Gail Schulman, CEO of Jewish Family & Children’s Service, was “proud and ecstatic” to learn the social services non-profit she leads was recently named one of the Top 100 Women-Led Businesses in Massachusetts.
The honor – bestowed by the Globe Magazine, and The Women’s Edge – placed JF&CS in the stratospheric company of such giants as Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Wellesley College, TD Garden, Fidelity Investments and WBUR. JF&CS was also one of only four businesses on the list where women comprise 100 percent of upper management.
“I’m proud not because this is an acknowledgement of me,” she said, “but of all the work so many people have been doing for so many years.”
But Schulman has another connection to JF&CS: She once needed its services herself. “I am happy to say I was a client,” Schulman said in an interview. “There’s no shame in that.”
In 2001, at the age of 40, she gave birth to twins who were two-and-a-half months premature. Both babies – a son and daughter – had medical complications, and her daughter required surgery. The twins needed to eat every three hours, and each baby took over an hour to feed. Schulman was terribly sleep-deprived.
“I was not at all confident about my ability to be a mother,” said Schulman, who quickly saw that her many professional accomplishments in the global financial technology sector didn’t prepare her for a mammoth mothering challenge.
Her sister – who’d also had twins with complications – told her about JF&CS’s Visiting Moms program (now called the Lauren & Mark Rubin Visiting Moms program), a free service still in operation that matches volunteers with new parents during the first year of their baby’s life. Volunteers make home visits to support parents who are adjusting to parenthood, or feeling isolated, or overwhelmed.
“I could relate to all three of these,” she said. “I didn’t even know if they’d take me. I worried that I was too fortunate, living in a perfectly nice house in Newton.”
The program did take her, though, and sent a kind-hearted, accepting, and experienced mother to help out however she was needed. “Sometimes I needed someone to hold one baby while I gave the other a bath,” Schulman said. “She clipped toenails, and took walks with me. She helped me go clothes shopping when I needed to go back to work. And at the end of the year, she said ‘You’ve got this.’ She’d imparted a sense of confidence in me.”
This program is just one of dozens of services provided by the JF&CS, which has been in operation more than 150 years – through two world wars, the Great Depression, social upheavals, and, in recent times, a pandemic.
Under the JF&CS umbrella are some 40 programs throughout Eastern and Central Massachusetts that address the needs of families, older adults, family caregivers, children and adults with disabilities, and people experiencing poverty, hunger, or domestic abuse. It has a North Shore presence as well, including a food pantry in Marblehead and a regular social event for Holocaust survivors.
Not all clients are Jewish, but services provided are informed by Jewish values of social responsibility, compassion, and respect.
“One of these values is welcoming the stranger, and part of what we do is reach out to people of all faiths. Having said that, there are particular responsibilities we have to the Jewish community, because if we don’t do it, no one will,” said Schulman, who grew up in Peabody, and attended Temple Ner Tamid where her father, Irving Schulman, was president. She met her husband at the Temple’s USY program.
If there was a single descriptor for the organization’s varied portfolio, it might be this: “We’re in the “oy relief business,” Schulman said. “There is a lot of oy in this work.”
She considers one of JF&CS’s most significant innovations to be Mental Health Connect, which was rolled out in 2021. It’s a free, confidential information and referral service enabling callers to speak with a mental health professional who will connect them with necessary resources.
Some people’s stories are particularly complex and wrenching, such as that described by an older gentleman whose son – his key source of support – had taken his own life. The man was referred to a JF&CS support group for people who have experienced loss by suicide, and was also directed to resources for aging adults in order to fill the practical gaps in his life.
“We take a 360-degree view of people’s lives,” she said. This year, for the first time, JF&CS sponsored a Yizkor (memorial) service specifically for suicide loss.
The non-profit also provides direct financial assistance to people in severe need, and loans to those whose wouldn’t normally qualify for them.
It services adults with developmental disabilities, offering day programs, residential programs, employment services, and programs for people with particular life challenges, such as housing and food insecurity. Family Table, the largest kosher food pantry in New England, operates out of the JF&CS building in Waltham, and also makes deliveries to people’s homes. Along with healthy produce, canned goods and shelf staples, offerings include kosher chicken, Shabbat candles and challah.
People can take whatever they want,” Shulman said. “It’s like a small supermarket – but with kosher chicken.”
Her trajectory from leading divisions within Fortune 1000 companies to where she is today – overseeing some 300 employees and 2,000 volunteers – was not a straight shot.
When her twins, now almost 21, were preparing for their bar and mitzvahs, Schulman found herself contemplating her own Jewish identity. “I started thinking about how hard I was working in order to make wealthy people wealthier, and if there was a way to have a more meaningful impact on the world.”
Someone suggested she apply for a job at Gann Academy in Waltham, which had an opening for a Chief Operating Officer.
She got the job, and started a new chapter in the non-profit world. “I had all these skills I’d developed over decades, and I was able to use those same skills – making things happen, managing teams and budgets, building marketing plans.”
In January, 2021, just before the COVID epidemic took hold, she moved to JF&CS. “When COVID hit, we had all the logistical problems everyone else had, plus the immediate ratcheting up of need,” she said. The organization tripled its freezer and refrigerator capacity to store more food and increase the number of families it served from 500 to 800.
One of the first things Schulman did when she got the job was track down the woman who was her own Visiting Mom, nearly two decades earlier, to tell her the news. (It turned out she was much more interested in hearing about the twins.)
“Karma always comes around,” Schulman said, and then put it Jewishly: “As you sow, so shall you reap.” Θ
Linda Matchan can be reached at email@example.com