Barbra Giles

by Vivian Henoch

Barbra Giles, LMSM, ACSW is the Associate Director of Jewish Senior Life on both the West Bloomfield and Oak Park campuses. Don’t let that long string of letters after her name throw you:  Barbra is a certified, professional people-person, responsible for the care and well-being of more than 900 older adults who live in residences that include a Licensed Home for the Aged, Adult Foster Care Home and independent apartments. She is also involved with the agency’s strategic planning,visioning and new business development.

Barbra Giles

A strong advocate for older adults and Jewish communal life, Barbra has been recognized for outstanding work both as a professional and community volunteer. She is a recipient of the Dr. Herbert Shore Young Executive Award from the Association of Jewish Aging Services of North America, as well as the Mandell L. and Madeleine H. Berman Award in recognition for the highest professional standards in Jewish communal service. Currently, she is one of 32 professionals selected nationwide as part of the “LeadingAge Leadership Academy,” a prestigious program focused on innovation in older adult services.

In recognition of her leadership in Federation’s Young Adult Division (now NEXTGen) and the Women’s Department, Barbra received the Mark Family Award for leadership and outstanding service in the Jewish Community. She now serves as a board member of Congregation Shaarey Zedek.

A resident of Novi, Barbra is married to Kevin. The Giles are the proud parents of young sons Seth and Ryan.

On family background

 MyJewishDetroit: Barbra, you’ve been a Tamarack camper, a BBYO chapter leader, a JOIN intern (a program of JVS) and a Federation lay leader. It seems you were destined for service to the Jewish community. How has Jewish Detroit influenced the choices you’ve made in both your professional and volunteer careers?

Barbra: Jewish Detroit has given so much to me through the programs you’ve mentioned and others with which I’ve been associated as well. Yes, I was a Tamarack kid, but I was also a Tamarack kid who got a scholarship to go to camp. I am familiar with being on the other side of the table as a recipient of services in our community.

For me, those experiences – each a gift in itself — were things that have influenced my sense of responsibility to give back to the community. I think those who receive have the responsibility not only to give back, but also to give back something more in return.

I am proud to let people know that I have been a beneficiary of the services our community has to offer. Unfortunately, I think people are afraid of the stigma of needing help – coming to Hebrew Free Loan, for instance, or turning to Jewish Family Services for counseling. I don’t feel any embarrassment. On the contrary, I am a firm believer in advocacy – letting people know how much our agencies can improve the quality of life for people who live in our community.   Our community is unique in the services that we have to offer people.

MyJewishDetroit: What – or who  – drives or inspires you today?  

Barbra: I am driven and inspired to be part of a creative solution for an industry in flux. What our current residents, clients and participants ask for today is not what the Baby Boomers will be demanding in the very near future.

Tomorrow’s “consumers” are going to radically change the way we deliver care to older adults. While we can’t say exactly what our future will look like, I can tell you it won’t be people sitting in our lobby knitting, talking about their immigrant experiences or what it was like working in the Penobscot Building.


On the aging baby boom

 MyJewishDetroit: For the first time in decades we are seeing a resurgence of the Jewish community, with its growth in numbers, engagement in Jewish organizations and in philanthropic dollars. In your view, what are the opportunities – or the greatest challenges facing our Jewish agency life, and especially Jewish Senior Life?

Barbra: In unprecedented numbers, the Boom is going to hit our industry; we call it the Age Wave or the Silver Tsunami, but inevitably the trend will push us to think about new and creative ways to deliver services

The Boomers always have  pushed the envelope. It was their generation that pushed the schools to expand, then pushed the glass ceiling for women in the workplace. The push will continue forward into the field of aging.

Actually, for me it’s an exciting time: to think about “the new age” of aging. Our challenge is to anticipate the questions, wants and needs of tomorrow’s consumers as they age in whatever place they call home. It will require creativity and innovation. We’re used to thinking within the confines of bricks and mortar. Now we’re searching for more open-ended solutions within neighborhoods and community services.  We know that Boomers have the desire to stay in their homes and they’ll need services to be custom-delivered to their doors.

We don’t have all the answers yet, but what drives me today is the fact that the industry is changing. Aging, after all, is a very dynamic process and will continue to challenge us.

On your professional career

MyJewishDetroit: In your numerous roles at Jewish Senior Life over the years, you have worked with families at their most vulnerable and in their most heroic capacities. Some may say you have gained wisdom far beyond your years. What are some of the most important things you have learned?

Barbra: There are so many things I have learned in these 16 years. I continue to be impressed by the power of individuals to determine their future.


I continue to be impressed by the power of the family – whether an “actual family” or “families of choice” – who rise to the occasion to assist one another. Family support can make all the difference for people in an assisted living setting.

myJewishDetroit: What do you mean by “families of choice?”

Barbra: I see people who have been “adopted” by a neighbor, for instance. I’ll say to this person, how are you related and they’ll say they’re not. There’s no tie by blood or marriage, they were “strangers” from the start, with nothing more than the tie of our community. It’s remarkable to meet the families who connect purely by choice.

On survivors

Barbra:  I am particularly moved by helping individuals have experienced the Holocaust in one capacity or another, and to help them have a little more comfort at this point in their lives.

They have endured more than any of us could imagine. And, ironically, there are many things reminiscent of the Holocaust in the aging process; there’s the loss of loved ones and the comforts of home, the loss of independence and control. I will do anything I can to provide at least some measure of comfort to ease their way. It’s my honor to meet them, and to say “Thank God, they’re here with us.”

MyJewishDetroit: How has your participation in the “LeadingAge Leadership Academy” changed or influenced your perspective on the “state of aging” in Michigan and in Jewish Detroit.

Barbra: The LeadingAge Leadership Academy is a program about transformational leadership, exploring the ways groups can work according to the strengths of individual members. Not only has it helped me to synthesize my thoughts on the future of Jewish Senior Life, it’s exposed me to different communities doing wonderful things in the field and allows me to bring back ideas to our executive team at JSL. Together with colleagues, we continue to strive towards developing and executing innovative concepts.

A striking example of an idea we’ve seen at work in other communities, now in development here is the “Village” an initiative that we’re helping to nurture in Huntington Woods. The Village is not a place. It’s a member-based concierge-style service with a growing list of vetted providers – from home repair to healthcare, designed to help people stay in their neighborhood and community and in their home as they age. The concept received a grant from the Jewish Fund to launch; we’ve hired the first “Village Director.”  The plan is that our list of services will expand as the needs of the community grow.

Our Jewish Senior Resource Line, 248-661-1836 “ONE NUMBER,” is another Jewish Senior Life concept designed to streamline the process of finding services for older adults through our network of agencies. Together with Jewish Family Service, the Jewish Community Center, JVS and the Federation, we have created a single telephone number for information, access and referral to senior resources

As we all know, the Boomers are coming.  We need to plan. No one agency will have all the solutions or the answers we need. That’s why we look to the power of community and to all our agencies – JFS, JCC, JVS, Jewish Senior Life, together with the Federation — working collaboratively.

On Jewish Detroit

MyJewishDetroit: As a “NEXTGener,” married with young children, what do you think makes Jewish Detroit a great place to live, work and play? And what makes Jewish Detroit a great place to age in place?

Barbra: For me it’s all about family. Actually, I think family ties are what’s bringing young people back to the area. As people in my age group are having children, they realize the importance of having family to help — because it really does take a village. Grandparents, aunts and uncles – neighbors – are all part of our system of success.

Barbra Giles

Beyond the family, we have the many safety nets in place, anchored by the agencies of our Jewish community working together.  I think sometimes people don’t realize how special our community is until they see the grass is not greener elsewhere in other Jewish communities.

 On favorites

Favorite restaurant: Tommy’s Parthenon in Novi.  The real deal.

Favorite hangout for coffee: My kitchen, equipped with my own Keurig machine, and Newman’s Own “Special Blend Certified Fair Trade Organic” coffee.

Favorite place to take kids:  Skyzone Trampoline in Canton.  My kids love playing the 3-D Dodgeball there.

Favorite building in the Detroit skyline: Actually there are three buildings: the Fisher Building, because in my memory as a child it was the first building we saw from the freeway when our family drove downtown. I’ve always loved my impression of that building as Detroit’s first and foremost landmark.

I also have fond memories of driving past the Wonder Bread Factory (now Motor City Casino); you could always smell the bread baking.

Third favorite,  is Renaissance Center, another landmark for our family. My father was a plumber, and could say with pride that he put the plumbing into that building.

Favorite Passover food:  My mom’s charoses. We still make it with the kitchen grinder and always make enough for the entire week.

Favorite Jewish expression: An expression I hear often, and it holds true at Jewish Senior Life:“People plan and God laughs.”

Reading now: 

Flip. How to Turn Everything You Know on Its Head – and Succeed Beyond Your Wildest Imaginings, by Peter Sheahan

Reading with my kids at bedtime:  Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Roboboxers by Dav Pilkey

Henry and Mudge and Annie’s Perfect Pet by Cynthia Rylant