Head of Jewish Family Service Says a Poignant Goodbye

As Yana Vishnitsky exits as head of Jewish Family Service, she leaves behind a powerful 38-year legacy


Photo by Ellen Jaskol

It’s bound to be a day of mixed emotions when Yana Vishnitsky hands Shepard Nevel the keys to the corner office at Jewish Family Service of Colorado.

Vishnitsky will exit 3201 S. Tamarac Drive excited for what her future holds and at peace because she knows she is leaving JFS—a major part of her life for 38 years—in good hands.

Nevel was chosen to succeed Vishnitsky as JFS’s president and chief executive officer following a nationwide search that began last December, when Vishnitsky told the JFS board she planned to retire within the year. He will join JFS on December 5, after two years as LiveWell Colorado’s chief executive and, before that, as a vice president at the Colorado Health Foundation. Like Vishnitsky, Nevel is “smart and analytical, with a passion for the JFS mission and a focus on creative solutions,” says search committee chair Ken Weil.

“It was way more than just a job,” Vishnitsky says, reflecting on her almost four decades at JFS. “It was never about money or power. It was a gift: a chance to learn about myself and my capabilities. It made me feel that I could do anything I wanted to, and that is very liberating— especially for a refugee like myself who at first didn’t know what products to buy in a store or what to order in a restaurant.”

Vishnitsky was 31 and a successful patent attorney when she, her then-husband and their 4-year-old son, Vitaly, fled Soviet Russia to escape a regime that persecuted Jews.

When the family landed at Stapleton International Airport on February 3, 1978, they were met by JFS volunteers, who escorted them to an apartment stocked with furniture, food and household essentials.Their arrival was on a Friday, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, so they ended their day by taking part in Shabbat services at Denver’s Temple Emanuel. It was the first time they had been inside a synagogue and the first time they had been allowed to openly practice their faith.

“My image of a rabbi was of an older man with long hair and a black hat,” Vishnitsky says. “We walked into Temple Emanuel and here was a young, handsome rabbi—Steve Foster—and his beautiful wife, Joyce. When I introduced myself in English, she was floored. It was the start of a friendship that continues today.”

Because she was fluent in English and two other languages, Vishnitsky found work—at JFS—two months after she arrived as a translator and case manager, assigned to help hundreds of other Russian émigrés (15 of them members of her own family) adapt to life here. Though she saw leaving Russia as “an adventure, ” Vishnitsky says, “it was very complicated. When we finally did get permission, we were given 21 days to get out. We were stripped of our citizenship, and everything we owned of value, including money and jewelry. We arrived in America penniless.”

Her parents, who had been prominent attorneys in Russia, and her former in-laws, who’d been reluctant to leave, quickly adapted to life in America. Her former husband struggled, and they eventually divorced. “He is doing well now, and though I am remarried, to an American, we are good friends.” Their son, Vitaly, whom Vishnitsky proudly describes as “extraordinarily brilliant,” received his MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and is a director at PwC, specializing in mergers and acquisitions, business valuations and international finance.

After she was hired at JFS, Vishnitsky enrolled at Colorado State University, earning an undergraduate degree in social work. She went on to receive a graduate degree in social work from Smith College in 1988 and completed her clinical training at the Denver Institute of Psychoanalysis.

Her upward mobility at JFS followed. After a stint as director of the JFS Russian resettlement department, she was the agency’s associate executive director before being appointed president/CEO in 2000. In 2000, the organization was serving 8,000 people annually and had a $4 million budget. With a 2016 budget of $12 million, JFS has served 25,000 clients.

Vishnitsky was the driving force behind a multimillion-dollar capital campaign (“We needed $2.8 million; I raised $3.8 million,” she says) that led to the acquisition of the current JFS headquarters and the expansion of services. She also launched dozens of programs, including NORC, which helps senior citizens from Wheat Ridge, Edgewater and Denver’s Lowry neighborhood age in place; KidSuccess and International KidSuccess, both of which provide high-quality mental health care to children at their schools; and Lunchbox Express. “Yana has had everything to do with the remarkable success of JFS over the past 38 years,” says board chair Jane E. Rosenbaum. “She is leaving a legacy of leadership, excellence, growth and service.”

“I have a good eye for doing things no one else does,” Vishnitsky says, adding with a laugh, “Sometimes people don’t know what we do because we do so much.”

It was easy, she says, to expand JFS “because I believe in surrounding myself with smart and competent people. I know what I sell and I passionately believe in what I sell. I believe in being better than anyone else, and I believe in that very strongly.” What it all boils down to is this: “JFS is for you and me and anybody else who needs our services.”

As for her future, Vishnitsky’s immediate plans call for a family beach vacation in Mexico. After that, who knows? The possibilities, she says, are endless.

Jewish Family Service of Colorado: Founded in 1872, JFS is a nonsectarian, nonprofit human services agency serving metro Denver and Boulder. It helps seniors live independently at home, provides mental health counseling, offers training and job placement to those with developmental disabilities and other employment barriers and provides food and financial aid to people in crisis.

Celebrate Yana! A Farewell Celebration: An event honoring Yana Vishnitsky takes place December 10 at the Hyatt Regency at the Colorado Convention Center, with cocktails, entertainment, dinner and dancing. Tickets range from $350 (individual) to $50,000 (title sponsor). Call Lisa Benoit at 720.248.4633 for more information.

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