It's the obvious first topic of conversation, and Paul Castro has no problem addressing it. As the newly minted executive director of Jewish Family Service of Greater Los Angeles (JFS), Castro now runs a Jewish social outreach organization - and yet he is neither Jewish nor holds a degree in social work."It was more of a challenge for the organization than for me," Castro told The Journal. "I've never really not felt part of the family at JFS. The fact that I've not been Jewish has not been an issue in the day-to-day operations or in my interactions with people."
What Castro did possess, however, was nearly two decades of experience serving in various capacities at the citywide, nonprofit JFS network, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles that provides a wide array of counseling services and programs for people wrestling with addiction, abuse, domestic problems, disabilities and illness; experience that included working with both people in need and with members of the Jewish community. A nonsectarian organization that primarily serves Jewish clientele but also assists other minorities, JFS currently operates on a $21 million annual budget, approximately 10 percent coming from The Federation and the rest mostly from public sources on the city, state and federal level.
"I have a great deal of faith in his ability to contribute toward the future success of the agency," said Sandra King, JFS's exiting executive director, in July on the cusp of her retirement.
A Latino of Mexican descent, Castro grew up in Los Angeles and now resides in Long Beach, where he lives with his wife and three children. And though Castro came to JFS in 1980 without social work training, he graduated from Loyola Marymount University and holds a law degree.
Castro, who originally came on board as a financial administrator on JFS's Multi-Purpose Senior Service Program, proved to be a quick study who learned the mechanics of the nonprofit's social services. There was a brief period in the 48-year-old administrator's career when he left JFS - from 1984-86 - to pursue opportunities in the Pacific Northwest. But eventually King lured Castro back in an executive administration position, where, until the early 1990s, Castro worked as director of finances and administration, later becoming the agency's associate executive director. As second in charge under King, Castro took on broader responsibilities, helping develop long-term programs.
Castro said that he has long marveled at the Jewish community's ability to raise funds effectively in support of its charities.
"Other ethnic communities that are always chasing dollars external to the community, they are defined by someone external to the community," said Castro. "For better or for worse, the discussion happens in the Jewish community and is implemented by the Jewish community - that was very intriguing."
In fact, Castro found the idea so intriguing that he went about replicating it within his own community in 1991, creating the United Latino Fund. Established primarily for health and human services, the United Latino Fund awards grants to nonprofit organizations and, like the United Way, employees of the city, county and state can make donations directly from their paychecks.
Following the 1992 riots, Castro became active in Latino-Jewish relations, organizing community discussions with Steven Windmueller, then head of the Jewish Community Relations Committee and now director of the School of Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion."There was a lot of dialogue with Blacks and Asians," said Castro, "but there hadn't been any meaningful across-the-board discussions between Latinos and Jews."
Members of the Latino community met with Westside Jews on issues such as education and the environment. To a certain degree, Castro believes that community dialogue has improved somewhat since the more ominous days of the riots and the anti-illegal immigrant bill Proposition 187.
"I think the communication is better," said Castro. "Our neighborhoods, in some ways, are not as segregated as before, and we are seeing a growing Latino middle class as well."
Castro finds some overlap between the Latino and the Jewish cultures: "Both are very proud; deep commitments to roots and a real sense of family and community are a mainstay of both groups."
"We live in a highly multicultural city," continued Castro, "where the predominant community is Hispanic. That's why they should work closer together. At a certain point, it's not about what the Jewish community is doing about it, what the Latino community is doing about it, but what our community is going to do about it."
Jonathan Brandler, president of JFS, was on the search committee that appointed Castro to his current position. Brandler cited Castro's "knowledge of the agency and also knowledge of our mission" as foremost among Castro's criteria.
"He's someone who works well with our staff and our funding sources," said Brandler. "He enables them to succeed and lets them take credit for his accomplishments, and he has excellent relations with our funding sources. He also is very sensitive with the needs of our clients."
"There seems to be a seamless transition," said Dena Schechter, who is also on the JFS board. "Our ability to move forward depended on not having any upheaval in the agency. He has the continuity and the vision that he's developed over the years at the agency. In terms of his sensibility to social issues, he's really responsive." Schechter described Castro as "brilliant, bright, self-effacing - he's a really special man."
"He knows this agency better than anybody else," said Martin Kozberg, past president of JFS. "He's a proven leader and has done an outstanding job. In the months that he's been there, he's proved it to me. I consider him a leader and a friend."
Like his peers on JFS's board of directors, Brandler is very pleased with Castro's commitment in the aftermath of King's retirement. Said Brandler, "He had a hard act to follow, and he's living up to it.""Sandra and I are very different people, said Castro. "We kind of evolved different styles. I learned a lot from Sandra in terms of just her ability to have the capacity to lead the organization and cutting edge in lots of arenas, as well as being responsive to the needs of clients. One of the first things I did was create two associate director positions, occupied by Vivian Sauer and Susie Ford Day."
Continued Castro, "My appointment was really out of the box. To hire someone who is not Jewish and not coming from a social services background, I think a lot of credit has to go to the board, who recognized my potential but also who we are as an agency. This doesn't happen in many communities."
With Castro's new power comes great responsibility. Back in June, JFS absorbed the previously autonomous Jewish Family Service of Santa Monica. And the outreach organization has also expanded its services to Conejo Valley, to meet the needs of a growing Jewish population in that area. Castro also wants to develop more children's services and shelters helping battered women.
"We're moving forward, because I'm on several committees where I see the drive is fantastic," said Schechter. "Paul has the ability to be a consensus builder, especially with government funders. He has made real connections for us. He certainly gets the agency, and we get the benefits."