‘We’re here for you,’ says Lauren Schwartz at CJFS

After growing up in Memphis, Lauren Schwartz attended college in upstate New York and graduate school in Pennsylvania before eventually landing in Birmingham, where she is executive director at Collat Jewish Family Services. 

The nonprofit CJFS cares for people of every faith, age, and race. Basing its services on Jewish values, it serves individuals and families at every stage of life, with a special focus on supporting independence and enriching quality of life for older adults.

We caught up with Lauren recently to ask about how CJFS has been serving our community — especially during times of community-wide trauma.

A woman with long hair and glasses poses in front of a painting of large individual flowers
Lauren Schwartz, executive director of CJFS, poses in front of her organization’s artistic contribution to a new exhibit at The J that opened this week.
LJCC: The recent terror attacks in Israel and resulting war have deeply impacted Birmingham’s Jewish community. What has CJFS done in the past three weeks to help community members deal with the crisis?

LS: The war in Israel has raised an array of feelings for people in our community, including shock, fear, anger, and sadness. For those who are more personally affected, these are even more intense. CJFS is a place for our community to turn to in a time of need. 

We are here for individuals who are seeking support and want to process these complicated feelings or who have been more personally impacted. Our therapists can work with folks who only need a session or two to work through their feelings about this crisis. People for whom this raises deeper issues of trauma or grief may need more time.

On the community level, we have been sharing mental health resources through The J’s resource page and through the BJF War Updates. We also provided a zoom session on talking to children about war. 

Finally, we are reaching out and supporting our Jewish professionals and clergy, as this is a particularly stressful time for them on personal and professional levels. 

We strive to be responsive, so please reach out if you have a need.

This summer here at The J we very much appreciated counseling assistance from CJFS in helping our summer camp kids and staff deal with the tragic death of one of our young campers who was involved in a traffic accident.

It is our honor and certainly aligned with our mission to help the community in times of crisis. We want the community as a whole and as individuals to turn to us in their time of need. Our vision is that the community has a place to turn to when it needs support, guidance, and compassion to help deal with life’s challenges.

What led to CJFS shifting its focus to the senior population? 

The needs of the community shaped this focus. Since our inception as a committee of The Birmingham Jewish Federation, CJFS has been serving Jewish seniors. The older adult population faces so many issues, from aging to grief and loss of mobility and health challenges. There are many gaps in services for older adults, and the systems families must navigate are complicated. 

When we realized that roughly three-quarters of everything we were doing was for ages 60+ and their families, we knew we needed to highlight our expertise in providing guidance, care, and support to that part of our community.

What I think is impactful for the community, both the Jewish and greater Birmingham community to understand is that, like the J, we serve all older adults — those who are Jewish and those who are not; those who have financial resources and those who do not. 

You first worked at CJFS as a social worker from 1992 (when CJFS was only three years old) to 2000 before returning as executive director in 2011. Why did you leave, and what brought you back?

I left in 2000 for my best job ever — being a mom! With three small children, working part-time was difficult to juggle and I had the opportunity to take a few years off. When returning to life as a Jewish communal professional, I became director of advancement at the N.E. Miles Jewish Day school. 

Coming back to CJFS was besheret, or meant to be, as Esther Schuster had announced her retirement from CJFS at just the time I was beginning to seek a full-time position. Being executive director of CJFS is my dream job, combining my passions, education, and professional skills — and all within the Jewish communal space.

How does being a Jewish organization impact the work of CJFS?

CJFS was created to meet the social service needs of the Jewish community. Today we meet the needs of the whole community because we are Jewish. Our Jewish values compel us to serve others and to do so with the dignity, respect, and compassion that every human being deserves.

Here at The J we’re pleased to co-host with CJFS the monthly “Honor Your Parents” Shabbat services. How are you cooperating with other local Jewish organizations?

CJFS has always shared its expertise to partner with our community. For our Jewish agencies and professionals, we offer a place to turn for support and resources. If we are unable to help, we do our best to point you in the direction of a person or agency that can. 

We work with The Birmingham Jewish Federation and The Birmingham Jewish Foundation to ensure that camp scholarships, interest-free college loans, and other loan needs are available to the Jewish community; we provide socio-emotional learning weekly at the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School; we provide meaningful volunteer opportunities through the joint religious school at Temple Emanu-El and Temple Beth El, You Belong in Birmingham, and other groups; and just last month, through our Jewish Fertility Foundation partnership, we provided sensitivity training around women facing infertility to the mikvah attendants at Chabad.

How do you decompress?

I decompress through my relationships with my husband, my kids, and my friends. For fun, I love to play mahjong (or any games, really), read novels, and binge TV.