MILWAUKEE – For a little more than a decade — from 2005 through 2015 — Sylvan Leabman was President/CEO of Jewish Family Services, which assists Jews and non-Jews in the Metro-Milwaukee area. During his tenure, Leabman steered Jewish Family Services through the rough waters of the 2007-08 economic crisis.
“The recession created great strain on the agency and our clients,” Leabman said. But he said Jewish Family Services was able to continue its mission to provide comprehensive social services to its clients. What’s more, Jewish Family Services also expanded its housing services. Leabman, now retired, spoke with the Chronicle about his work with Jewish Family Services and future challenges facing social service organizations.
CHRONICLE: What was the most challenging aspect of your job?
LEABMAN: Assuring that the Jewish Family Services Board’s strategic goals were realized and making sure that clients and their families were always served with care, compassion and confidentiality. Funding was always a huge challenge as about 70 percent of Jewish Family Services’ clients have incomes under $15,000 a year. But the most challenging of all was [helping] clients — particularly the elderly and people with disabilities — who needed additional safe and affordable housing beyond our traditional housing programs, as the cornerstone of stable families.
CHRONICLE: How did Jewish Family Services meet this challenge?
LEABMAN: We constructed 214 affordable apartments at our Brown Deer campus, home now to 300 people, 100 of whom are under the age of 18. Many of our neighbors on this campus were homeless or living in substandard housing. Many have chronic health conditions; but now they’re receiving supportive services so they can live independently with dignity in a safe and contemporary environment.
CHRONICLE: About how many people receive assistance from Jewish Family Services?
LEABMAN: … more than 2,300 each year (unduplicated count) …
CHRONICLE: What services are most commonly needed?
LEABMAN: Our outpatient mental health services. We had about 8,000 sessions last year. We had a significant expansion of these services since 2008.
CHRONICLE: What are your thoughts about the future of social services in general?
LEABMAN: Social service agencies need to redefine themselves as government funds remain tight or are being reduced. Their boards of directors need to “laser in” on what they do best in light of changing demographics and limited funding. They need to develop more partnerships with other nonprofits. Needs will only increase with government pulling back [funding]; therefore, social services organizations need to develop sustainable and long-term financial commitments from their community stakeholders.
CHRONICLE: What are your fondest memories during your time at Jewish Family Services?
LEABMAN: Being involved in activities with our clients, particularly the Sandy Naimon Breakfast Club, Habush House Seders, Hanukkah parties, picnics … And just knowing that these socialization activities were incredibly important to our clients’ wellbeing and sense of worth.
CHRONICLE: Now that you’re retired, what do you do to stay busy?
LEABMAN: I’m doing volunteer work at Jewish Family Services Housing’s Brown Deer campus, taking care of their vegetable and flower gardens. I also work at their Mobile Food Pantry events and I’ve joined the board of a nonprofit organization in Ozaukee County called Balance Inc., which provides housing and other services for people with disabilities.
CHRONICLE: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
LEABMAN: I want to thank the Board of Directors at Jewish Family Services and JFS Housing during my tenure for their support and generosity, as well as the Jewish Family Services staff for their dedication and of course the community for its tremendous support of our mission and vision.
A partner agency of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, Jewish Family Services receives funding through the Federation’s annual campaign.