Joshua Otis on what’s facing the most vulnerable community members in our city
Having worked at UJA for five years, Joshua Otis has a lot to share from his time as Social Services & Community Innovation Director. From connecting with his Jewish identity and community at Wilfrid Laurier University to overseeing UJA’s partnerships with Jewish human services organizations, Joshua shares insights about our community and a window into UJA’s work supporting vulnerable populations. Joshua spoke with UJA’s Ori Epstein about the challenges the sector has faced and the future he envisions for human services.
A key part of your job is strengthening the ability of UJA’s network of Jewish social service agencies to help community members who are struggling. Can you tell me a bit about the social service organizations and people you work with?
UJA’s role is to address vulnerability among Jewish community members through funding partnerships and collaborative initiatives which help achieve greater impact than any one organization could achieve on its own. We fund 13 organizations which, while referred to collectively as the Jewish social services sector, really represent many social services sectors. Our collaborative projects reflect our strategic priorities: supporting mental health, caring for low-income Holocaust survivors, addressing food insecurity, and strengthening our social services.
What insights can you share about what it means for a community member to experience vulnerability?
When we talk about vulnerability, we're not talking about a specific population. We often associate vulnerability with health or financial challenges, but it's much broader than that. Every person has needs, meaning we can all experience vulnerability. This is where the power of community can make a real impact, by helping to ensure that no one—especially those who are struggling with acute issues—is alone in addressing their vulnerability challenges.
Beyond supporting social services, your role includes fostering community innovation. What does that mean?
Community innovation can mean using existing community resources differently to achieve greater impact in our work. For example, we partner with non-social services organizations in the Jewish community to help with our priorities around vulnerability. Our initiative around mental health is a good example of this. We are working with schools, shuls, camps, JCCs, and Hillel Ontario to develop competencies among professionals and volunteers for supporting mental health. The idea is to equip Jewish organizations to provide a basic but needed level of mental health support to their constituents, whether it's their congregants, their campers, their program participants, or their students.
How did you get here? Where did your passion for Jewish community come from?
Beyond my parents and grandparents who instilled in me Jewish values, my time at Laurier allowed me to get involved in Jewish life on campus and understand issues facing Jewish students. I got involved with the Jewish Students Association and learned that Jewish community service was important to me.
Before you came to UJA, you worked in the provincial civil service. Tell me a bit about your previous role. How does it compare to your work at UJA?
After completing graduate studies in public policy and administration at Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University), I began my career in the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services. I was inspired by leaders in northern and rural communities who held close relationships with other local leaders across sectors which helped enable the success of their collaborative initiatives. The Jewish community is similar in this regard. As I was working on community development initiatives across Ontario, I thought I would like to do similar work in the community I care about the most! That's what appealed to me about working at UJA.
You also work with a committee of lay leaders which oversees the social services side of your work. How does your relationship work with the committee?
I'm the professional lead for UJA’s Social Services and Seniors Committee. Something I love about this committee is its unwavering dedication to the community. You also get a lot from having a committee with diverse professional and personal backgrounds; it's a wellspring of perspective that enriches my work.
The pandemic obviously was an immense challenge for community members experiencing vulnerability, but were there any areas where you have seen a positive change?
I think many people became more aware of vulnerability needs in the community. Every family was struggling in some way. COVID-19 helped people understand that we can all be vulnerable. Many people got help for the first time with issues they struggled with prior to the pandemic. In addition, it was incredibly inspiring to see the way our community’s agencies rose to the challenge posed by the pandemic. Just as each of us were dealing with our own pandemic difficulties, we saw so many front-line staff and volunteers go above and beyond to help those hit hardest.
There’s one area of particular vulnerability we’re seeing right now: that of Ukrainian newcomers to Canada, fleeing the conflict overseas. More Ukrainians are coming to Toronto, some needing assistance from the human services sector. How has the community responded?
With the tremendous generosity of Toronto's Jewish community, we've been able to invest in the needs of Ukrainian newcomers. One of the great things about UJA is that we have the right partners around the table. In response to the crisis faced by Ukrainians, we brought Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS) Toronto together with partners that specialize in employment, housing, seniors care, food security, financial assistance, and supporting community members from the Former Soviet Union.
In all you do here, what values are driving you?
I believe we all have our moments of need, and everyone deserves to live their best life and feel good. That’s where I see the importance of community service– to empower people so our community members can live their best life.
To learn more about how UJA is helping community members experiencing vulnerability visit,
Ori Epstein is UJA’s Communication Intern.
Joshua Otis is UJA’s Social Services & Community Innovation Director.