Bless All the Children of the World this Shabbat

July 25th, 2014

As a small child, I waited all year for summer. Summer…the season when kids get to be kids.

This summer, I have been struck by stories of children experiencing the unimaginable—the 80 children who perished onboard MH Flight 17 over the Ukraine, the more than 100 children who have died in Gaza fighting, the over 60,000 Central American child migrants crossing our borders, the images of children in Israel running in fear and huddling in bomb shelters. Children seem to be caught up more and more in our world events.

The children are so innocent, so young that they cannot even understand the complexity of the issues that have ensnared them.

Many years ago in Tucson, I served on a foster care review board that met monthly to evaluate the status of children in foster care. We spent hours on each case, debating only one question: the best interest of the child.

Somehow, our world has become so caught up in other issues that we have stopped asking what would be in the best interest of our children.

Each Shabbat, there is a beautiful custom of blessing our children. This Shabbat, take the time to bless your children and then say a prayer for the children in our world who are victims of war, who go to bed hungry, who are victims of violence in our communities, and who live on our streets.

May the innocence of youth and the warmth of summer return again next year.

May G-d bless you and watch over you.
May G-d shine His/Her face toward you and show you favor.
May G-d be favorably disposed toward you,
And may He/She grant you peace.

JFS Visits Francis Parker School on a “Learning Journey”

December 5th, 2013

Recently, I joined JFS board members on another Learning Journey, this time to Francis Parker School. Our search was to uncover what an exceptional board looks like and we knew we were in the right place, as Parker was this year’s winner of the Kaleidoscope Award for Exceptional Governance presented by the University of San Diego’s Institute for Nonprofit Education and Research.  Our “tour guide” was Liz Shear, one of San Diego’s own gurus in nonprofit governance and the founder of the annual Nonprofit Governance Symposium at USD. Liz set the stage as we zeroed in on key questions to be explored: What differentiates high-performing boards from others? What is the board’s relationship to fundraising? What does the recruitment and onboarding of new members look like?

We all felt privileged to meet with Francis Parker School’s Head of School Kevin Yaley, Board Chair William Jones, Board Chair Elect Kathy Purdon, and their Chair of the Strategic Initiatives and Academic Affairs Committee Dee Anne Canepa. The school’s leadership not only shared their success, but also demonstrated in their presentation a well-oiled system of bright people tackling tough questions and creatively addressing them. We felt this in their culture every step of the way, from how we were greeted by security and the receptionist to touring the campus. What an impressive, special place for learning!

Our Learning Journey revealed a number of best practices in governance. Their board enforces term limits, requires that new board members have prior experience on their board committees, insists on “good behavior” around the board table, and addresses when board members act badly. They seem to cherish and protect the relationship between board members and the school’s professionals.

It was terrific to see our JFS board members truly inspired by Francis Parker School’s success and committed to taking the necessary steps to become an exceptional board. We left with the collective goal of JFS winning the Kaleidoscope Award in the very near future.

The Blessing of Embracing it All

November 26th, 2013

The holidays, while joyous, are also often full of stress. Keeping oneself balanced is not easy with all of the additional demands—be it shopping, getting together with family, parties, or the seasonal blues as we reflect on losses or loneliness that are always more apparent at this time of the year.

This year, because of an unusual intersection of our Western calendar and the Hebrew (lunar) calendar, we have two holidays occurring this week. Traditionally, we focus on gratitude and all we are thankful for during Thanksgiving and during Hanukkah we appreciate the miracles in our life or what gives us light. Gratitude appears as the common thread in both holidays.

A few years ago, sitting in an Al-Anon meeting, I heard about the practice of keeping an “attitude of gratitude.” Typically, it is all about all of the “good” stuff in our lives. So, sure enough last weekend, at the end of my Sunday morning hot yoga class, the teacher walked around and left a little note for each of her faithful yogis. Here was mine…

Be thankful that you don’t already have everything you desire.
If you did, what would there be to look forward to?

Be thankful when you don’t know something,
for it gives you the opportunity to learn.

Be thankful for the difficult times.
During those times you grow.

Be thankful for your limitations,
because they give you opportunities for improvement.

Be thankful for each new challenge,
because it will build your strength and character.

Be thankful for your mistakes.
They will teach you valuable lessons.

Be thankful when you’re tired and weary
because it means you’ve made a difference.

It’s easy to be thankful for the good things.
A life of rich fulfillment comes to those who
are also thankful for the setbacks.

Gratitude can turn a negative into a positive.
Find a way to be thankful for your troubles
and they can become your blessings.
~ Author Unknown

This Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, I am truly grateful for all of the blessings in my life (and I have so many) and all the limitations, challenges, mistakes, difficult times, and moments of disappointment. Embracing it all does feel balanced.

The same dichotomy exists here at Jewish Family Service. Every day, when I come into the office, I am reminded of the amazing work that we do as a team. We are in a uniquely human job—every day I witness our staff and volunteers going “beyond” to help a client or another member of the team.

I am saddened that life is so tough for so many individuals and families in our community. I also know that for many of our clients who are experiencing difficult times and life challenges, they will often use these moments to transform their lives.

At the same time, I am also grateful for the generosity of so many friends in our community who support us with time and resources. They are part of our team. And, together, we are doing life-changing work.

Embracing it all does feel balanced. That is why I love yoga. That is why I love what we do at Jewish Family Service. In the simplest terms, creating balance is very meaningful and fulfilling work.

This week, regardless of how many holidays you are celebrating, embrace it all. Embrace the joy, the sadness, the family members we love and the ones we can do without. Embrace the conversations that are full of laughter and easy agreement and the difficult conversations full of discord.

Embracing it all can be the real blessing.


JFS Visits High Tech High on a “Learning Journey”

November 4th, 2013

As most of your know, I usually write about issues our community is facing and often how we here at JFS address community concerns such as hunger, the needs of our aging community, or poverty. Many may not be aware that we are currently engaged in a very large, non-traditional approach to organizational strategic planning—we are calling it “Repairing Our World: Guiding the Heart & Soul of Jewish Family Service.”  One method that we are using involves going on “Learning Journeys.” By visiting organizations or businesses that excel at what they do, we hope we will learn valuable insight into our most difficult challenges.

Recently, a team of board members and staff went to visit San Diego’s very own leader in education, High Tech High. We were interested in understanding their strong values-based culture and how students and faculty work collaboratively.

Our day started with a Q & A session with Gary Jacobs, Chair of the HTH Board and visionary of the school, and included a student–led tour of the school. We wrapped up the day chatting with four teachers to better understand the school from their perspective. Wow! What a gem in our community…I wish my kids had gone to High Tech High!

Here’s my short list of key observations:

  1. The value of project based learning. It seems to raise the “soft skills” of the entire team or students or faculty. Everyone gets to practice good communication, working together, sharing ideas, and working towards a shared goal.
  2. The school has an over-arching set of principles; however, each school within the school has its own personality and structure while adhering to the larger global mission.
  3. There is an incredible level of trust throughout all areas of the school, along with a structure that has a high level of accountability and oversight. No school bells or hall monitors and everyone is in the right place.
  4. A culture/learning environment that is supported through training and onboarding of students and staff, and is fostered by peer coaching and mentoring.

What an impressive school! Thank you High Tech High for sharing your magic with Jewish Family Service.

We’re With You

October 17th, 2013

It was terrific this morning to wake up and see news reports of our federal employees going back to work. With the rest of nation, we are very happy that the government shutdown has come to an end and hopeful that within the next eight weeks Congress will find a more lasting compromise to some of the big issues that divide us, like our growing national debt and health care.

Next week, our Hand Up Youth Food Pantry still plans to hold one more emergency distribution, since so many people have been affected for two and a half weeks of either no pay or withheld pay. This distribution will take place on Tuesday, October 29 at from 2:00-3:00pm at Jewish Family Service (8788 Balboa Ave).

We are really proud of how quickly our team mobilized to increase food distributions. For example, on October 15 JFS was out at Camp Pendleton running an emergency food distribution. We served 148 families. Of those, 29 were active duty military families who have used our services in the past, 85 were active duty military families who have never needed our help before but were affected by the government shutdown, and 34 were furloughed government workers. Thank you to Feeding America San Diego who was instrumental in providing food for this distribution.

We made an impact and put “We’re With You” into action.

Hand Up Youth Food Pantry

We’re With You – Friends of the Family Thank You Event

September 25th, 2013

We recently had our Friends of the Family Thank You event on September 11. I had an opportunity to share all of our exciting developments and talk about our direction over the next year. I invite you to take a few minutes and watch the video. Wishing you and your family peace and happiness in the New Year.

 

We Make the World a Better Place

May 10th, 2013

Michael Hopkins and Nadja

With a huge smile and after an equally big hug, Nadja said, “we make the world a better place.” Nadja was one of 30 newly naturalized U.S. citizens who attended a party recently held at JFS. Originally from Peru, Nadja has been in San Diego for more than 25 years but only took the “test” on October 12, 2012. She said it was “very special to take the test on such a significant day.” I looked at her, having no idea of the importance of the date and asked, “The 12th?” She said, “Yes, Columbus Day!”

The party included foods from all over the world representing home countries of the clients and a game of bingo, complete with questions from the citizenship test. I would like to tell you that I knew the answers, but, like the date of Columbus Day, I failed miserably.

In November 2011, our Refugee & Immigration Services department expanded to include citizenship and naturalization services. In the past year, we have submitted 230 citizenship applications on behalf of clients from 23 different countries, the majority of people originating from Mexico and Burma. With the help of this program, 140 people are now United States citizens, including Nadja.

Our program matches volunteer tutors to help people study for their citizenship test, which requires applicants to speak, read, and write in English and learn 100 questions about U.S. history and civics. If you are interested in becoming a tutor or want to learn how you can support Refugee & Immigration Services, please contact Jane at (858) 637-3030. A truly rewarding way to get involved.

A Yarn About Yarn

May 1st, 2013

I am lucky to work in a wonderful place where heartwarming stories happen all of the time. It is important to stop, reflect, and enjoy these stories of that illustrate the human spirit. Thank you to Joel Craddock, our Divisional Director of Housing and Educational Services, for sharing this tale – may we all live happily ever after.

— Michael

Several months ago, one of our board members put me in contact with a very sweet lady named Eleanor who had knitted 100 caps and wanted to donate them to homeless individuals. Since JFS operates Roy’s Desert Resource Center, a large 120-bed homeless shelter in Palm Springs, the caps were distributed to our clients there. That was this past December—she has now knitted more than 200 caps for our clients at Roy’s. Over the years, Eleanor has knitted hundreds upon hundreds of caps for homeless clients in San Diego…but yarn is expensive and she had asked for donations of scrap yarn in the past to no avail.  When I heard about this, I sent an email to the nearly 300 employees of JFS asking if anyone might have some leftover yarn.  I didn’t know if there were many knitters out there, particularly any with leftover yarn, but thought it was worth the ask.  Below is the text of the email I sent on April 16:

“Once upon a time (NOW), there was a very sweet lady named Eleanor, who desperately wanted to do something to help our clients. She decided to help our homeless clients in the desert by knitting caps of various sizes to fit adults and children alike. She knitted and knitted until she had completed 100 of these beautiful caps. They were given to the clients of Roy’s as holiday gifts in December. Joy abounded throughout the land and word spread of this wonderful gesture.

Fortunately, many of the clients of Roy’s moved on to their own place as new clients came in. But the new clients had no caps to help keep them warm on chilly nights. So, sweet Eleanor began knitting again until, behold, there were 50 more which were again distributed to the clients of Roy’s. As before, there was joy throughout the land. Realizing that this pattern would continue with clients leaving and new ones coming in, Eleanor decided to keep knitting. Today, I will pick up 50 more of these beautiful tokens of caring.

Alas, the story does not end here. For Eleanor to continue her mission of caring, she needs yarn…any kind…any color. So…got yarn? Do you have leftover yarn from that scarf you knitted or do you know someone who used to knit but no longer does? If so, I would love to show our appreciation by donating yarn to Eleanor. She would appreciate it and so will our clients. If you bring it to Turk, I will gladly take it to her.

And we all lived happily ever after.”

And here is the result of that email…

Joel Craddock gets buried beneath the yarn pile!

I didn’t just get leftover yarn, but staff who were knitters also gave me their new yarn.  Others went out and bought yarn. I asked that the donated yarn be dropped off at my office. Within three days, you can see how much I had! On April 26, I had the privilege of delivering everything to Eleanor. Thinking so much would overwhelm her, I told her she didn’t have to take it all. I didn’t want her to feel obligated to be knitting caps for the next five years. But she intends to knit every inch of it into caps, scarves, baby blankets, etc. to give to the clients of JFS.

What an example of the generosity and caring exhibited by our employees every single day! Not only do we help others, we help others help others. So a HUGE THANK YOU to Eleanor and to all the staff who made this a possibility. I am so blessed to be a part of this incredible organization. How can the end of this story be anything other than…and they all lived happily ever after.

“Why Do It” rather than “Just Do It”

March 8th, 2013

Just do it is the highly recognized trademark of Nike and a core component of the Nike brand. Since 1988, this slogan has lifted athletes and others (like me) to strive for the impossible. The slogan suggests not only to just do it, but to not over think it. This week’s Torah portion suggests a better slogan: Why do it?

The portion begins with a few verses about Shabbat, and then the entire remainder deals with the building of the Tabernacle (sanctuary for the Ark of the Covenant). From this juxtaposition in the Torah, the Sages derive that one cannot build the Tabernacle on Shabbat. One might think that since the Tabernacle is a means through which an individual attains a deeper relationship with God, the building then seems the restriction of working on Shabbat. But this is not so. Why?

Is it possible that “building” is ultimately a mundane act? When we involve ourselves in the mundane – no matter for what meaningful purpose – we can too easily and quickly forget why we are doing it.

Our staff at JFS distributes food all day long and sees clients hour after hour. Our volunteers drive seniors to destinations all over San Diego and help keep our agency running on a daily basis. We pride ourselves in achieving the highly regarded Charity Navigator Four Star rating five years in a row and having an amazingly successful Gala. If we fail to see how the food provides security, the counseling offers comfort, and the rides enable independence – we fail to see the “why” behind our actions.  And someone building God’s Sanctuary may lose sight of the larger goal and view themselves merely as a builder.

The beauty of Shabbat is that it allows us to stop and reflect. It is a day to take stock of what we are doing and remind ourselves why exactly we are doing it. If the answer is a good one, then Shabbat will help infuse meaning into the week. And if the answer is not a good one, then Shabbat will (hopefully) help us steer our lives toward more meaningful accomplishment.

If we don’t stop on Shabbat and refocus, then even the building of God’s Tabernacle can lose its meaning. In our modern world, Shabbat is vitally needed to give us perspective – every week, without exception. We need to always reflect on Why do it?

Special thanks to Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt of Aish

JFS Food Distribution: A Volunteer Shares Her Experience

January 30th, 2013

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Kelly, a first-time volunteer at our Hand Up Youth Food Pantry’s distribution at St. Paul’s Cathedral. She was overflowing with thoughts about her experience, and I asked her if she’d be willing to share them on my blog:

I went to St. Paul’s Cathedral near Balboa Park to begin my afternoon at the Hand Up distribution. A big truck pulled up full of food and four tables were quickly set up by staff. Before the Hand Up staff had arrived at St. Paul’s, they’d been busy back at the JFS office, loading hundreds of food bags onto the truck. The bags were divided into two groups: cooking and non-cooking. It didn’t occur to me that some people wouldn’t have the ability to heat up or cook food. There were some kosher, gluten-free, diabetic and other special dietary needs bags, too.

A JFS case manager was there, and she told me that she comes to the distributions every week to try to identify those who could be helped by other JFS services and to follow up with people she’s talked to in the past. She advises people how to apply for CalFresh (food stamps), get ID cards, driver’s licenses, bus passes, and much more. I learned that one reason many people need bus passes is so they can go to other distributions to get more food.

Once everything was set up, everyone found a job in the assembly line. Some new volunteers were in charge of putting five bagels in each bag. Another person, who had been volunteering for four years, put a few onions and apples in each bag. A volunteer from a substance-abuse rehab center and I scooped rice into individual bags. When people moved through the line, they got one of each bag.

It was overwhelming to see all these people, both homeless and employed, young and old, waiting in line to pick up a few bags of food—and they were so gracious. The JFS case manager explained that sometimes people have a job and enough money to pay their rent, but not enough to buy food. Usually when people think of “the hungry” they think of homeless people. But this was not the case.

There was a young woman in line who was smiling and making conversation with everyone. She was unemployed, looking for a job, and was thrilled to stumble upon us giving out food because she really needed it. I also remember a mom–with her two cute little kids who were just bouncing around–without a clue as to why they were there.

I’m grateful for my time volunteering at the distribution. It felt good to know I was helping fellow San Diegans, and it reminded me that there are things more important than myself in this world.

I hope reading about Kelly’s experience at the Hand Up Youth Food Pantry distribution was meaningful to you. She told me that she’s looking forward to coming back and bringing some of her friends next time. Volunteers like Kelly–people who generously donate their time to work at food distributions, help sort donations, assemble food bags, conduct food drives, and pick up donations–are what make the Pantry so successful. Last year, Hand Up provided the hungry in San Diego with 38,805 bags of non-perishable grocery items, 9,600 pounds of bread, 9,434 pounds of frozen meat, and 107,685 pounds of fresh produce, for a grand total of 359,085 pounds of food assistance equivalent to 280,535 meals.

Interested in getting involved? We’d love to have you. Please visit www.jfssd.org/handupvolunteer to learn more.