Erin Minior recently spoke with Jewish Rhode Island about last year’s merger between Jewish Family Service and Jewish Seniors Agency, the challenges and rewards of operating a community service agency, and her connection to Jewish culture.
You were previously CEO of Jewish Family Service. How has your job changed since the merger?
Well, it’s dramatically changed due to the integration of the agencies. JFS [Jewish Family Service of Rhode Island] was a $3 million agency, but combined, we’re between $12 million and $13 million. That presents challenges in terms of the different systems that are needed, so that’s how my focus has shifted.
Has the culture at the two agencies come together?
The culture has come together, actually! That’s one of the biggest challenges in a merger, and we had board members and staff coming together from two different agencies, who acted very differently. We formed a committee, our “Culture Club.” They work to bring people together and establish new traditions, such as a cookie exchange, and “Hanukkah Harry,” which is a secret gift-giving exchange.
What’s the most rewarding thing you’ve seen come from the merger?
It was very rewarding just to know that we actually merged. We sat around the table so many times and it never happened, so just that fact that we did it was a major celebration. Because there was really no duplication of services between the two agencies, the staff came together seamlessly.
What challenges remain?
Right now we’re in the middle of centralizing our finance department, because we have two campuses. The campus in Warwick operated independently in managing their finances, but now we have all the finance staff here. We’re changing systems so that we’re all doing the same thing, consistently.
What should the community know about JCS?
One thing the community has been looking forward to is further development of programs. We’ve integrated different systems and brought people together, and now we feel better positioned to do longer-term planning with programs. We’re working to identify gaps that we can fill, and areas where we can develop existing programs or start new ones.
JCS manages a lot of programs already. Can you speak specifically about what’s to come?
Not yet, but we’re going to undertake a process of program evaluation. We’re going to look at our programs, make sure they’re aligned with our mission, and determine what changes we can make to more efficiently provide services. We want to identify service gaps and synergies between different programs.
What would you like to see for our community?
I think both JSA and JFS were some of the best-kept secrets, and we would often encounter people within the Jewish community who didn’t know what we did, or that we existed. We were so focused on providing service, and as a nonprofit we didn’t have a lot of resources to put into marketing, so getting the word out has always been difficult – the merger is another opportunity for that. I would like us to become a household name, and for people to know us and turn to us. I would like us to become better known, and I would like people to use us as a resource.
Have there been any changes in the kinds of people using JCS?
It’s interesting. Some of the services we provide appeal to a wide demographic, but there continues to be a need for people who cannot afford to help themselves, or who need financial assistance. It’s ongoing, because one of the biggest challenges related to poverty is that it creates all sorts of problems with meeting basic needs: food, medicine, shelter. It brings on social stresses, too.
One concern I have is for Middle America – the people in the middle who have difficulty making ends meet but don’t qualify for any state or government subsidies. That’s an area of worry, and it’s something we need to look at.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
I am amazed at a number of things. I am amazed every single day when I hear about the care, concern and expertise of our staff, and their dedication to the people we help. I am amazed by the friends of the agency – financial and otherwise – who support our mission. And the board is unbelievably supportive. What they did in the process of integration, the dedication of every single board member, you had to witness to believe. I could not have gotten through this without them. They are the backbone of the agency.
Do you have a favorite Jewish holiday?
I’m not Jewish. My father was Jewish and my mother was Catholic, and me and my brothers were raised Catholic. The Jewish holiday that’s most meaningful to me, and I’m struck by it every year, is Yom Kippur. The meaning behind it is what strikes me the most.
Having been raised Catholic, how did you wind up at Jewish Family Service?
I have my Jewish identity, and it’s very interesting. My mother used to joke, because people would ask, “What nationality are you?” and my brothers and I would always say, “Jewish.” Our mother would say, “You know, you’re Irish, too!” “Yeah, we know, but whatever.” How did I end up here? It was just sort of a natural thing; I always knew of Jewish Family Service, and I actually had a lot of trainings from [them] in Boston in my earlier years. I was working in Rhode Island and I knew people who were connected here, so I applied. I remember my father being very thrilled by that.
Even though you don’t identify as Jewish, you’ve certainly got a solid grounding in the culture. Do you have a favorite Jewish food?
This isn’t a well-known Jewish food, but my Aunt Goldie’s Jewish Apple Cake. Sometimes I’ll bake it and bring it to meetings, and people will say, “What is this? You need to enter a baking contest with this!” What makes it Jewish, I don’t know, but it was her recipe.
If you could invite any three people to dinner, who would you invite, and why?
JFK [John F. Kennedy], because I know of him as a young, progressive leader interested in his Irish roots. I’d like Pope Francis, even though he’s disappointed me lately; I had greater faith in him when he started out. And my father’s mother. It’s one of those things, when people pass, you realize all the things you never asked them. As a result of working here … there’s so much more I’d want to know.
Is there a piece of advice that’s stuck with you?
When I think of my father, he always … I’m going to get emotional … he always encouraged me to move forward in things I wanted to do. I remember applying here and saying, “I don’t know, what do you think?” and him saying, “Absolutely!” He always encouraged me to go after my dreams and not hold back.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I feel very honored to work in this community, and to work with this agency, particularly as a new entity. I think that the future looks very promising for us, and I’m honored to have been given the opportunity to lead this agency.
MICHAEL SCHEMAILLE writes for Jewish Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.