After working for 25 years to improve the local environment for Jews with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities, Debbie Friedman, the first and only executive director of Jewish Residential Services, has announced that she intends to retire this summer.
JRS, which helps people with disabilities live, learn, work and socialize as valued members of the community, has evolved since its launch in 1991 and has advanced the quality of life for those it serves and their families, due in large part to the work of Friedman, according to Nancy Elman, immediate past president of the board of JRS.
“Debbie has done so much from the founding of JRS until now,” Elman said. “Her fingerprint is really on everything we’ve done.”
That work includes the establishment of the Howard Levin Clubhouse, a licensed psychiatric and social rehabilitation program, where adults whose lives have been disrupted by mental illness come together to develop social and vocational skills, as well as three residential facilities, where those with disabilities can live independently, with support.
Friedman has also taken the lead in promoting inclusiveness for those with disabilities in the area’s congregations and other communal organizations, according to Elman.
“Debbie knows how to advocate for inclusiveness and for services for people with disabilities,” she said. “She’s been amazing. It’s been a joy to work with her on every level.”
JRS was incorporated in 1989 as a 501(c)(3), and its board hired Friedman as its first director in 1991.
The timing is now right to pass the baton to someone new, Friedman said.
“We’re in the midst of some big plans,” she said. “The Poli project [in which JRS, working with ACTION-Housing Inc., will create 33 affordable housing units for residents with special needs and others at the site of the old Poli restaurant in Squirrel Hill] is our biggest project ever. The plans will be secure at that point. And I feel like the agency is strong, and we have a wonderful board.”
When she was hired 25 years ago, Friedman recalled, she was charged with getting “a first program up and operating.”
“It actually took a couple years to work with the county and to assemble the program,” she said. “It was the Leonard Staisey House, and it opened it June, 1993 for eight people with serious mental illness. Since then, our residential program has grown, and we now serve 52 people in three facilities.”
JRS also serves many others who live in their own homes, Friedman said.
“We provide individual services to them so they can live in the community,” she said.
The Howard Levin Clubhouse, which Friedman helped launch in 2000, “started out with a handful of people,” Friedman said. “Now we have 150 active members of the clubhouse and serve 30 to 35 people a day. It really helps people whose lives have been up-ended by mental illness. It gets them ready to rejoin the workforce.”
Friedman said she is also proud of her work in helping to add a “young adults in transition component to the agency.”
“We have ongoing education services for families of young adults with disabilities and individuals with disabilities, to help them get through the system, moving from the children’s system of services to the adult system of services and to live productive adult lives,” she said.
Making Judaism accessible for those with disabilities has also been one of Friedman’s missions during her tenure at JRS, she said, citing as examples the Shabbat dinners held at the Howard Levin Clubhouse and the observance of Jewish holidays at all the residential facilities.
“Everyone who wants to be involved with Jewish life has the opportunity,” she said.
Friedman said she has been “enormously gratified” by seeing the growth of those whom she has served over the years.
“I’ve been here long enough to see so many people grow to not only meet the expectations they had for their lives, but to exceed the expectations they had for their lives,” she said.
She is also pleased with the changes she has seen in the community at large.
“I’ve seen the environment in Squirrel Hill change so much in terms of inclusion,” she said. “I see people on the street with disabilities, walking around the neighborhood, shopping for themselves, working at businesses, and becoming part of the community at a level that we were not at 25 years ago,” she said. “I do think that JRS played an important role in pushing the community in that direction.”
JRS has retained a search firm to help find Friedman’s successor, according to Elman, and will be hosting an event to honor Friedman’s contributions to the agency in the coming months.
“We will do something very special to honor Debbie before we let her go,” Elman said.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.