JRS rebrands, extends work while maintaining Jewish roots
New name and logo signal simultaneous desire to hold the past and allow for broader future
Jewish Residential Services is now The Branch, and its new tagline is “Taking inclusion to new heights.” The name change was announced at a special reception on Nov. 3 at the Sally and Howard Levin Clubhouse in Squirrel Hill.
"As we look to the future and set a course for continued growth, we need to continue evolving as an organization and that includes transitioning to a new name that better fits who we are today and will be tomorrow," the organization's executive director Nancy Gale told attendees. "We really felt like it was imperative to have a name that could create more openness to explain what we do," she told the Chronicle.
The organization traces its roots to a Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh task force established nearly 40 years ago. At the time, the group reviewed various services offered within the Jewish community. After determining that adults with intellectual disabilities, or people living with mental illness, remained isolated from neighbors and community members, Jewish Residential Services was created in 1993 and began serving eight people with a history of mental illness.
During the past three decades, the organization has evolved to provide not only residential care, but educational, rehabilitative and social offerings — all based on Jewish values, culture and practices, Gale explained — while welcoming individuals of all faiths and backgrounds.
Before addressing celebrants on Nov. 3, Jan (who asked that her last name be withheld) told the Chronicle about her experience with the organization.
“I have a long history of mental illness, probably longer than I realize,” she said. “Lots of suicidal attempts, lots of suicidal ideations, lots of self-injury, lots of hospitalizations.”
As part of an outpatient program through UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital, Jan learned about the organization formally known as JRS and its Sally and Howard Levin Clubhouse, a Squirrel Hill-based center where adults with mental illness band together and develop social and vocational skills. Western Psych recommended Jan partake in the Clubhouse’s offerings.
“I didn't want to come,” she said. “I felt like they were making me come. Nobody said, ‘You have to go,’ but in my mind, it was like, ‘Oh, they're telling me to go.’”
Jan reluctantly arrived at the Clubhouse, where she sat in the back — occupying one of two black leather chairs — and refused to engage in any of the Clubhouse’s programming.
According to Caitlin Lasky, director of development and communications at The Branch, the Clubhouse does not hold formal therapy groups. There are meetings throughout the day where individuals discuss the work that needs to be accomplished in each of the Clubhouse’s areas.
Jan returned to the Clubhouse and eventually warmed to its environment. Over time, she started participating in meetings and activities. Her first job at the Clubhouse was cleaning toilets. It was ideal, she said: “I didn’t have to talk to anybody. I was by myself.”
Since arriving at the Clubhouse eight years ago, she increased her involvement. Her hospitalizations continued, she said, but as opposed to going to the Clubhouse once every 10 days, she now attends three times a week.
In 2020, during a JRS-hosted open mic night styled like “The Moth,” a popular storytelling event and podcast, Jan spoke.
Before that night, “I hadn't told anybody about the [attempted] suicides, I hadn't told anybody about the self-injury, except my therapists,” she said.
Sharing so many personal details was terrifying, but it was also “powerful,” Jan said: “We all got incredibly positive feedback. For me, it was like, ‘What, you believe me? You're praising me? You're hugging me?’ And so that just spurred me to kind of further blossom here.”
That pre-pandemic night was “healing,” she said, and it also reminded Jan of the organization’s virtues.
“We are a community here,” she said. “It has allowed me to stumble, to weep … And yeah we can come and we can do all of these things, but we do it in a spirit of love — that doesn't mean that we don't get mad at each other — but I think for all of us, on some level, that's where part of our healing comes from.”
Throughout the Nov. 3 program, individuals related their connectedness to the organization and how the rebranding will help better the community at large.
Speaking before the assembled group, Kenny Steinberg introduced himself as “Max Steinberg’s father” and described his son’s celebrity status: Whenever the two are walking — whether in Point Breeze, Squirrel Hill or Oakland — people roll down their car windows and say, “Hi Max.”
Eight years ago, Max Steinberg and two other men with intellectual disabilities moved into the Goldberg House, a Squirrel Hill-based community living arrangement with 24-hour care.
Although the Goldberg House promised the possibility of a permanent residence where Shabbat and the Jewish holidays could be celebrated in a safe space that allowed for each of its residents to achieve greater communal integration, the decision to move Max there wasn’t easy, Kenny Steinberg said.
“There were a lot of questions,” he said. “No. 1 was, could Max adjust to a whole new living situation after living with us, and would he get the attention he needs? Would he be safe? We protected Max our whole lives and we wanted him to be safe, and how would he get along with his roommates who had their own challenges like Max has his challenges? And then could Terry and I let go of our son?”
At the time, Max Steinbergs’ parents were in their 60s and began considering their mortality.
“If Max only lived with us and we passed away, what would then happen to Max if he never had a living situation where he was more or less on his own?” Kenny Steinberg said. “And just as importantly, by keeping him in our house were we limiting Max's opportunity to grow?”
Had Max Steinberg remained at home, he never would have met “his wonderful roommates Kevin and Jason,” the father added.
Every weekend, Max Steinberg returns to his parents’ home, and the first thing he does when entering the door is point to a photo with Kevin and Jason — the three residents of Goldberg House — Kenny Steinberg said. “He knows his home is the Goldberg House.”
As beneficial as the arrangement has been, there are only three residents at the Goldberg House.
“There's not enough facilities for all of the adults that need them,” Kenny Steinberg said. “That's why I'm so excited about the changes coming to — not JRS — The Branch, because when we repair the world we have to make sure that nobody gets left behind.”
For years, the organization has enabled people to remain in their community, see their family and attend the same programs and synagogues daily, said April De La Cruz, director of residential support services at The Branch: “That's what we're here for.”
The name change won’t change that mission.
“Regardless of where you live, whatever community that you're in, we want to make sure that you're able to stay there and be a part of your community,” she said.
While the organization is no longer known as JRS, its Jewish character remains intact, Gale said.
"When people see our logo, I think it will be very clear that we're a Jewish organization,” she said. “There won't be any doubt about what our roots are."
The Branch’s logo is a large Star of David behind the words “The Branch: Taking inclusion to new heights.”
The new name signals both an invitation to neighbors and a call to supporters, Kenny Steinberg said: “Let's keep on working so that every deserving person can have the wonderful opportunities that our community has provided for my boy.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at [email protected].