuts in health care. We started to get referrals. There were cases coming from the WRHA mental health system. There were workers who were calling; there were family members who were calling.
“We were getting this barrage of cases at the time. They were not counseling appropriate. These were chronic, chronic mental health cases – psychiatric issues that require more intensive case management – and yet, they were being referred to us. We speculated at the time that what was happening in the system was that the system was being starved for resources…so the workers out there were wondering: ‘What are we goingto do for our clients?’ and they began to farm them out to agencies like ours. We’re only funded very little by the WRHA – about $45,000 – for mental health.”
JP&N: So, what did you do?
Benarroch: We would at least “triage” and then it’s Catch 22. We would kick them back to that system because if we apply the band-aid, then it gets the system off the hook for having to provide the resources.
JP&N: Did that blip eventually diminish?
Benarroch: I haven’t checked the last year, but I haven’t heard that we’ve been getting a lot of these cases.

JP&N: Setting aside the cases coming from the non-Jewish community though, I’ve been attending JCFS annual general meetings for so many years now and the trend of seeing increased workload is so consistent, I have to wonder: Where is that push coming from?
Now I know that the Federation was claiming that the Jewish population here had grown by leaps and bounds, but that simply hasn’t been borne out by statistical data. We had that very important survey of the Jewish population of Canada conducted by Environics Research, which said that the two Jewish communities whose populations were shrinking – not growing, were Montreal’s and Winnipeg’s.
I know that under the Provincial Nominee Program, for years, we were getting around 500 new Jewish immigrants coming into Manitoba each year– mostly from Israel. I also see from your annual report that you had over 980 settlement cases, 194 pre-immigration cases, and five newcomer counselling cases. So, would it be fair to say that the really big push in JCFS caseload has been coming about as a result of all the Jewish newcomers to Winnipeg?
Benarroch: Actually, last year we had a dip in immigration numbers. We only settled about 80 families. We were hovering around 110, 120 a year from about 2010. The reason the dip happened is the Federal government put a freeze on the Provincial Nominee program.
Benarroch explained, however, that the Federal government does provide funding for resettlement services.
JP&N: There’s always the question how many of the Russian Israeli immigrants who have been coming here are really Jewish.
Benarroch: Yes, but it’s the same question for Israel as well.

JP&N: So, if there’s been a consistent increase in workload –yet the population hasn’t grown, then would it be fair to say that it’s because people are requesting more services?
Benarroch: Yes – and I think that is a function of the fact that, as an agency – for sure over the past eight years, we’ve done a better job – and it’s been the same throughout Canada, reducing the stigma around mental health, including addictions. We’ve jumped on that wagon. We’ve done our own promotion, our own talks, our own awareness-building and unfortunately – in that it burdens us and requires us to expand our footprint but fortunately, in that more people have been coming (to JCFS, for help).

JP&N: Talking about that, is there any news about where you might be going (to open another office)?
Benarroch: At our May general meeting we struck a task force that was asked to come back in a short period of time (by this September) with a plan. We’ve already looked at about half a dozen properties in and around about a 5-kilometre radius to the campus – in addition to having discussions with the Federation and the Asper Campus what can we do in this facility. And, are there any plans to expand the footprint of this campus if, in fact, the Federation’s strategic planning has said we have to grow services in many areas?
The strategic planning’s report talked about expanding services in education, in mental health, in support for seniors. If, in fact, we’re going to expand these services, where are they going to go?
JP&N: I’ve been writing for a long time about how Gray Academy’s enrolment has shrunk so drastically over the years, yet they guard their turf so jealously, saying there is no way they can give up one square inch of their current space. Has anyone considered the Gray Academy as a potential site for expansion for other agencies currently housed in the campus?
k: Everybody does that – when you get a piece of turf. But we’ve been looking for roughly 3,000 more square feet of space. We have a footprint right now of roughly 5,000 square feet for over 40 staff. We’ve given up a board room here. It’s been taken over by older adult service staff. We have a conference room which is adjacent to the board room; we’ve moved two staff in there.
Yesterday I gave up my office for the entire morning so that staff could interview clients.
We need to relieve the pressure we’re facing right now – yet alone plan for expanding and growing.
Whatever space we’d be looking at would be temporary. It’s now 22 years that we’ve been in this facility. The campus has taken over squash courts, it’s taken over a museum – internally, to accommodate the growth in services. Maybe it’s time now to look at growing outside this building, whether it’s on to the land – although apparently there are issues around digging on the land.
It’s not a secret that there are plans for the government (of Manitoba) to vacate the Youth Centre. They’re saying it’s not a location to have a youth jail. I think it would be very opportunistic for our community to consider that land.

JP&N: But weren’t you going to be creating a separate facility entirely to serve addictions in some way? (Readers may recall that supposedly the impetus for the National Council of Jewish Women to sell the Gwen Secter Creative Living Centre was to establish some sort of facility to treat addictions. In 2015, according to an article written by Myron Love, “NCJW Winnipeg revealed its next big project, which president Cindy Lazar unveiled …
“That project is the Winnipeg Jewish Recovery and Resource Centre, potentially the region’s first such service for members of the community who are struggling with addictions. The centre would be modeled on the Shalom Residences – Jewish homes for developmentally disabled adults, similar to Toronto’s Reena homes – Lazar said. The NCJW-supported residence, operated in conjunction with Winnipeg’s Jewish Child and Family Service, would provide a home environment with a Jewish atmosphere that would be open to both Jewish and non-Jewish residents with addiction issues.”
We haven’t heard much about that project, although NCJW did receive $900,000 from the sale of the Gwen Secter building.)

I asked Benarroch about those plans, which have been in the works for years.
Benarroch: We had ideas of a large resource centre to where we would move all our mental health and addiction services – and maybe have a housing component where we would have transitional housing for Jewish addicts and individuals with chronic mental health issues who need stable housing.
There’s still a plan for that housing component. Right now we’ve put that on hold pending what’s going to happen with our overall space needs. If we can grow our footprint somewhere close by or as part of a larger consideration of expanding this facility, we can keep our core service present here and have a housing component offsite akin to what Ian Rabb has with 210 Maryland or Morberg House in St. Boniface.
JP&N: Have you looked at opening up offices in one of the synagogues? (In 1987, when the main office of JCFS was located at McPhillips and Jefferson, it opened a satellite office in Temple Shalom).
Benarroch: We have to balance between being too public in the Jewish community – look, we hold our clients’ confidentiality paramount, beyond anything else we do. Temple Shalom has some good private entrance and exiting. We’re looking around. We would like to be in some new place within four-six months.

Footnote: As a result of what Al Benarroch told me about discussions that he has had with Curtis Martin, executive director of the Asper Campus, about the possibility of the campus actually being expanded, I sent an email to Curtis:
Hi Curtis,

I was talking with Al Benarroch this morning. I know that JCFS has been looking for a second location for some time, but Al mentioned that the campus is exploring the possibility of expanding.
Is there anything you can tell me about that?
Thanks
-Bernie

Curtis Martin responded:
Hi Bernie,
At this point in time, at the behest of Jewish Child and Family Services, we are merely undergoing an intellectual exercise to see if it is even possible. It is a “blue sky” exercise given a hypothetical expansion. There has been no review of either Capital dollars or Operating dollars to see if it is feasible.
We are however reviewing our current zoning and checking with the City on any existing restrictions that may prevent us from expanding, or where on the property we could theoretically build new if that ever came to pass.
Curtis J. Martin
Executive Director | Asper Jewish Community Campus