Uncovering the untold story of Utah’s Jewish Family Services

Dec 18, 2022, 10:43 PM | Updated: Dec 19, 2022, 10:12 am

SALT LAKE CITY – What’s in a name? Sometimes a lot, and when an organization like Jewish Family Services (JFS) has been around longer than Utah has been a state, its name is bound to change a few times.

The JFS executive director Ellen Silver said that since the organization’s conception, they’ve always focused on helping anyone in need.  

“We help people in a pinch who are in crisis because they’re short on the rent or need a prescription they can’t afford,” Silver said. 

Filling needs remains the same, yet the organization’s name has changed several times; the Hebrew Benevolent Society, the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society, Jewish Relief Society (modeled after the Latter-day Saint Relief Society), the Jewish Benevolent Society, and then their latest name from the 60s, the Jewish Family Services.  

The program has been around for more than a century.  

“I think it was established even before statehood,” Silver said.  

Utah was established as a state in 1896, and even though Silver believes JFS was established in 1872, she said they have no records of their organization’s birth date.

“I think our records go back to the 1920s,” she said.

Rochelle Kaplan has studied Utah’s Jewish History for nearly two decades.

“First I did my own family, then I did my husband’s family,” Kaplan said. “Then I’m going to check out the Jewish history of Utah.”

She also helped in founding the Jewish Genealogical Society.

After an hour of going through online newspaper archives, Kaplan found what we were looking for – the exact date which JFS was founded.

“We came across this article from the American Israelite, published in Cincinnati, Ohio, on November 24, 1865,” Kaplan said.

The article reads, “a meeting of the Israelites in of this city and vicinity held on Sunday, the 15th the first Hebrew Benevolent Society of Great Salt Lake City was duly organized.”

Initially, Silver believed JFS was started by women and modeled after the Latter-day Saint Relief Society.

Kaplan found that the organization was first created by men in 1865. But seven years later in 1872, the founder’s wives and other women took over, renaming the Hebrew Benevolent Society to the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society.

Now JFS is celebrating 150 years since then.

“They were civically minded, they were benevolent, they were hard-working, and they tried to stay as true as they could to their faith and the faith of their ancestors,” Kaplan said.

Articles show that their society raised money for a local cemetery and sent $400 to their “brethren of Western Russia.”

Other records show their organization helped transients move through Salt Lake City when they needed a place to stay or financial help.

JFS continues to provide services to Utah’s community 157 years later through rent services, therapy, community choirs, and more.

Volunteers that are dedicated to the work are both men and women.

“We’re all very committed to the work we do and meeting the needs in the community,” said Silver. “We call ourselves small but mighty.”

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Uncovering the untold story of Utah’s Jewish Family Services