Marji didn’t have a place to be. After being evicted, she lived briefly at the Drake Motel where she was trapped for a week. Her severe, untreated depression and agoraphobia robbed her of the ability to leave her room. When the phone stopped working, she had no way to reach the outside world. She couldn’t even call the office for help. Her only company were the cockroaches in the shut down motel. She was brave and desperate enough to reach out to a nonprofit organization, which was eventually able set her up in a new home with a sympathetic landlord who lived just downstairs.
Speaking with her years later in the pristine offices of the Barbash Family Vital Support Center of Jewish Family Service, it is hard to reconcile that image with the composed and articulate woman who now sits in front of me. She describes feeling a sense of isolation from her childhood Jewish community. “Mental illness is not easy here [in Cincinnati]. Being a poor Jew is a horrible thing here. If it wasn’t for Jewish Family Service recognizing that….” She gives me a pained look as she trails off.
Even in her new home, it was a long struggle to integrate back into the outside world. “What Jewish Family Service has done,” she tells me, “is help me reconnect.” They provided not just food, but also something more. “They delivered. They would come to the door. Do you know how wonderful it was to have a kosher chicken?” Marji began to feel cared for by a community that previously had only made her feel ostracized. “I wasn’t even invited to weddings and bar mitzvas anymore (sic). It helped. It really helped.”
This was all before the new center in which this conversation took place existed. The original JFS food pantry was located in the basement of the old Golf Manor Synagogue building, an early supporter of the pantry. The pantry room was small and only accessible by a flight of narrow steps that were hard enough for Marji to navigate with a cane before reaching a metal metal grate at their base. The small room was a blessing, but it wasn’t enough. Organizers at the pantry saw that people would often congregate there and realized that there was an unmet need in the community. Marji, and others like her, had homes and food, but didn’t have a place to be. So JFS built one. “They knew that more than a food pantry was needed,” Marji describes. “I think everybody had kind of a vague, not a well formulated, kind of idea. Maybe four years ago they put together a board. They asked me to be the client on the board—such an honor! Then the Barbashes came to this first meeting. This is what they said: ‘What can we do? We want to do something. What do you need, and what do you want us to do?’ That was the beginning.”
It was not only the Barbash Family that made the new center possible. “This was the one time that Cincinnati put our differences aside and Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative worked together to make this a reality,” Marji recalls. Fran Gafvert, who is now the director of the center, was in the room, as was the director of JFS, Beth Schwartz. So was Conservative Rabbi Irvin M. Wise and members of the Jewish Federation and Jewish Foundation. HUC-JIR, the Reform seminary, provided a location; the old college gymnasium that had been locked up for years was the perfect building for constructing the new Vital Support Center.
One thing that had stood in the way of Marji’s healing was her sense that there was nowhere for her to belong. “I’ve always been thirsting for a place of comfort. I’ve never had it,” she told me. The JFS Barbash Family Vital Support Center featured a larger area for the food pantry, and included both Kosher and non-Kosher options for the first time. It now had the capacity to serve the Cincinnati Jewish community as well as the local general community. There were offices and private meeting rooms on site where social workers and clients could meet. This was not just an expansion of what had already existed; this was the creation of something completely new.
“There are hearts of gold in that office,” Marji says. “It’s welcoming here. There is a warmth that isn’t phony. I’d know the difference. There is an effort to reconnect people, to help heal people and to give them what they need. Where else are you going to go? This fills a niche.” As a TJF Fellow, have been honored to play a role in the launch of this amazing place, which is how I met Marji and Fran and Beth, and countless other warm and caring staff and clients of JFS.
The Center also features a well-appointed meeting area complete with room dividers, a media center, computers and a full kosher kitchen. I helped to lead movie and popcorn discussion events, holiday celebrations, meals and crafts. There are also cooking and nutrition classes, yoga, group therapy and more. What I have come away most with is the realization that this is not just a building. It is a place to be. To be a part of this transformation has been a rare and sacred honor for me. I see the impact that this building has had, and I somehow became a part of that through this Jewish Foundation Fellowship. Marji reflected, “All that hard work, and look where we are! Look at what we have. We have a place where somebody can come for a kosher meal. We can talk to you. We can get help form the staff. We can take yoga. We can make jewelry.”
Marji still has a way to go before she will feel completely whole. “I didn’t think I’d ever find a reconnection. So to have found it in a lovingly guided way is incredible. I’m still searching, but this brings me closer.” Now that Marji has this place, she is not sitting still. Her current project is finding new ways to bring others here. “We can’t thrive if all these beautiful opportunities for yoga and learning Kosher cooking and all of the beautiful things we planned at the beginning for this place– none of that will happen if we don’t have transportation,” she says. “This building is now open for learning and love, and it’s filling a niche for people with all kinds of disabilities who have had no place to go.” At the Center, Marji can give and receive. She has a place to be.
Nathan Farb researched the role of faith in recovery as he co-lead wellness and recovery programming in the Vital Services Support branch of Jewish Family Service as a TJF Fellow this year.