Top Workplaces: Jewish Family Services 'agency full of helpers'

Peter Tonguette
The treat cart for senior services at Jewish Family Services.

As the extent of the coronavirus crisis started to become evident, the employees of Jewish Family Services felt motivated, energized and maybe even a little inspired.

In mid-March, during their first week of working remotely, the team threw themselves into need assessments, outreach, delivering meals and other productive activities.

“Our team is really good at a crisis,” says Karen Mozenter, the CEO of the Bexley nonprofit organization whose mandate is to assist Central Ohioans in gaining economic independence and developing emotional well-being. “Everybody leapt into action, and it was almost a frenetic pace,” Mozenter says. “When you’re an agency full of helpers, it helped people feel some control, and it made people feel good to be helping.”

By the time the second week closed in, however, Mozenter and her colleagues realized it might be time to dial things back. “We all decided, OK, now we need to take a breath,” Mozenter says. “The reality was sinking in. We know this is going to be a long haul; we have to take care of ourselves.”

For 112 years, Jewish Family Services has exemplified an organization committed to the long haul. The organization derives its principles from a trio of questions attributed to ancient Jewish leader Hillel the Elder. First among them is: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

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“We were founded by the Jewish community to serve, at the time, Jewish immigrants coming from Europe who were making Columbus their home,” Mozenter says. 

The second question—But if I am only for myself, what am I?—inspires the organization to work with clients outside of the Jewish community, while the third—If not now, when? —gives the group its commitment to acting in the here and now.

“That’s our call to action because we know there’s an urgency to the work,” says Mozenter, who breaks down the organization’s work into two main categories: helping clients gain employment and community services, including counseling, case management and service navigation.

Jewish Family Services prides itself on taking a holistic approach to its clients’ needs. “If people call us because they need help finding a job, we are finding out what else is going on in their lives,” Mozenter says. “We know if we don’t help them address other issues, like transportation, child care, rent, food security, those types of things, they’re not going to have success in the workplace.”

The organization employs 52 people, most of whom provide services directly to the individuals who walk through their doors. “It’s career counselors who are helping people find jobs, who are doing career coaching, helping with life skills,” Mozenter says. “We have social workers who are doing case management.”

Among those 50-plus workers, only a small minority, around seven, perform administrative duties. “Everyone else is either providing direct services or managing the program teams,” Mozenter says. “It’s very hands-on. I think part of what makes us a great workplace is that we have a very collaborative culture.”

Mozenter, who joined the organization in 2017 as its COO before becoming its CEO two years later, can offer firsthand testimony about the qualities of the workplace.

An attorney by training, Mozenter had stints in the fields of education and philanthropy before accepting her initial position with the nonprofit. “I was really looking for something that would utilize all my different skills and my varied career path, working with a really high-performing organization with people who would be excellent colleagues, and also something that feeds my soul,” she says. “Jewish Family Services just delivered on all fronts.”

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In managing her team, Mozenter is committed to what she calls “frontline-forward” thinking. “We want the people who are on the frontlines, who are working directly with clients, to feel empowered so that they can bring ideas and innovations to the work,” she says. “That creates a culture where people really buy in to what we’re doing.”

The workforce reflects a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, equipping the team to interact with a diverse client base. “Racially we’re diverse, religiously we’re diverse, by nationality—in every imaginable way,” Mozenter says. “It contributes to a caring culture because we see all those different perspectives.”

Mozenter says that staff members internalize the principles that guide Jewish Family Services, using the example of one of her workforce development directors who happens to be part of a refugee family from Somalia. “We all have our keycards for security access to the building, and on the back of his keycard, he has Hillel’s three questions,” Mozenter says. “We have our value statements in every single office and conference room and along the wall as you come in the building.”

Of course, when the coronavirus outbreak compelled Jewish Family Services to send its employees home, statements on office walls would no longer be seen. Instead, the nonprofit had to reinvent its work habits in a heartbeat. “We’d seen it coming,” Mozenter says. “Luckily, we’d already had all our documents in the cloud and [were] using SharePoint.” Weekly staff meetings and daily leadership meetings now take place on Zoom; a virtual birthday party was recently held for one staffer, and a group calling itself the Morning Coffee Group logs in at 9:15 a.m. each workday.

The shift from the physical to the virtual has also led to fresh approaches to engaging clients. “We’re using the phone, we’re using Zoom, we’re doing tele-therapy,” Mozenter says. “That happened within a week’s time. We’re doing a lot of just checking in with clients and making sure they’re OK.” Other collaborations are emerging, too. For example, Jewish Family Services and Catholic Social Services are sharing a live document listing community resources. “A social worker from our staff, who is heading up this project, is now working with a staff member at CSS, so CSS staff can also access the document and contribute information as well,” Mozenter says.

Mozenter is aware that that the work done by her team can be taxing. “Our staff members who work with Holocaust survivors, their clients die too frequently,” she says. But the collaborative, committed workplace promoted at the nonprofit helps prevent mental burnout. Mozenter points to a saying by her predecessor, former CEO June Gutterman: “We’re Jewish Family Services: Family is our middle name,” Mozenter says. “[If] somebody has a family member who is ill, we are flexible with our staff members so that they can meet the needs of their own families.”

The results speak for themselves: Just ask those served by the organization and the employees who represent its soul. Says Mozenter: “Sometimes I’ll just get a voicemail out of the blue from someone who says, ‘I just want you to know about a staff member and what a difference they made in my life.’ "

Peter Tonguette is a freelance writer.