It’s rare to find a top executive with the longevity of Leah Rosenbaum. What she believed to be just a “one-year commitment” to JVS in 1979 has turned into a 37-year career of remarkable distinction, still going strong. “After this many years, I don’t always know where I and the agency leave off,” she says. “The lines have blurred.”
A native Detroiter, Leah always has been drawn to places with warmer climates. She can enumerate the points in her career where she had every intention to relocate. Instead, she moved up the ranks at JVS — by her choice, through her hard work and with a deep and abiding commitment to Jewish Detroit.
One of Leah’s first assignments as a young caseworker at JVS involved a grant proposal to Oakland County Community Mental Health for funding that blossomed into what is now the Adult Day Program. Leah also was instrumental in developing the Dorothy and Peter Brown Jewish Community Adult Day Program – a specialized service caring for those with dementia – under the auspices of both JVS and Jewish Senior Life (JSL).
For nearly 20 years, Leah served JVS as Chief Operating Officer, overseeing the broad reach of agency initiatives, community partnerships and programs helping thousands of clients of all abilities find fulfillment in their work and in their lives. Succeeding long-time CEO Barbara Nurenberg, Leah was named President and Chief Executive Officer of JVS in 2014.
Beyond JVS, Leah has served as a program and administrative consultant for CARF (formerly the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities). Additionally, she is vice president of the International Association of Jewish Vocational Services, past president of the board of MARO (formerly Michigan Association of Rehabilitation Organizations), past president of the National Association of Jewish Vocational Service Professionals and has served on several advisory boards.
Residents of Southfield, Leah and her husband Daniel Rosenbaum are the parents of adult daughters, Rebecca, of the Washington DC area, and Chelsea who lives locally.
On early years and career decisions
I grew up in Detroit, went off to school at Michigan State – got my first job in East Lansing. When that ended after about a year, I moved to Jackson, Michigan, and worked for Goodwill Industries. The work was a good experience that probably accelerated my career, but Detroit was home. I decided that I would move back, then move on to someplace warmer! That was my plan at the time. It was never my intention to stay in Metro Detroit.
At first, I considered a job offer for private rehabilitation, but decided it was not for me. On the day I turned down that job, I remember so clearly opening the Help Wanted pages of the Detroit Jewish News at my sister’s house and finding an ad for JVS and thinking immediately, “They’re looking for me!” Some might call it beshert – meant to be.
Even from the start at JVS, I was clear about my plan to work there for one year. But it was just a few months into the job when the agency was asked to submit a proposal to design and operate a day program for individuals with significant disabilities in Oakland County. Given my past experience, I was assigned to work with the committee on the proposal. When we got the funding, I had a desire to help launch the program that I worked to design. I put those plans for warmer weather on hold, because I believed at the time (and still do) that when you start something, you follow through.
I’ve had many other opportunities to leave Detroit for a warmer climate, but there were always reasons to “delay” and I made the decision to stay. Detroit kept being the right choice. When Daniel and I got married, we both thought we’d move away. But then we had kids and we wanted our kids to be close to grandparents . . . and then both sets of parents needed our help. Our daughters are grown now, but here I am, still at JVS because the job keeps changing and challenging me to do more.
I used to joke with Al Ascher, the Executive Director before Barbara Nurenberg, that I would stay until I’m bored. And he would laugh and say, “Okay, you’re in for the long haul.” And he was right.
What drew you to the study of Psychology and Social Work?
Psychology was my initial field at MSU. I took an elective in social work because I needed the credit. And I fell in love with social work. It hit me at a passion level that psychology never had and set my direction for my life’s work.
Who would you consider to be your mentors?
I’ve learned an incredible amount from my experience working with Al Ascher and Barbara Nurenberg. I’ve also learned from supervisors before JVS. And, as I discovered from those early experiences, even career challenges can turn into valuable life lessons.
On JVS and job seekers
In your view, how has the role of JVS changed over the years?
Part of what keeps me here at JVS is that the agency is always changing with the times. Our job is to help our clients keep pace with a rapidly changing job market. To find a job 30 years ago, you sent out 50 resumes, got five interviews and landed at least one job offer. It was a math problem! Odds were that you were going to get something right. If you take that approach today, you are going to be out a lot of postage.
So now we work as consultants and advisers, teaching people how to search for a job on the internet, how to build an effective resumé, how to network, how to use social media, how to stay productive – even when they are unemployed and just want to pull the covers up over their heads and stay in bed because they’re depressed.
Whether you’re a seasoned exec laid off from a six-figure job, a worker with disability, a woman who is divorced and needs to reenter the job market to support her family, an ex-offender coming out of prison, a college graduate looking for a first job – as I see it, our work at JVS is all about supporting our clients’ goals and dreams and determining what they need to get there.
Are there trends that are giving you hope?
There’s good news and bad news – but the quick answer is yes. We’re not getting people flooding into the system at the rate of 40 new people a week the way we did back during the height of the recession in 2008. Though fewer in numbers, today we’re seeing the long-term unemployed – and they need more targeted, intensified and individualized services. So, we’re creating internships and new programs to re-train older workers.
We also are seeing a resurgence of young professionals choosing to return to live and work in metropolitan Detroit. To support them, JVS is working closely with Federation’s NEXTGen to strengthen professional networks and identify employment opportunities. This joint effort is a great example of how our communal sister agencies work together to address the needs of our community.
On JVS and caring for older adults
Metro Detroit is the oldest Jewish community outside of the sunbelt. That’s a fact. Before the Jewish agencies stepped in, there wasn’t much help available between aging independently with occasional help from your children and living in a nursing home. Based on a population survey conducted about 20 years ago, the social service agencies in our community started filling in that gap. Today, collaborations between JVS, JFS, Jewish Senior Life and the JCC provide our seniors a continuum of care of exceptional quality without duplicating or overlapping services.
The Dorothy and Peter Brown Jewish Community Adult Day Program is another prime example of our collaboration. From the get-go, the program has been a partnership of JVS and Jewish Senior Life – two agencies providing services in two locations under a single director and single budget – merging resources to best meet the needs of the aging population of our community. Nothing anywhere else in the nation comes close to the services we provide here in our community.
On JVS and greatest challenges
What do you consider to be JVS’s greatest challenges moving forward?
Funding! That’s not a hard question – and it is felt across JVS services to our Community. As an example, funding for unmet needs for people with disabilities is always a challenge. While government funding helps, it doesn’t come close to covering the intensity of need that we’re seeing. First, we need a staffing ratio that takes care of people’s needs and, beyond that, we need to pay our staff a living wage so they stay. We want to provide compassionate care for people to maintain their dignity and we can’t do that if we have a revolving door with staff.
On JVS and innovation
What do you consider to be JVS’s most innovative program?
For reasons I’ve just described, and because of its complexity, I consider the Brown Program to be one of our most innovative programs.
Another program I would consider innovative is eCO (eCycle Opportunities), which is an electronics recycling program. Two years ago, we asked what we could do to generate both jobs and revenue for the agency. (We do janitorial work that creates jobs for people with disabilities and other barriers to employment, but there’s not a lot of money in janitorial work. We also started HR Solutions Group, which provides human resources services for nonprofit businesses. That has created revenue for us, but not many jobs.) eCO launched in July 2015 and is starting to fill the bill, putting people to work, raising revenue for the agency and keeping tons of electronics out of landfills. It’s a win-win-win and we expect the program to grow over time.
On JVS, celebrating 75 years in Detroit
It’s remarkable: JVS has remained in the City of Detroit, serving the needs of the community for 75 years. Founded in 1941, the agency began as a Jewish vocational service for “hard to place” job applicants: women, World War II veterans and refugees coming out of the concentration camps. In fact, our first sheltered workshop was organized for Holocaust survivors – people so stressed that they couldn’t work and succeed in the chaos and noise of a typical industrial workplace at the time. Today, JVS employs more than 350 people at its four offices in metro Detroit, serving more than 12,000 clients annually.
If you ask me what’s my favorite building downtown, I would say it’s the humble JVS Arnold E. Frank Building on the corner of Woodward and Canfield – at what will be the fifth stop of the new M-I Rail Line. For years, it was considered an undesirable location. Today, at the gateway of Wayne State University and the Medical Center, it’s a great neighborhood at the center our city on the rise again.
On communal leadership
What is your definition of an effective professional community leader?
To lead with heart. To me, leadership is ALL about building relationships.
Describe some of your typical day
There’s no such thing as a routine day. That’s why I love what I do. Our priorities in answering the needs of the people we serve are always changing and our work is never done. That’s why I’m still here.
How do you refuel – de-stress during a long day?
Easy. I walk through the agency. I visit the people we serve in the Brown Program. Or go to our Senior Service Corps to chat with our volunteers. Those are the people who say to you, “I didn’t feel well today, but I knew I was needed at work.” On any given day at JVS, I have all kinds of places in the building where I can go to lift my spirits.
What makes you proudest of your work with JVS?
My pride comes from the strength of our staff and the success of the people we serve who are dealing with so many challenges. When I see what they accomplish – and how we support them to accomplish their goals – that’s what inspires me.
Restaurant: Beverly Hills Grill for great breakfast meetings!
Place to meet for coffee: Great Lakes Coffee on Maple
Place to take kids and visitors: I love driving around downtown. Everyone needs to see the recent changes. The Henry Ford Museum is also a favorite destination.
Vacation place: Maui – my top pick for warm weather!
Sports teams: Red Wings and Tigers
Jewish Food: Chicken soup – the ultimate comfort food and almost a religious experience. I have a recipe that combines my mother’s and my mother-in law’s recipes. (And when I bake rugelach, I channel my father-in-law because I know how much he loved it.)
Jewish Expression: Kibbitz – it reminds me of my connection with my Jewish roots.
Guilty pleasures: Ice cream – what my husband calls my “drug of choice”
WORDS TO LIVE BY: in Yiddish: B’makom sh’ ainoh ish, hishtadayl l’hiyot ish. “In a place where there’s no mensch, be a mensch.”