I was deeply saddened to hear of the loss of Joe Jordan-Berenis, and I pray for him, his family and his many friends. I worked with Joe at Pete’s Place Interfaith Community Shelter from 2016-19 as a clinical mental health counselor and supervisor, running the Life Link Outreach program at the shelter during those years.
Joe’s office was down at the end of the hall across from a room that sometimes was an art room, at other times a choral theater, sometimes a bunkhouse, a meditation room, yoga studio or even a makeshift hospital. The shelter was and is a vibrant place, and I spoke with Joe pretty much every day; he would come by to chat about something, or I would go visit him about some pressing need, which often was not as pressing as the needs of the line of people at his door, people coming to see him for any problem under the sun. They wanted guidance or a shoulder to cry on; or they needed money; or they had family trouble or legal trouble; they needed a job or protection; or a car, clothes, a tent or a hug.
Although it would have been a privilege to have Joe as my boss, by happenstance we had somewhat parallel roles; yet it was only from modesty that he treated me as a genuine partner during my time there. I felt uplifted by that elevation, a position I hadn’t quite earned, given Joe’s extensive accomplishments in New York starting right after Woodstock, building from scratch over many years a still-thriving agency, a sort of combination Pete’s Place and Life Link. I just felt fortunate to see him in his element: not just among a throng of guests, but in a very well-organized office running a complex social-service machine, with a large meeting table that often held stacks of grant proposals and other projects that kept the shelter thriving and growing behind the scenes.
I was able to witness some of his victories — grants gained, tenuous progress defended, new building accomplished and always new programs on the way. I would also see, often firsthand, Joe’s constant presence and effect on city stakeholders, sometimes through heated discussions, working to meet the needs of people whose promise and capability society tends to ignore. In some sense, I was also one of those stakeholders who needed a little educating. I remember a guest or two who I thought needed a firmer boundary — but of course, that carried the risk of pushing them away. Instead, Joe offered space and patience. A sort of well-considered, strategic patience. And most often, it worked.
Joe was very special in this way. He took up the practice of loving and respecting each and every person for their particular qualities, and he took on the mission of taking a very long view. Any progress, he noticed it. If there was a very difficult personality and yet he sensed some sort of pathway forward for that person, that’s where he put his mind and his energy, and his resources, even out of his own pocket when necessary.
I remember another guest I gradually came to love, who had a knack for confrontation. One day you could be a trusted friend, and the next, the very worst enemy. One time after the guest chewed him out, Joe told me he really felt privileged to care for them, because he knew about their childhood. In cases like this, Joe could be like an ocean that wasn’t bothered being pelted by rocks. On one of the days where this guest could accept some of his fatherly care, Joe glanced at me and almost winked, as if I was in on his secret. I said, “Boy, is it beautiful when they smile,” and Joe touched me on the chest and said with an impish grin, “Exactly!”
I have very great respect for Joe Jordan-Berenis. I rarely meet people like him, people with shoulders that broad, who can carry that amount of weight, and yet be there with anyone at any time, with an open and inquisitive offer of understanding and love.
Finally, lest anyone think I mean to say Joe was all rabbit and no hawk, that was not the case. He told me he had learned, from his military days, “You get what you inspect, not what you train.” His inspecting eye was open, he could see what was going on, and that was exactly the behavior he continued to shape. But he was playing the long game — the very long game, I believe, that is required if we really wish to benefit people.
I will always be grateful to Joe for teaching through his powerful example. Joe’s agency in New York, Family of Woodstock, has a motto: “Any Problem Under the Sun.” That’s just the sort of problem that Joe could handle.