OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services will mark its 50th year with a unique and very special gala, according to CEO David Mandel. “This is not the OHEL gala that people are accustomed to,” he noted in a conversation with The Jewish Link. “They will be thrilled, invigorated and encouraged by the change to the program.” The gala, at which more than 1,000 people are expected, will be held on Sunday, Nov. 24, at the New York Marriott Marquis.
OHEL has come a long way in the last 50 years, beginning in 1969 as a home for abused and neglected children and quickly morphing into a foster care agency. From a small home serving four children, OHEL has grown exponentially and now serves more than 12,000 people every day.
“If a Jewish child is removed from their home due to abuse or neglect and needs foster care, OHEL is called,” said Mandel. “We remain true to our original mission 50 years later.”
Mandel, the organization’s second CEO, credits much of OHEL’s success to “wonderful, visionary leaders who were, and continue to be, way ahead of their time.” Leaders such as Mel Zachter and Jay Kestenbaum, OHEL co-presidents, and Moishe Hellman, ombudsman, are at the forefront of everything OHEL is able to accomplish.
“With the right support and the right vision you can accomplish much more than you think you can,” commented Mandel, who is approaching his silver anniversary with OHEL. “I am thankful to be the CEO of a great organization.”
According to Mandel, OHEL provides two main services. “There are concrete services that you see on our website, such as foster care, mental health services, services for people with disabilities and more. Those are the day-to-day services to help those in need,” he said.
However, just as important to its mission are OHEL’s efforts to “try to teach the community to destigmatize disabilities like mental illness. Destigmatizing various psychiatric illnesses, addiction, abuse has always been a mainstay of OHEL’s work,” Mandel added. The organization seeks to “continue to educate the community that getting help for a crisis or disability is more important than worrying about what your neighbors think, or possible shame and stigma.”
How will this mission translate into future efforts? Mandel believes that his leadership team must stay ahead of the curve, always anticipating what the community will need next. “We should anticipate the community’s needs rather than responding to them,” he said, noting that they are well prepared to step in whenever and wherever they are needed.
One goal, which has been in the works for several years, is to create housing in New Jersey for Jewish people with developmental disabilities and mental illness. Currently, OHEL offers housing for 255 Jewish individuals with mental illness and 220 with developmental disabilities, all in various locations in New York. “We are the only organization that offers housing for people with mental illness. We provide housing or independent living in a Jewish environment,” Mandel stated. “There is nothing for a Jewish person with mental illness anywhere else in the country,” and because of this, OHEL regularly gets calls and visits from Jewish people across the nation.
OHEL does more than intervene in crisis situations, although they do have a crisis team that will go to people’s homes if needed. They also help people with everyday life problems like divorce, job loss, death of a family member and more. Those dealing with grief, trauma and bereavement also come to OHEL for services.
These services occasionally reach beyond the Jewish community, as with the California wildfires. During the last set of fires, OHEL’s trauma team was on the ground, providing services to people who had lost everything. They are currently waiting to be called into action once again.
Mandel is extremely proud of what he and his team have built over the last quarter century. As he sees it, however, his greatest accomplishment is very simple: helping people. “I like to say that shortly after I started at OHEL I thought my job was to change the world. I learned first that the job was to help communities, then I realized that maybe I could help one family. Now I feel that if I help one person a day I have met my mission. If I can accomplish that, then I’ve accomplished something at OHEL.”
Mandel takes his personal mission very seriously, and strives to pass it along to his leadership team. “The difference between a supervisor or manager and a leader is that a manager directs and a leader helps you recognize what you can accomplish,” he said. “I work with our leadership team and lay leaders to conceptualize our vision. I work to be that motivational spirit.”
The first OHEL gala, back in 1969, was held in the living room of one of the founders on a Saturday night. In those days, the fledgling organization received only a few small donations. Over these last 50 years, OHEL has grown into a $68 million organization.
OHEL’s 50th anniversary gala is a time to “thank our supporters, share what’s going on at OHEL and our vision for the future, in addition to honoring our wonderful honorees as well as Apple Bank, which is receiving the Kaylie Impact Legacy Award,” acknowledged Mandel. “We want to thank our donors of the last 50 years, and welcome our newcomers.” The organization especially wants to give thanks to its many supporters throughout communities in New Jersey for their continued support of OHEL.
This year’s guest of honor is Meridian Capital Group, which has partnered with OHEL on numerous projects, including its dedication of the Meridian Capital Group Volunteer Program. The OHEL Leadership Award will be given to Mandel and his wife, Susan. The Nediv Lev Award is being given to Tsippy and Stuart Nussbaum of Cedarhurst, long-time champions of OHEL. Judith Goldberg-Ness and Dr. Seth Ness of Teaneck are being honored as the Camp Kaylie Family of the Year.
“This is the OHEL of 2019, 2020 and beyond,” Mandel commented. “We have young people in their 20s and 30s who have joined the board of directors and come on board as volunteers. There are more young people and women involved than ever before. We want to keep up that pace.”
By Jill Kirsch