2016: Community Legal Services’ Golden Anniversary Year

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It’s no surprise that “50 Years of Justice,” the celebration of Community Legal Services’ golden anniversary that took place last month, was totally sold out.

After all, since its founding in 1966, CLS has provided free legal services to more than 1 million low-income residents of Philadelphia. In addition, CLS is now recognized nationally as a pioneering model for legal aid firms — the gold standard.

“When I became chancellor of the Bar Association in 2006, I was introduced to our legal services community,” said Philadelphia lawyer Alan M. Feldman for a CLS 50th anniversary video produced by PhillyCAM. “There was one that stood out, there was one that was the leader of all of them, there was one that had a national reputation, and that was Community Legal Services.”


“It’s really known as one of the best — if not the best — legal services program in the country,” agreed CLS Executive Director Deborah L. Freedman, speaking on the phone from her Center City office. She believes the organization’s stellar reputation owes to its dual purpose.

“We do high-volume intensive legal representation of about 10,000 individual clients a year — in everything from evictions, foreclosures, utility shutoffs, public benefits, disability benefits, employment cases, criminal records expungement, on and on — and then we use what we learn from those individual cases to do high-impact policy work.”

For lawyers looking to make positive change, CLS is — as it was for Freedman — a dream job.

“You get to help people with their individual needs and change their lives on that one-on-one basis, but you also can make a change to the larger system,” she said.

In addition to Freedman’s tenure, CLS has a rich history of Jewish involvement, from founding directors to board members to current employees.

Take, for instance, the late Robert D. Abrahams, onetime president of Jewish Family Service, who served for 40 years as chief legal counsel to the Legal Aid Society of Philadelphia and was the founding director of CLS.

Then there’s Irv Ackelsberg, a pioneering consumer rights lawyer who worked for CLS for 30 years and remains on its board. A founding member of Congregation Mishkan Shalom, Ackelsberg won the prestigious National Consumer Law Center’s Vern Countryman Award in 2005.

There’s also Jonathan Stein, another former director, who started at CLS in 1968 and spent almost 40 years at the firm. The winner of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association’s Reginald Heber Smith Award for outstanding achievement, Stein won a nationwide class action case on behalf of disabled children in 1990.

“That changed the law around the country,” Freedman said of Stein’s U.S. Supreme Court win, adding he was just one of CLS’ many Jewish lawyers who effected large-scale change for poor people across the country.

Freedman also pointed to Amy Hirsch, the managing attorney for the North Philadelphia Law Center of Community Legal Services, as well as for CLS’ Welfare Unit and Aging and Disabilities Unit.

“She has had many, many huge legal victories and legislative victories,” Freedman said, including a significant change to child support laws in Pennsylvania, and endless work on behalf of women dealing with addiction.

Freedman also mentioned workers rights’ lawyer Harold I. Goodman, and CLS leadership members Edward F. Chacker and Alan M. Feldman, but then she stopped herself. “I could go on and on about the amazing work Jewish lawyers have done here.”

Freedman, a HIAS board member and longtime congregant and former board member at Society Hill Synagogue, thinks much of the Jewish engagement with CLS’ concerns grew out of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. “The Jews were so involved in those movements,” she said.

In her own experience, Judaism and legal aid work came together quite naturally.

“As a Jew, I was raised with a sense that all of us can be vulnerable, all of us can be in need and need help, and that when there is injustice, we have an obligation to address it,” she said. “My rabbi, [Avi Winokour], talks a lot about the Golden Rule in the sense of do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. But I think the essential message there is that we are all human and we are all the same. We deserve to be treated fairly and we deserve justice.”

Contact: lspikol@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0747

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