It is the culmination of decades of service and leadership in the nonprofit, private and government sectors that prepared Barbara Levy Gradet for the position from which she steps down this month, after 12 years at the helm (and birth) as executive director of Jewish Community Services.
But, in fact, it seems Gradet was born to serve.
Attributing her early social justice and service exposure to the volunteer dedication of her grandmother, Rose Diskin, and especially her mother, Joyce Levy, who was the first executive coordinator for Sinai Hospital Auxiliary and also a longtime volunteer at the then-Jewish Family Services, Gradet has fond memories of participating in volunteer activities such as stuffing envelopes at the dining room table and was known to say, as a child, “Mommy, let’s play organization!”
But the colossal task Gradet took on back in 2007, after the pivotal decision to consolidate four agencies of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore to become one JCS, was not child’s play. The decision was made just three years after she became executive director of Jewish Family Services, and for about a year Gradet ran JFS and led the JCS transition.
She directed the consolidation process, which merged the staff, service programs and board members of Jewish Family Services, Jewish Vocational Services, Jewish Addiction Services and the Jewish Big Brother Big Sister League. The transformation of the agency, finalized in 2008, required a redesign and implementation of the new agency’s programs and its governance structure, branding, outreach methods and marketing strategies.
It’s an honor and privilege to work with somebody who you admire for what they stand for.
— Ronald Attman, JCS board president
“I found that year to be the most exhilarating and exhausting year of my professional life,” Gradet, 67, said. “I felt like I used everything I had ever learned in every job I ever had to help this process move forward. And I was assisted by a fabulous energetic staff and lay leaders who understood the need. It was really an amazing time, and I had the opportunity to present what we did at a couple of national conferences. [Due to the recession,] what started to happen was agencies were looking desperately to merge, and we were ahead of the curve.”
During her career, Gradet held management or executive positions with the Baltimore County Department of Aging, St. Joseph Medical Center, Almost Family Adult Day Care and the Baltimore County Department of Social Services. Though born and raised in Baltimore and a longtime contributor to The Associated, when she started at JFS, she said, “Things look different when you work within the community and understand how The Associated works and how unique our federation is across the country. That meant a lot to me, as I’m a strong believer in collaboration,” she said. “And [the consolidation to form] JCS wasn’t the only bold change that came out of it.”
The organizational overhaul included a decentralization of management for Hillel programs and also resulted in the merger of Baltimore Hebrew University with Towson University.
“The most significant accomplishment — she had many — but the most important and substantive was the birthing of a brand new agency,” said Marc B. Terrill, president of The Associated. “This encompassed four venerable agencies into one holistic and interdisciplinary agency, creating the extending hand of a caring community.”
“Her sense of respect for the other, for different ways of approaching situations, really helped to advance the process of that merger and ultimately put this organization on the map locally, nationally and internationally,” he said.
“It was an entire team and community effort,” Gradet insisted. “I was privileged to lead, but it [took] a brilliant team of people to retain what was great and strong in the independent agencies and merge it into something even stronger. There were a lot of really big changes, and it was very courageous of The Associated to make the decision that we can’t be our grandfather and grandmother’s system forever. Times and needs were changing.”
And change they did.
“It was a blood bath,” Gradet recalled. “People who had been longtime donors — blue collar, white collar — this recession touched every part of our country and our community. It was prescient [of The Associated] is the only way I can say it. They couldn’t have known that our coming together would coincide with a great recession.”
Just as JCS launched in 2008, “we were confronted with a tsunami of need in the community,” she continued. “It happened fast, and we feel fortunate — The Associated visioning folks had determined we come together to be more effective and efficient. As it turned out, it was absolutely essential to being responsive to people who never thought they would need it.”
Today, JCS has an annual operating budget of $16 million, has 210 staff members and offers a broad array of social services to more than 25,000 individuals annually.
“We created a complex system of services provided to the community in a simple way,” Gradet said. “A person picks up the phone — they don’t get a phone tree, that’s what JCS has been all about. We measure that difference, we get letters, we know how many people we’ve been able to help and get back on their feet, get food on the table and roofs over their head. It’s an astonishing privilege for me to be here 12 years, watching the miracle that our staff is able to make and the strength they give to people to ultimately help themselves, giving them the tools and resources to manage their lives.”
It’s not always funds people are in need of, she said. Being wealthy doesn’t inoculate a person from situations where loved ones are abusing substances, marriages are in shambles, or when someone is at a loss for how to care for a suffering elderly parent.
“So we’re here for everyone in the community, and it takes a whole team to pull that off,” Gradet said. “People don’t get rich when they choose the serving professions. They do it because of their hearts. [JCS employees] make sure that everyone who gets to us gets the tools and resources they need and a caring response filled with humanity. We have people who have been with the founding agencies for 30 years and new people coming to us all the time willing to do all the extraordinary work. And our volunteers touch people’s lives every day in important ways.”
She continued, “And we have a real working board. Not a rubber stamp board. We put them through their paces.”
“It’s an honor and privilege to work with somebody who you admire for what they stand for,” said board president Ronald Attman, who is also vice president of the Acme Paper and Supply Company. “I’ve had a chance to work with many top executives here and in other parts of the country. Barbara’s leadership skills are unmatched. People really trust what she says and have confidence in her opinions. She has just tremendous credibility. But if there’s a difference of opinion, she respects it and takes it into consideration.”
“But the thing I’m most deeply struck by is her sense of compassion and empathy,” added Terrill. “She connects deeply, respects people’s points of view and their circumstances, and she really cares.”
Gradet noted that another goal of JCS is to eradicate the stigma often attached to using social services or even just the need to ask for help.
“Can you ever totally do that?” Gradet asked. “But we are all the same — the helpers and the help, and we change roles all the time. It’s hard to make that phone call.”
JCS is also committed to serving the entire community, Gradet said, and though the target is Baltimore’s Jewish community, everyone benefits when an entire community is healthy. And JCS does its part to reach out.
“We don’t just sit in our offices waiting for people to come,” Gradet said. “We’re in schools, in synagogues, we offer parenting advice, bereavement services, caregiver support. We’re proactive so people can come and get the information they need and so people can help themselves too.”
Under Gradet’s watch, JCS moved its Baltimore County offices into a newly built 10,000-square-foot addition at the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC, nearly double the size of its former location, consequently expanding its services into Northwest Baltimore County. And in 2014, JCS was named a Top Workplace by The Baltimore Sun .
Gradet will officially step down on June 30, and her successor, Joan Grayson Cohen, begins July 1. Cohen has been involved with the organization for 22 years and is JCS director of Economic Services.
“I get to leave this fabulous 12-year experience in great hands and in great satisfaction with what my team and I have accomplished together and what [Cohen] and her team will take as a starting point to build on,” Gradet said. “I couldn’t be luckier.”
Gradet’s next role, which she is thrilled about and takes very seriously, is that of a nurturing, loving grandmother to her two grandchildren, Elliott and Mira, who live with their parents in California.
Gradet and her husband, Howard, will relocate to Los Angeles to be within a short drive of one grandchild and a one-hour plane ride or a lovely coastal day drive from the other.
“Being closer to my kids and grandkids is the only motivation that has made me decide to leave,” Gradet said. “I don’t feel ready to retire, I don’t feel done. I feel passionate and energetic and blessed to be here. But I’m missing too much of my grandkids’ lives, and I don’t want to miss that. I had a wonderful relationship with my grandparents. It’s so interesting when you become a grandparent, your priorities change. That’s the motivation, but I’m not retiring.”
She plans to take time to settle in and do what it takes to live in a new place, since up to this point she’s lived all her life in Baltimore. But she’ll also “look at options, look at what this next chapter of my life holds. I don’t intend to look for an executive high-level job — I’m leaving the best, so I can’t possibly top that. But I still have a lot to offer, and I have learned so much, I feel there are ways I can continue to contribute. I actually love that I don’t know what’s next.”
But the thing I’m most deeply struck by is her sense of compassion and empathy.
— Marc B. Terrill, president, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore
Gradet said that although she’s leaving a community that she loves, she has no regrets.
“I was one of these weird kids, I knew what I wanted to be when I was little. As soon as I knew what it was, I wanted to be a social worker. My whole career — and especially my time in this community — has fulfilled my personal mission and my personal goal. How fortunate that is, when you get to do work that is so personally meaningful and so aligned with who you want to be in this world.”
Gradet feels dedicated to carry on the legacy of service she received from her grandmother and mother, which she so dearly cherishes.
“It’s an extraordinary circle — three generations — so my job is to influence my kids and grandkids to be that fourth and fifth circle.”