Many leaders of Bay Area Jewish organizations are admired. Many are passionate, many effective.
Avi Rose, who steps down this month after 15 years as executive director of Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay, is all that, but he is also beloved.
“Avi inspired a culture of warmth and support and true caring that all of us staff treasure deeply,” said JFCS development director Holly Taines White, who has worked closely with Rose for 14 years. “It’s part of what makes working here such a joy. His passion for the work is obvious to everyone, but he also created something special inside the agency that only staff members really got to see.”
Rose has spent his adult life in Jewish communal service, since his first internship in 1981 with Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. He followed his BA from Brandeis University with a master’s in social work from USC and a master’s in Jewish communal service from Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, where he was encouraged to become a rabbi.
“It was the path not taken,” he said, with a chuckle.
But the qualities and skills that led his teachers to suggest the rabbinate were ones he took with him into Jewish communal service: compassion, thoughtfulness, kindness, intellectual curiosity and a deep desire to serve people.
“He is a mensch,” said JFCS board president Katherine Haynes. “Avi leads his life and has executed his role from a very, very deep sense of service. He comes at his work from a deep place of compassion. He brings a humanizing view, with people at the center of the work he does.”
Rose was hired for his current position in 2005. Jewish history professor David Biale was president of the board at the time, and he said he offered Rose the job “on the spot” during his interview.
It was a decision he has never regretted “What he has accomplished is incredible,” Biale said. “I left the board about 10 years ago. Since then, he has transformed the agency.”
The agency’s annual budget when he left was “a couple million dollars, we were pretty small,” Biale pointed out, noting that today the budget exceeds $10 million a year. “And it’s not just the budget. He’s expanded all the departments. He’s so gifted. He built our community base. It is now the pillar of the East Bay Jewish community.”
Looking back at his nearly four decades in Jewish communal service, Rose said that the biggest change he’s seen is how Jewish family service agencies nationwide have expanded from a sole focus on serving Jews to also helping non-Jews in need. That’s in line with their mission and Jewish values, and prompted by need: As fewer Jewish refugees have been coming to the United States, they have been replaced by other immigrant populations.
He brings a humanizing view, with people at the center of the work he does.
Haynes credited Rose with bringing this to his board’s attention, and steering the agency’s course through these new waters. The shift to serving the larger immigrant and refugee population began more than a decade ago, but took on particular urgency in the past four years.
“When the refugee crisis hit, he was unequivocal about stepping up and being public,” Haynes said, referring to refugees from the Syrian civil war. “When the Muslim ban happened, he led us into a new era — advocating for our clients in the public arena.”
But Rose is quick to emphasize that this expanded focus has not come at the expense of any Jewish needs. Services to Holocaust survivors is one area of continued Jewish need that actually has expanded in recent decades, largely due to immigration from the former Soviet Union. A recent partnership with Berkeley Hillel to explore mental health services for students is another project of which he’s proud.
“People see our nonsectarian services expand, and they don’t always understand that our Jewish services have also expanded,” he said.
Along with Jewish communal service, Rose has been involved with LGBT causes for decades. He managed the pioneering AIDS program at S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services in the 1980s, has served as the executive director of a national HIV information and advocacy organization, and has worked extensively to bring LGBT and HIV/AIDS issues to the attention of faith communities.
And he also has continued his dedication to Jewish spiritual practice, putting his HUC studies to use as a spiritual director at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont for more than 30 years. He, his husband and their two children are longtime members.
Rabbi David Cooper, longtime senior rabbi at Kehilla, was director of High Holiday services at the synagogue when Rose began helping organize and lead those services in the early 1990s.
“He was just spectacular,” Cooper said. “You had to juggle a number of different factors — personalities, flow, logistics. It was such a relief to work with Avi. He has such equanimity, nothing fazes him.
“He has an understated yet firm way of leadership. He doesn’t take over, but you know you’re in good hands. No ‘look at me’ attitude. He empowers the group rather than bringing attention to himself. I think that’s why he’s so well loved.”
Rose, who was feted in an online retirement party Dec. 17, will remain at JFCS East Bay through the end of 2020 as senior adviser, helping out his successor, Robin Mencher.
What’s after that? “Five days of text-banking to Georgia, for starters,” he said, alluding to the Jan. 5 runoffs for two Senate seats. He will continue his activism and his religious duties at Kehilla, of that he’s certain, and related projects also beckon. “I have,” he said, “a lot more to give.”