Celebrating an Incredible Staff Milestone

This September marks JFS Counseling Director Mitchell Wittenberg, Ph.D., LP’s thirtieth anniversary of service to JFS. For three decades, since 1993, Mitch has contributed to the development of the JFS counseling program. Under his leadership, traditional counseling, community chaplaincy, support groups and specialized therapy for seniors served more than 1,700 people in 2022 alone.

There’s nothing more effective than client testimonials and word of mouth promotion. The JFS counseling program is known for its excellence, is highly regarded throughout the community and almost always has a waiting list. There are a variety of reasons for this acclaim, but none more significant than Mitch. He is a consummate communicator. He listens intently and communicates practical and emotional feedback concisely and clearly. He has an uncanny ability to convince you that you can improve your life.

Mitch’s path to JFS was about 1,200 miles long, from the Berkshire mountains in Massachusetts to St. Paul. After his wife, Jaine accepted a position with Macalester College in St. Paul in early 1993, he began to look for a new job in the area. This was back when people looked for employment in the newspaper, so he subscribed to the Star Tribune. He wasn’t offered a position he interviewed for, but the interviewer was impressed with Mitch and shared his name with JFS counseling supervisor Anita Dinerstein, LICSW, who unexpectedly called Mitch as he swept out his home on his last day in Massachusetts. The position had been advertised in the Pioneer Press; the other local daily newspaper Mitch hadn’t subscribed to. Shortly after his arrival in town in August 1993, he interviewed with Anita and two other therapists, and was offered a staff therapist position, initially working three days a week. Mitch was quite excited about being back in the Midwest after growing up in Chicago, and he was overjoyed to be working at an agency that aligned so well with his core values.

When Mitch arrived, the JFS office was above the pharmacy at the corner of Cleveland and Ford Parkway in the Highland Office Center. Nearly everyone at JFS wrote case notes by hand back then, but Mitch brought his early Macintosh computer to type his notes, the first one at the agency to use a computer. There were four therapists in counseling, several employees in the resettlement program, more than a dozen in senior services and a couple in employment services. The small space had a break room, and all-staff meetings were held in the waiting room.

While in Massachusetts, Mitch had begun developing a hands-on school-based creative program solving program that also helped foster group cooperation. Many of the children in families from the Former Soviet Union who were resettled through JFS went to Homecroft Elementary School in Highland, and Mitch launched his program there, beginning with a class of first graders his first year, eventually working with third through sixth graders. Funded by United Way grants, the program was free. Thirty years later, Mitch still offers the program at the Lubavitch Cheder Day School as part of their secular studies program, where he also serves as psychological consultant.

At the turn of the century, the JFS board announced that the agency would build its own stand-alone office on West Seventh.

After the agency moved into its current building, the busy resettlement program spawned the English as a Second Language (ESL) program. People from all over the world came for resettlement and ESL help.

With the retirement of longtime JFS therapist Caryl Barnett, LICSW, in 2001, former JFS therapist Marjorie Sigel, LICSW, returned to JFS after a ten-year absence, eventually taking on the role of counseling supervisor when Anita’s agency responsibilities shifted. In 2007, Marjorie asked Mitch to change roles, and he took on the leadership of the program. With Margie’s retirement in 2014, Mitch hired therapist Beth Johnson, LMFT, who spent seven years as Mitch’s counseling colleague. In the following years, Mitch’s title was changed to director, and community chaplaincy, support groups and specialized therapy for seniors became part of the counseling program. He has recently added two more therapists to counseling, Stephanie Larson, LICSW, and Tara Burns, LPCC.

Over three decades, Mitch has seen a lot of change, the biggest being the agency’s focus on and success in fundraising. “Counseling and JFS programs for seniors used to be funded by United Way and the St. Paul Jewish Federation, and we orchestrated some our first insurance contracts soon after I arrived in 1993. Over time, the agency has broadened its community reach to meet the needs of more diverse populations, and in turn, JFS has established more diverse funding streams, grants, and contracts. In counseling, we are contracted by all the major local insurance plans to provide services for their members, while continuing to offer a subsidized sliding fee for those without insurance. We never turn anyone away for financial reasons.”

Mitch has also watched the mental health field change. JFS counseling professionals use new evidence-based approaches to therapy, while continuing to provide a broad array of therapeutic interventions and supportive services. “We’ve always been generalists at JFS,” said Mitch. “We’ve all pursued niche training, but we remain committed to serving all people with a diverse set of concerns using a wide array of counseling approaches.”

“I’ve also seen our culture become much more open to seeking help,” said Mitch. “People used to struggle with shame about seeking therapy, but taking care of one’s mental health has become more mainstream and accepted. People can see that it is not a weakness to seek therapy, but a strength.”

One constant Mitch noted was the agency’s commitment to doing things the right way, not only for clients in need, but for staff members as well. “JFS respects and cares deeply about its staff. We support individual interests and passions. We offer unprecedented flexibility in our support of work-life balance. When one of my colleagues lost her husband some years ago, JFS allowed me to transfer some of my earned time off to her to help her through those initial very difficult weeks.”

“What a wonderful example of what makes Mitch so special,” said JFS CEO Ruth Olkon. “He has profoundly impacted JFS and thousands of people over the past 30 years. It is an honor to support his practice and celebrate this amazing milestone.”

With his children grown and pursuing their unique professional interests, one on the west coast and one on the east coast, Mitch feeds his soul with fly fishing, music and tinkering in his yard where he just completed a landscape project. “One of the things that was so great about moving here all those years ago was the fact that several of my favorite musicians lived in the area,” said Mitch. “I get together each month with a professional musician to learn and play. I’m always involved in some type of musical project. My wife, bless her, tolerates my somewhat massive collection of albums and my rather esoteric musical tastes and interests.”

“And don’t get me started on fly fishing!” he laughed. “I’ve found some incredible spots, and before you ask, no, I won’t tell you where they are!”