Putting a cap on a career in social work that always focused on individuals’ ‘stories’

Ruth Paley retirement

Ruth Paley’s retirement in July marks the end of a 25-year leadership role at JFCS

Even before she got a degree in social work – back when she had an undergraduate degree in theater and enjoyed performing in community and street theater troupes – Ruth Paley noticed that people often told her their “stories” – their challenges, successes, struggles, and more.

It happened often enough that one of her friends recommended she get a degree in social work so that she would know how to advise people in an official capacity. “I think that helped me find my direction,” she said.

Ruth received her master’s in social work when she was in her 30s – it was a perfect fit, leading to a decades-long career in the field, including the last 25 years at JFCS, where she serves on JFCS’ Executive Leadership Team as Director of Children and Family Programs.

Ruth will be retiring at the end of July – while she knew the day for retirement would eventually come, she said it hadn’t been an easy decision. “I have mixed feelings about leaving,” she said. “I really didn’t want to leave until my work was finished. But I know that this work is never really finished.”

‘Social work in my blood’

Ruth grew up in Indiana and her mother was a social worker – she was the director of Planned Parenthood – and her three aunts all worked in social services as well. “These very powerful women were all doing things for others, which made a big impression on me,” Ruth said. “I had social work in my blood, but it took me time to find it.”

After getting her master’s in social work from the University of Louisville in Kentucky, Ruth worked at both the Jewish Federation and JFCS in Louisville – she was the manager of the latter’s Resettlement Program and Counseling department. It was the 1980s, when many refugees from the former Soviet Union were coming to the U.S. and JFCS agencies across the country were helping them get resettled.

Her husband, Nathan’s job brought the family to the Twin Cities in 1987; the manager position of JFCS’ Resettlement Program happened to have a vacancy and Ruth was a natural fit for it. Her life took another detour when her husband’s job moved the family to Geneva, Switzerland, for seven years, but they came back to the Twin Cities after that and have been here ever since.

Her first position at JFCS after coming back was as a case manager with Holocaust Survivors in Senior Services; she has held a few different management and leadership positions here over her long career at the agency.

“One of the things that enabled me to stay here for 25 years is having the opportunity to grow professionally – all of it was here for me,” she said. “I appreciate that my personal and professional values have been in sync for all this time.”

Developing a new generation of social workers and leaders

One area of social work that has been a throughline her entire career is supervision. When she was going to school for her master’s degree, the class on supervision was one of her favorites, and supervising staff is something she has practiced in all her positions throughout her career. She loves the philosophy of supervision – how to work with staff to deal with conflict, growth and more.

JFCS CEO Judy Halper said one of Ruth’s biggest legacies will be how much she contributed to the development of a new generation of social workers and leaders. “Every student, emerging professional or seasoned clinician who had the opportunity to work with Ruth has felt their growth and skills were positively informed by the great counsel and guidance Ruth offered to them,” she said.

One of those staff members who considers Ruth a mentor and a role model is JFCS COO Lee Friedman. “Since the day I arrived at JFCS, Ruth has been one of my biggest influences,” he said. “She has been my teacher on many subjects, including social work, mental illness and mental health, person-centered service delivery, and moving through life’s toughest challenges with courage and grace. Ruth has also been an influential role model for what it takes to lead a team, have the backs of the staff you lead, and to provide supportive and impactful supervision.”

Looking back, Ruth said it’s too difficult to pick one or two favorite memories from her career because there have been so many. She had the opportunity to be a presenter on Holocaust Survivors at two international conferences and has been a guest lecturer for 12 years at the University of Minnesota graduate school of social work, presenting on supervision.

She said she was blessed with the good fortune to work as a manager here at JFCS in many different programs throughout her professional life. “I’ve always felt I supervised the smartest, most dedicated and compassionate people, and I think I’m good at matching their skills and interests in what they need to be successful at their jobs,” she said.

She has always tried to foster a strong sense of community at work, creating a space where people feel seen and know that leadership is invested in their growth and learning.

“Ruth has consistently demonstrated passion for helping individuals to achieve better outcomes, and she does so with deep compassion and strong support,” Judy said. “It has been a privilege to work with her over these past 25 years.”

As she caps off a long and successful career in social work, Ruth feels confident that JFCS has a bright future ahead. “I’m proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish here, and I look forward to seeing the agency continue to meet the needs of our community,” she said.

An endowment fund was recently established at JFCS in honor of Ruth – the Ruth Paley Family Fund to support staff professional development. Click here to make a contribution to the fund.

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