Twenty-six years ago, Russian immigrants Anna Cherkis, her husband and their son stepped off an airplane at Richmond International Airport to start a new life.
“How was it when you got off the plane?” Sydney Fleischer, director of clinical services for Jewish Family Services, asked Cherkis on Sunday, handing her a microphone.
“I was very sleepy,” Cherkis replied, explaining that she had been on a plane with her family for 11 or 12 hours. Since then, it has been a nice life, she said, adding that she was astounded by her first trip to a grocery store. “So many choices,” she recalled. “So many everything.”
Jewish Family Services threw itself a 170th birthday party at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond on Sunday, capping a yearlong celebration of the nonprofit organization born in 1849 as the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Association.
In attendance were immigrants like Cherkis and others who have been helped by JFS over the decades, as well as volunteers, professional staff, supporters and friends. They listened to speakers like Cherkis, looked at historical photographs, read the organization’s timeline, reminisced, laughed, applauded and ate birthday cake.
JFS officials said it has evolved from a volunteer-driven organization aiding Richmond’s Jewish community into a comprehensive service organization serving the broader community.
Over its long history, the organization has provided care to wounded Civil War soldiers, assisted victims of the tuberculosis and influenza epidemics, and helped families struggling during the Great Depression.
It also has helped to resettle four waves of European Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution since 1890.
The Rap Center, a JFS initiative aimed at combating drug abuse and homelessness among young people in Richmond, spun off to become the Daily Planet, which this year celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Wendy Kreuter, the chief executive officer of JFS, said Sunday that last year, the group provided 130,000 hours — up from 50,000 hours in 1999 — of care for more than 1,400 clients.
In addition to volunteers, JFS has a full- and part-time staff of 145.
“Our mission has always been to serve the entire community, really, regardless of faith, or ethnicity, or even income level,” she said.
Kreuter said, “I think one of the things JFS has done so well over 17 decades is really work with the needs of the time. And right now, what we do in our three major programs is home care, and care management, and that’s important because there’s an age wave right now.”
In coming years, there will be more older adults than school-age children. The older adults want to be able to stay at home, and JFS is helping them do that, she said.
The group’s two other current main programs are counseling for all ages and adoption, Kreuter said.
A spokeswoman for the group said JFS’ adoption efforts recently merged with Connecting Hearts in VA.
Founded by local entrepreneur and philanthropist Debbie Johnston, Connecting Hearts raises awareness for adopting children in foster care and helping them find “forever” families.
Nearly 20% of the children adopted in central Virginia last year participated in Connecting Hearts, according to JFS.
In all its work, officials said, JFS is led by its mission to “transform lives and strengthen our community.”