SAN DIEGO — Louis Vener was just 9 years old when his father handed him a paint-roller and encouraged him to pitch in on a community synagogue-building project in 1950s Chula Vista.
Nearly 60 years later, the La Jolla resident is still pitching in for his community. He recently finished up a 15-year stretch on the board of Jewish Family Service of San Diego (JFS) and is now in his ninth year of delivering kosher meals to housebound seniors and the disabled.
“It’s up to us to take care of us,” he said. “We need to take the time to recognize our common humanity and act on it. We can make a difference, whether it’s delivering a meal or being kind to a stranger.”
In 2015, Vener received the JFS Charles Zibbell Board Leadership Award. And in 2017, he and fellow board member Edward Carnot were honored for their visionary work in the expansion of the organization’s Joan & Irwin Jacobs Campus in Kearny Mesa.
In 2016, JFS virtually doubled its footprint on Balboa Avenue, combining all of its community outreach programs in one location, including an adult day care program, a community pantry, a team of patient advocates and the Foodmobile meal-delivery service.
Brenda Bothel-Hammond, JFS’s senior director of aging and wellness services, said Vener has been of great service both as a leader and as a hands-on doer.
“Louis is wonderful, a joy to work with, so stable and reliable,” Bothel-Hammond said. “He has such a great interest in the working of JFS but he especially wants to understand how the staff engages with the clients and be a part of that.”
Vener’s a gregarious people person who said he loves interacting with his meal-delivery clients and connecting them with other programs they may need. He’s also known for bringing guests along on his Wednesday morning route, in hopes of recruiting them as volunteers or donors.
Vener, 68, was raised in Chula Vista, where his parents farmed several hundred acres of tomatoes and cucumbers from the 1940s to 1970s. The Veners were among 12 Jewish families who built the city’s first synagogue.
Vener’s father was the synagogue’s first president and was later honored for his work with the Anti-Defamation League. His mother was the president of Hadassah, a Jewish women’s organization. Even as a grade-schooler with a paint-roller, Vener said he felt a deep sense of obligation to serve.
“That was the first time when I felt a true sense of community,” Vener said. “Ever since then, community and spirituality have become more and more important the older I get.”
Vener attended the University of California, Davis, and then in his late 20s went on a mission to Israel via the United Jewish Federation. When he returned home to Chula Vista in 1979, he discovered that farming was no longer economically viable. So he closed the farm and went to work for San Diego’s Jewish Community Center.
For five years, he built and ran JCC’s day camp and athletic programs. Then he spent a decade administering the religious school and day camp program at Congregation Beth Israel in La Jolla.
Vener and his wife of 35 years, Tammy, are longtime members of Congregation Beth Israel. Tammy is also in what Vener calls “the family business.” She has run education programs at the temple and she oversees community vegetable gardens at both the temple and the JFS campus.
The couple lives in the historic Uriah & Clara Barkley House in La Jolla Shores, which was built in 1929. Their exhaustive efforts to restore the property in the early 2000s earned them a 2007 “People in Preservation” award from the Save Our Heritage Organization.
The Veners have three children: Jacob, 33, who works in real estate in Medellín, Colombia; Molly, 31, who does Jewish community outreach in Kansas City, Mo.; and Earnest Rose, 27, a Jewish seminarian.
Vener first came to JFS in 1994, not as a volunteer but as an employee. He was hired as director of family, adult and children’s services. After he retired about five years later, he joined the organization’s board of directors.
“I liked the people,” he said of his decision to stay on as a volunteer. “They have a dynamic staff and I enjoy how we find unmet needs and look for ways to fund them.”
His proudest board achievement is the expansion of the Jacobs campus in Kearny Mesa, a bold and financially risky move that has been a tremendous success.
“It was a huge investment, but we liked the idea of creating a campus where people could see all of the programs we’re doing. The idea was like in the movie,‘“If you build it, they will come,’ and they did,” he said. “Now people can see all we do. Before, most of our services were behind closed doors. This not only brings in people who need help but also donors.”
Now in its 100th year, JFS offers dozens of programs that serve the San Diego community at large. There are programs for people facing domestic violence, mental illness, financial problems, job loss, Alzheimer’s disease, immigration problems and medical catastrophes. There’s even a home “fix-it” service for seniors and a singles program for adults.
Vener said only a small percentage of the people served by JFS are Jewish.
“That’s important,” he said, “because we recognize that everyone needs help at one time or another, regardless of who they are. We are all the same.”
Vener said serving the community has never been more important than it is today, with hate speech and anti-Semitism on the rise.
“Right now in this country there are some people who have unleashed their worst selves with a lack of courtesy and gentleness,” he said. “We need to get back. Everybody plays a role in creating a kind society, whether it’s the president of the United States or a small child sharing a sandwich.”