Abby Gilbert is the new executive director of Tikvah, the Philadelphia nonprofit that helps adults living with mental illnesses.
Gilbert, 59, of Jenkintown, comes to Tikvah after 35 years in the Jewish community service field. Before Tikvah, she held leadership positions with the JCCs of Greater Philadelphia, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Northeast NORC and Reconstructing Judaism, among others.
Gilbert applied to Tikvah because she dealt with mental illnesses at NORC, which helps people 60 and up age in place in their homes. Gilbert saw how hard it was for those with mental illnesses to remain independent but also stay connected.
“Folks with mental illness challenges experience a higher level of anxiety and a lower level of ability with regard to reaching out for what they need,” Gilbert said.
Tikvah, established in 1990, works with adults of all ages in their “social, educational, employment and spiritual development,” according to the news release about Gilbert’s hiring. The nonprofit’s president, Neen Davis, felt Gilbert was qualified because of her past experiences.
“She had a good understanding of who we were and what we’re trying to accomplish,” Davis said.
What Tikvah wants to do is help more people, Davis said.
The 2019 Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia revealed that 33% of Jewish households in the five-county area had at least one member diagnosed with a mental illness. But Tikvah only has about 80 active members, Davis said.
Gilbert’s goal is the same as Tikvah’s: to increase that number.
When Gilbert took over at NORC in 2011, she faced a similar situation. There were roughly 60,000 Philly-area adults aging in place in their homes. NORC was helping about 680 of them, she said.
By the time she left NORC in 2019, it was serving more than 1,100 households. It also doubled its number of community partners and increased volunteer engagement by a third.
“By increasing volunteer engagement, we broadened the number of people in the community who understood what we were doing,” Gilbert said.
NORC taught Gilbert how to build a community around a specific purpose. But it was a previous position that showed her how to build a community.
From 1985 to 1998, she served as youth director and then program director at Congregation Beth Or in Montgomery County. In both roles, Gilbert introduced a variety of programs: from common interest groups, like knitting circles and a photography club, to a congregation-wide Mitzvah Day to regular theater trips.
“Things people might do on their own if they weren’t part of a congregation,” she said.
With Gilbert’s help, Congregation Beth Or grew from 350 families in 1985 to 850 by 1998.
“It was really all about community building to attract new families and also to retain people through their connections to one another,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert cared deeply about both of those missions: building a congregation and helping senior citizens. And she feels the same way about her new mission.
Gilbert has family members living with mental illnesses. Based on those experiences, she believes the best way to help them is to surround them with strong support systems.
“It’s about the family members learning how to effectively support them,” she said. “And for them to get the supports they need as well.”
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