Nancy Engel: Cheers to 33 years

by | Aug 11, 2022 | Trending News

Nancy Engel


It was bound to happen one day…

Nancy Engel, Jewish Family Service’s executive administrative assistant, retired on August 4 after serving the organization for more than 33 years.

Engel’s journey didn’t start in a typical employee-employer relationship; it was much more personal. In 1987, Engel’s mother was dying of cancer and she turned to a neighbor, Jan Ganderson, for some help. Ganderson, a registered nurse, worked for Jewish Family Service and was able to connect Engele with a nurse and home health aide through the agency.

“I could not have gotten through any of that or my dad dying shortly after if not for Jan and JFS,” says Engel. She chose JFS for counseling when she was grieving the loss of her parents, then she chose JFS to help when her husband, Stuart, got into a serious automobile accident.

Engel’s life was so entwined in JFS that when she speaks about it, it is reminiscent of someone talking about where they grew up or their hometown. When asked how her experience is as a client and employee she smiles and says, “It was so clear that we were a family. Everyone offered love and kindness and support at a time when I really needed it.”

Even members of the board, says Engel, would check in on her and make sure she had what she needed.

At the time of her husband’s accident, Harry Graber was the executive director, and she remembers his sadness being almost matched with her own when he found out about Stuart. “Nancy’s dedication to Jewish Family Service was so intense and heartfelt that it was almost palpable,” says Graber. “It was a deep reflection of her Jewish values and love of a community in which she grew up and spent her entire life. Nancy’s professional work was truly inspirational, benefiting JFS clients and motivating her fellow colleagues. I truly enjoyed every day I worked alongside Nancy Engel.”

Betty Ann Levin, who was the executive director for 15 years after Graber’s tenure, echoes his sentiments, noting that Engel has been “the heart and soul of JFS for so many years. She always had the best interest of the agency, our clients, and the community at heart!”

Holding many positions at the agency over the years, both in direct service with clients, and in administrative roles, Engel began her career at JFS working with refugees from the former Soviet Union, helping them transition to the United States. She helped them find employment and housing, made sure their kids were in school, and did everything possible to make them feel accepted in their new homes. When she went to the airport to welcome the refugees, her young sons would go with her as a part of the welcome party. She says that was her most rewarding time, “I could see the impact I was making in real time. My family could see how important the hours spent working were.”

Irinia Kvitko was one of those refugees who directly benefited from Engel’s support. Kvitko, who now works for JFS in the accounting department, fondly remembers meeting Engel for the first time at the airport in Norfolk. “From my first step arriving in the United States in Norfolk, Nancy was there to meet me and has always helped me with everything!”

At the time of her husband’s accident, Engel was working in human resources for the Home Health department. “It made me realize what was needed that much more when it came to care; knowing there was someone like my Stuart that I was helping.”

At JFS, says Engel, “I wanted to give back to the place that had given so much to me.”

This desire was so evident that Jeff Cooper, who served as JFS board president, 2016–2019, commends Engel on her dedication and knowledge. “I was particularly grateful for her insights into the goings-on at the agency during my time as president as we were facing major strategic decisions,” says Cooper. “I always knew she had the best interests of the agency at heart.”

“I didn’t plan on working here this long, but I never planned on leaving either,” Engel says with a laugh. “From offices that were on the side of the JCC basketball courts to where we are now, I am so pleased and proud of what we have accomplished. It was like watching my children grow!”

Over her more than three decades, she has watched the Jewish community come together to support one another: local businessmen helping to find refugees jobs and steady careers, doctors and dentists offering free health services, synagogues adopting families, and children getting an education from Hebrew Academy.

As the social services programs at JFS grew and developed, she says it opened her eyes about humanity and what people in this community needed and could offer. “This community should never let JFS go or stop supporting people like me… It’s about everyone coming together and that is always what JFS has been about.”

“I love this place,” she says through teary eyes. “I love all it has done for me. I love what I was able to do for the people, for the community that needed someone’s help. It’s a happy ending.”

Kelly Burroughs and Brooke Rush