by Vivian Henoch

“There are a lot of ways to answer your questions, ready?”  . . . And so begins a high-octane conversation with Perry Ohren, Chief Executive Officer of Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Metropolitan Detroit.  From the corner office, Perry projects a humility and affability that belies the complexity and gravity of his job – running JFS today on pace with the speed of modern life.

At the helm of JFS since 2011, Perry has been a part of the JFS/ JVS and Federation network for all intents and purposes since 1991 with his first job after earning his Master of Social Work at U of M.

Here, in a capsule, is how Perry modestly describes his career path: “I grew up in suburban Cincinnati – a Reform Jew – drove up to Ann Arbor for college in 1980 and stayed there for 12 years. I started out at JFS [as a clinical social worker in a family violence intervention program], moved to JVS for six years [managing programs in refugee employment, supported employment and school to work], then returned to JFS as an employee of Federation to run a program called Supportive Communities to help people age in place. In 2004, Norm Keane, my predecessor of blessed memory, hired me to be the Department Director of Older Adult Services at JFS, then promoted me to Chief Program Officer. In so many ways I was groomed by the entire community when the search committee hired me seven years ago for the job I hold today.”

Perry Ohren with "The Commentary"
Perry shows a gift from former JFS CEO Norm Keane. “. . . that lithograph – named Midrash – the ‘Commentary’ – sits over my shoulder, Norm’s gift forever looking over me.”

In other words, from crisis intervention to refugee resettlement, from elder care services to family counseling, from programing to strategic planning and community leadership, Perry has helped serve as the eye of the storm for thousands of individuals and families who have come through the doors of JFS.

“And never alone!” Perry emphatically adds, “Our job always entails working in partnership with funders, Federation, Jewish Senior Life (JSL), JVS – our strong network of agencies and volunteers that provide for and anticipate the needs of our community.”

And that network is always expanding: Perry is incoming Chair of the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies, an organization with 140 members in the US, Canada and Israel. Locally, Perry is a board member of Metro In-Home Solutions and the Wayne State University School of Social Work Board of Visitors. He’s been on the boards of the Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies, Oak Park Business and Education Alliance, Greater Detroit Network of Social Innovators, and Kadima.

A resident of Huntington Woods, Perry is dad to three young adult children, Charlie, 24, Caleb, 21 and Rebecca, 18.

On early years and influences

What drew you to Social Work?

One tiny step at a time. In my junior and senior year in college, I worked as a volunteer on the crisis line at a runaway and family counseling center called Ozone House. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was doing social work – connecting with people and helping people when they were hurting. The work started me thinking about getting my degree and that volunteer job turned into my first paying job after graduation. The job at Ozone House led to another and another, until I realized that to continue in any direction, I needed a Master’s Degree. Social work made the most sense to me and here I am – doing what social workers do with their degree, their skills and experience – helping people.

On Jewish Family Service, then and now

It is said that Jewish Detroit’s safety net is much wider than in most communities. How so? 

One contradictory thought, and then I’ll answer: It’s hard not to talk about JFS without talking about all the Jewish social services in our network. In so many ways, we work together as one. Our JFS is similar to the Jewish Family Services around the country – all established by a guy like our Nathan Bielfield, 90 years ago. Like our agency, decades ago when anti-Semitism ruled, all these agencies were established because folks who were Jewish couldn’t go elsewhere to get help.

Today, we’re a modern, multi- service organization and, while we’re Jewish, inspired by Jewish values, funded by Jewish sources and we serve people who self-identify as Jewish – we’re really a modern social service agency, like JFS in so many other cities.

From my perspective, the way in which JFS Metro Detroit and what I like to call our Jewish human service community is different is the Goldilocks analogy. We’re the right size, not too big, and not too small.  If you are in L.A., the system is literally and figuratively hard to navigate. And if you are in Des Moines, there’s one rabbi with a very small network of support. We’re big enough, to have lots of resources, and small enough that we know each other and work well to leverage those resources.

Another thing that makes us different: we’re a “traditional” Jewish community – meaning we care about Jewish life, Jewish institutions and the values we share. Jews in this community vote with their pocketbook. We have a strong Federation, which helps sustain our JFS, JVS, JSL – all those agencies,  along with the multitude of organizations that start with ‘Jewish’ or ‘J’ or a Hebrew word.

In 1928, when Nathan Bielfield was running Jewish Family Service, it was all Jewish, a function of the shtetl-like neighborhood of Hastings Street. As Jews assimilated, so too did our agencies, offering more services and getting funding from new sources, and that opened the door to serving more people. Arguably, we’ve always been a Jewish Family Service, here to serve Jews. But, because we’re Jews, we serve people in the broader community, too. Leveraging our resources, our job as “scrappy, resourceful social workers” is to turn over all those stones in the pockets of foundations and municipal and state agencies to help as many people as we can to get the tools and resources they need.

 Caring for the needs of older adults is still central to the conversation about community collaboration – and an area of concern. What do you consider to be JFS’s greatest strengths in providing services to seniors?

Some answers to that question: JFS is a cradle-to-grave organization. For people who have no clue what we do, we should be called Jewish Family and Senior Service, because over half of what we do is directed to seniors. Our stake in the ground is to help older adults age in place in the comfort and safety of their own single-family homes, apartments or condos. And, if they need to transition to institutionalized settings, whether Jewish or not, our job is to help them get there.

I’d say there’s nothing more of a test of a community than how it cares for its elders. And it’s a fact: we all get older. Statistically, as people age, they need help with things they used to take for granted: changing a light bulb, fixing an egg in the morning, taking a shower. So, our job – never alone, but always in partnership with our sister agencies (within and outside of the Federation umbrella) – is to make sure we get Bubbe and Zayde tucked in, and keep them tucked in.

And the other thing: Bubbe and Zayde in general will get frailer. So, when we meet someone at 80, we’re generally on the case for multiple services and many years – whether that involves providing meals, volunteer assistance, home care, financial assistance, home-based psychotherapy, home modification – whatever it takes.

You ask what our greatest strengths are: they tie together for me to the words I associate with Jewish Family Service: We’re scrappy – meaning dogged and determined – and we’re resourceful social workers. JFS is the generalist social work agency of our community – and we roll up our sleeves and do whatever it takes to get Bubbe and Zayde – or whoever your loved one is — well cared for, tucked in and safe.

And, by the way, the stuff we do for older adults isn’t just for needy adults. It’s for everybody. You and me. Why shouldn’t we all be served by a Jewish agency with our super premium risk prevention? JFS has to be here for all of us, because we all go through transitions and challenges.

Another strength – and crucial because stuff happens: JFS is appropriately responsive and flexible in emergencies. Crisis-intervention on a one-on-one basis, family-to-family, is our bread and butter.  But when there are larger emergencies, like the flood that hit hundreds of families in 2014, we’re able to respond, put our heads together among our agencies and figure out how to help. I remember that effort with pride – in the face of all that devastation, block after neighborhood block, we were able to spearhead our network and volunteers to help people quickly — clean up, rebuild, purchase appliances, and get everything back to code and back to normal life. And, of course, with lots of partners!

What do you consider to be JFS’s greatest challenges?

There’s a boatload of challenges, but funding is foremost and shifts with the priorities of our community’s needs.

JFS is funded out of many pockets– from Federation, from the government, from private philanthropy, from client fees. Our challenge is to sustain those resources, as well as to develop new means to sell our services in an entrepreneurial way.

Our demographics is another challenge. We often talk about the needs of our Jewish community in terms of our aging population and the coming of the “silver tsunami” – the aging generation of baby boomers. Our population studies tell us that the Jewish community is older than other communities around the country and, furthermore, the Detroit Jewish community is among the oldest. So, it’s critically important that we are well prepared to expand our services for older adults living independently or with assistance in our communal apartments. And, beyond bricks and mortar, we’ll need to be innovative in planning for new solutions like “smart homes” and new healthcare services to help people age in place.

 On JFS programs and innovations

Many services of JFS seem to overlap the services of other agencies. To clarify – what do you want people to know about the range and reach of JFS?

Perry Ohren
Perry speaks on a panel for Teen Mental Health sponsored by JCC’s Opening the Doors program: “Destigmatizing the issues, getting people to talk about anxiety, depression, the real issues so many families are facing today – those are challenges that we must take on.”

You’ve touched upon another one of the challenges of our community network: what’s the difference between Jewish-this, J-that and Hebrew-what?

None of the services we provide at JFS are specific or exclusive to the Jewish community. We do what we do because we’re Jewish. When we talk about aging or teen mental health, there’s nothing Jewish about that. If you’re Jewish and struggling — we Jews don’t own that.

The mental health piece – destigmatizing the issues, getting people to talk about anxiety, depression, the real issues so many families are facing today – those are challenges that we must take on, and build bridges where people connect, talk and open the door to healing.

jhelp – our new online gateway to help in navigating the social services of our community – is brilliant in the way it can clarify the resources available and market our agencies. As we celebrate 90 years of JFS Metro Detroit, we continue to explore the model. If we were creating a Jewish Human Service Agency today, what would it look like? We’d be an Amazon or a Walmart, not the Main Street we have right now. Our advantage today is that we do a good job of coordinating, collaborating, co-locating our agencies and getting grants together. But we’re not yet ONE. Should we be looking at the next Collaboration-ville? Maybe!

The only reason all of us exist is to serve the person who’s calling jhelp right now – it might be time again to see what’s the best way to serve folks. We and our sister agencies are looking at that all the time.

What do you consider to be JFS’s most innovative programs?

Project Chessed — a well-kept secret and good example of how JFS works — tells our story best. Norm Keane (z”l) – the “oldest, scrappiest most resourceful social worker” who sat in this office before me, started the project as a means of leveraging the volunteer services of physicians in the community. And who would have thought back in 2004, that JFS would have been in the business of access to healthcare? But we did it because no one else was doing it and Jews started coming to our door needing health care. So, for nearly a decade, before there was the Affordable Care Act, Project Chessed, enlisted 800 physicians to help over 2,000 people with life-saving medical intervention, like free chemo and heart surgery.

Today, we’re doing a similar thing we call Legal Referral Service: Jewish lawyers who raise their hands to help our clients pro bono when we send them their way.

Project Build is another well-kept secret. Ten years ago, when so many building contractors were out of work, a member of our board came forward to ask, “Can I hammer a nail somewhere?” And together, we created Project Build, where he and other contractors and builders started to volunteer their time to do home modifications – not home renovation or repair – but building ramps, lowering counters, adding grab bars – the kinds of things to help older adults age in place.

We then realized that there was a bigger opportunity here.  Should it be our responsibility to go to Romulus, Trenton, Pontiac — to create the same services in the larger community? Long story short, we’ve partnered with three other non- Jewish agencies —Presbyterian Villages of Michigan  and Southwest Solutions — both huge organizations now — and Hartford Memorial Baptist Church — also a community development engine in its neighborhood. Together we created an LLC, Metro In-Home Solutions.

So, we’re trying to get third parties involved, like insurance companies, to pay for home modification services upstream, to save money downstream – by statistically preventing more injuries and hospitalizations. Where most people wouldn’t see JFS as part of the healthcare delivery system, the reality is that the partnership between the Jewish community and our neighbors, Henry Ford Health System or Beaumont Health, is imperative to help people because the hand-off from hospital care to home doesn’t always happen that well.

Increasingly, we’ve become involved in the social determinants of health. So, another innovative thing we’re in the process of developing is getting our social workers embedded in doctors’ offices. Certainly, JFS has a precedent for that. We have a social worker at Frankel Jewish Academy and other Jewish day schools, as well as Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network; we have a case manager at Hebrew Free Loan and we regularly consult with the good folks at Tamarack Camps.

The fact is that the lines of distinction where we work and deploy our services are fluid.  If you ask me, the role of a Jewish human service agency is to take care of the Jewish community and the broader community. But to do that, we constantly must reexamine and reassess the needs. For example, we are no longer a refugee resettlement agency— though were we were there during the 1980s-90s for the 7,000 folks from the former Soviet Union who came to Detroit. Today, there are other agencies that fill that need. We’re simply helping those former refugees to age in place alongside us in West Bloomfield and Oak Park.

On mental health

Let’ talk about mental health and JFS services

JFS is a generalist out-patient mental health clinic– which means that we can accept third party payment – whether that’s Blue Cross or Medicare or Medicaid or so many others. And, because we’re Jewish Family Service and we’re mission-based, we have a sliding scale, so if you don’t have insurance, we’re not going to turn you away.

Who’s on that staff?

Just like any other clinic, we have a medical director who’s a psychiatrist and a staff of psychologists, social workers and counselors who see people for mental health issues and the individual and family issues that we all deal with – whether that’s “I’m having a problem with my wife,” whether that’s “I’m a teenager contemplating suicide,” whether that’s “My husband just died and I’m grieving”—all of that is diagnosis-based and part of healthcare delivery.

On leadership and mentoring

Perry Ohren
“To me, an effective Jewish leader is someone who gets the big picture but also understands the mission of the organization.”

What is your definition of an effective professional community leader?

To me it’s about being humble, being here for other people. The only reason I have a job here is because someone is calling us on jhelp and my job is to help the helpers. To me, an effective Jewish leader is someone who gets the big picture, but also understands the mission of the organization.

You often speak and have written about Norm Keane as your mentor and inspiration. How has he inspired you? 

A huge personal loss and a loss to the Jewish community, Norm died too young; he will be remembered for transforming Jewish Family Service in Detroit to a true multiservice organization. I am proud to say he was my friend and mentor. We worked closely and well together for eight years, and I’m convinced I would have never been in this role today, had he not given me the opportunities to grow into the job.

I’ll never forget the day he called me into his office, pointed to this lithograph hanging over his desk, and said, “I’ve thought about this a long time, I want to leave you something besides all of my brilliant lessons, and this is it.” At the time, I was preoccupied with work and didn’t take in the gravity of that moment, that acknowledgment of the changing of the guard. But now that lithograph – named Midrash – the “Commentary” – sits over my shoulder, Norm’s gift forever looking over me. So, my job is to carry his legacy – running our growing, vital and ever resourceful Jewish Family Service of Metro Detroit – always with an eye to our future, and never alone.


Restaurants:  Thang Long – best Vietnamese restaurant around, Scotti’s in Cincinnati, my family of origin’s favorite Italian restaurant for cannelloni and green lasagna and Chicago’s Pizzeria Due.

Building in the Detroit skyline: The Guardian Building – where we held our son, Charlie’s, bar mitzvah party.

Place to take kids or visitors: The Heidelberg Project

Vacation places: It’s complicated: since my kids started going to college, I’ve claimed their spring breaks, so every year we take off together to another city: New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, New Orleans – all favorites.

Sports: I used to be an athlete, played tennis and basketball. Now I’m an old guy and a fan of Men’s Michigan Basketball, and don’t get me started on the Tigers. I grew up with Sparky’s Reds – not too shabby!

Jewish Food: All things deli!  When I was in high school, I worked at Hoots Goldfarb’s in Cincinnati, then (30 years ago) at Zingerman’s, before it was the Zingerman’s we know today. My favorite all-time meal is a Jewish Sunday brunch – white fish, lox, bagel, kugel and rugelach, blintzes- all that good stuff. And a nap too of course!

Guilty pleasure: Malts

Reading now:

The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls; There Shall be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition, Rabbi Jill Jacobs; Looking Back: A Memoir of a Psychoanalyst, Paul Ornstein