For 97 years, Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Boston (JBBBS) has helped at-risk children to grow up. Founded in 1919, shortly after World War I, JBBBS is now extending its outreach to the North Shore. Its arrival there not only signals the organization’s expansion, but, as Barry Shrage, CJP’s president, noted at the kickoff reception last week at the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore in Marblehead, it is “the latest diamond in the crown of the North Shore Jewish community.” Responding to Shrage’s remarks, JBBBS President and CEO Harvey Lowell lauded CJP’s “steadfast support for nearly 100 years and for helping [JBBBS] make this move possible.”
JBBBS’ expansion comes at a difficult time; the organization’s former chief financial officer was recently accused of embezzling funds. In a letter sent to supporters on Aug. 18, Lowell assured his constituency that JBBBS remains on solid financial footing. “It is an unfortunate occurrence,” Lowell said in an email to JewishBoston, “but I want to say clearly that it will have no effect on our North Shore expansion whatsoever, and we will continue with our plans.”
In an interview the previous week at his office on the Newton campus of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston, Lowell’s dedication to the organization he has led for 20 years was evident. Only the fifth executive director of the almost century-old organization, he recalled that Boston’s first executive director, Philip Slepian, served for 40 years. He said that kind of longevity has been a key to JBBBS’ success. “The nature of the work inspires this kind of dedication,” he said.
As Lowell described it, JBBBS’ mandate “not only provides mentors and role models to children in need, it is strengthening the Jewish community by keeping the most vulnerable safe and secure, and connected to our Jewish community. This is why we exist.” Since its humble beginnings in places like Dorchester, Mattapan and the North End, JBBBS has taken a holistic approach to helping families. “We see what the family needs and do what is possible for them,” said Lowell.
JBBBS’ extensive, on-site archives point to the genesis of its scholarship funds, as well as document impressive institutional growth throughout the decades. This year a record number of scholarships for camp and college were distributed. JBBBS also supports a robust mentoring program for adults with disabilities.
For Shrage, JBBBS’ unique approach simply begins with love. “JBBBS represents love and spreads love,” he said. The organization, he said, reflects the essence of “gemilut hasadim—acts of loving-kindness. It involves human beings touching each other’s hearts and doing great things for each other. Friendship starts here; it is about what a community is made of.”
At the kickoff event, JBBBS also had two special reasons to be proud of its work. Evette Ronner, a junior at Harvard University, and Alexis Santa Maria, a senior at Endicott College, gave touching testimonials about JBBBS’ unique role in their lives. Ronner, whose father died suddenly of a brain tumor when she was 10, was paired with a “big sister” whom she credited with helping her grow from a timid young girl to a confident teenager.
“I’m proud of the village that has been behind me and my family,” Ronner said. “Our situation was fragile, and JBBBS stepped in to support my family in so many different ways.” Ronner is the beneficiary of JBBBS scholarships for camp, as well as for college. “I can worry less about the cost of my education and focus on my academics,” said the aspiring physician.
Santa Maria, an aspiring television journalist, asserted that JBBBS gave her a childhood. “I am forever grateful to JBBBS,” she said. “Not only did they give me a wonderful childhood and the means to go to college, but most of all they provided me with a bright future. I’m so thrilled they are coming to the North Shore.” Santa Maria, who introduced Lowell at the event, noted that he had a hand in helping her to achieve her goal of attending college.
For his part, Lowell noted that “[our presence in the North Shore] is the beginning of a very exciting time for JBBBS. We need to continue to convince people that we can be helpful to them. We spend a lot of time educating staff in synagogues, schools and other places to explain how to interact with people without embarrassing them. It’s a very old-fashioned, direct way of helping.”