Helping the vulnerable is embedded in JVS Toronto’s DNA. Founded in 1947 as Jewish Vocational Service of Metropolitan Toronto, a group of Jewish business leaders started the organization aiming to provide vocational services to Holocaust survivors and veterans of the Second World War. The agency opened its doors to prepare immigrants and war veterans for employment, and help them build meaningful lives.
Not long after, in the 1960s, JVS Toronto began to broaden their reach outside of the Jewish community, helping newcomers, people with disabilities, and people of all ages find work through local employers.
Now celebrating its 75th year, JVS Toronto continues supporting community members, following the Jewish tenant of tikkun olam. In 2021, they helped 13,000 individuals find employment. Working across nine regions in the city, the organization’s team of 150 professionals remain committed to help marginalized groups reach their potential and achieve self-sufficiency through employment.
I spoke with JVS Toronto’s CEO Allison Steinberg on the organization’s history, how the founding mandate has remained steadfast, and its most important projects to date.
The history of JVS Toronto first stems from helping Holocaust survivors and veterans of WWII find work. How did that work begin and then expand to the broader community?
We have a deep history in the Jewish community and we helped at a very critical time. It was difficult to crack into the labour market when so many Holocaust survivors and veterans didn’t have the language skills and connections in Canada. They didn’t have the skills to compete in the labour market at the time. Local Jewish business leaders wanted to support Jewish newcomers who needed help finding jobs. That’s how JVS got its start: Jewish business leaders helping Jewish immigrants fill in labour gaps in the workforce, which was primarily manufacturing at the time. The organization had committed people working for it and the organization was entirely donor driven. Once we got funding from the UJA and United Way Toronto shortly after the organization was able to branch out to serve the broader community.
Does JVS still honour its core Jewish values and ensure that its founding history is not forgotten to those who are new to JVS’ services?
While we serve the broader community, the Jewish value of helping others is at the root of everything we do. We communicate that to people who are coming in, and make people aware of how JVS started and where we come from. We had a faith-based beginning to serve one community, but we’ve expanded it to help others, which is the most Jewish act of all.
How does JVS Toronto run? How do you connect job seekers with employers?
We work with over 6,000 local employers to understand their hiring needs, workplace environment and culture. We really work carefully to build relationships with employers to meet workforce demand. For our clients we do outreach with nine locations in Toronto and York Region. We do a lot of outreach work to meet the needs of the communities we serve as well as working with Jewish social service agencies and synagogues to get client referrals or contact information of job seekers who need help finding employment. With this relationship building, a lot of information gets passed along via advertising and word of mouth. The people who come to us looking for jobs are also at various stages of readiness, so we have different programs to accommodate different needs. For some, it’s just offering advice by tweaking a resume, or how to best prepare for an interview, and for others the work is a bit more intensive depending on their situation. We tailor to their needs, which can include language and integration services. We want to make sure we can meet the needs for the spectrum of clients we have.
How have JVS Toronto’s goals shifted over time?
The organization’s founding goal was to help more vulnerable people find work, and that naturally branched out to a number of different groups. We now help so many newcomers, around 50 per cent of the people we serve are newcomers across all our programs. That continues to be a key focus group for us. We also help youth who are at risk and recent graduates looking to get their foot in the door. We also help immigrants planning to come to Canada find work before they arrive. We connect them to mentors and trainers here, so they already have a network before arriving. It helps, so by the time they’re in Canada, they already have the safety net of work or connections and feel more secure.
The support we have from all three levels of government to provide employment programming as well as funding from UJA, United Way Toronto and other donors and foundations really helps to expand our offerings. We really follow the proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” What I mean by that is we provide the resources to help people build their skills to become self-sufficient, and that often starts with employment. We really view it as the highest form of charity.
Are there any refugee groups in particular you’ve helped recently?
Over the last year, we’ve helped over 1,000 Ukrainian refugees by giving them employment and language support. We work with employers to ensure they can offer opportunities for people emerging from a time of crisis, which is exactly what we did 75 years ago. We helped immigrants from war-torn Europe, and now we’re doing the same.
It’s JVS Toronto’s 75th Anniversary this year. What are you proudest of?
I’ve been with the organization for 16 years now before becoming the CEO in April 2022, and one of the things that has always been an incredible aspect of the organization is how we’ve adapted to change. We’ve created new and specialized services to help refugees, or at-risk youth, or those with disabilities. Whatever the need has been, we have adapted and tried to help in real-time. Our focus has always been to help people reach their potential and be self-sufficient through employment. For 75 years we’ve been doing this work, and it’s only continuing to grow.
Header image: Tip Top Tailors factory interior, Toronto, circa 1933. David Dunkelman, founder of Tip Top Tailors, was instrumental in training Holocaust survivors for work in the clothing industry. Photo courtesy of JVS Toronto.
Clarrie Feinstein is a journalist based in Toronto where she is currently a reporter for Toronto Star. She previously was a reporter for Metroland Media where she covered education in Peel Region. Her other work can be seen in Daily Hive, Business Insider, Salon, and Bedford + Bowery. Clarrie earned her M.A. in journalism from New York University.