Jewish Family Service honors its heritage by building community.

Share story

The words that run along the front of a new building on Seattle’s Capitol Hill caught my attention.

The building on 16th Avenue belongs to Jewish Family Service (JFS), and the words are from the Rabbi Hillel, the renowned sage of Judaism: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”

The words capture what the social-service agency is about. And beyond that, they seem to suggest how best to live in any community, but especially a pluralistic one.

I saw the sign a couple of months ago and took a photo of it, and I thought of it again as Passover approached.

Recently I spoke at Endless Opportunities, one of the JFS programs, and its director, Ellen Hendin, told me lots of passers-by stop to snap photos.

She gave me a book on the history of Washington’s Jewish community and told me JFS, which played a role in that history, is 120 years old this year.

The book is “Family of Strangers: Building a Jewish Community in Washington State,” by three local authors, Molly Cone, Howard Droker and Jacqueline Williams (2003, Washington State Jewish Historical Society in association with the University of Washington Press, $32).

Early Jewish immigrants came to Washington in three waves.

Beginning around 1850, Jews from Central Europe, mainly Germany, came seeking economic freedom they were denied in their countries of origin.

Eastern European Jews began arriving in the 1880s.

And just after 1900, a third stream came from Turkey and from Rhodes, a Greek island.

The backgrounds and experiences of the three groups of immigrants differed.

The first wave had business experience and connections to established communities in other parts of the country. They could rely on relatives and friends to support their ventures and they thrived here. Not only did they thrive, but they contributed greatly to the success of the communities where they settled.

One of the early territorial governors, the Civil War general Edward S. Salomon, was Jewish.

Bailey Gatzert and Nathan Eckstein were part of that first group of immigrants. Schools have been named after both of them to honor their contributions.

The two waves of Jewish immigrants who followed experienced the transition differently.

They brought different skills, and came to a place that was less wide open than it had been earlier.

And the third group was made up of Sephardic, Ladino-speaking people, but they settled among the earlier Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazic immigrants.

To help newcomers, a mother and daughter, Esther Levy and Lizzie Cooper, in 1892 founded the Ladies’ Hebrew Benevolent Society, which would eventually become Jewish Family Service.

Dick Rosenwald, JFS director of marketing and communications, told me the society helped people “who had no food, no job or no home.” Some of these families would produce civic and business leaders in their own right.

JFS has been helping immigrants get settled ever since. These days they are from Bhutan, Iraq, Sudan and elsewhere, but the needs are the same.

Rosenwald showed me around the new building, which opened in January. It’s larger than the adjacent old building, and the two together will allow the agency to house all of its programs at one site.

Helping refugees is one of 10 programs the agency runs, and most serve the larger community. A few are tailored mostly for Jewish people.

The addiction program and the domestic-violence program, for instance, are both designed with cultural distinctions in mind.

Michelle Lifton, director of DVORA, the domestic-violence program, would be aware of how, for instance, a spouse could misuse religious teachings to justify abusive behavior. Lifton might speak with a rabbi if a husband were trying to damage his spouse’s reputation in the synagogue.

In her role, Lifton sometimes incorporates Jewish rituals and study as a foundation for difficult conversations. She can see how the story of the Jewish people’s flight from bondage in Egypt, told during Passover, might hold a certain meaning for an abused spouse who may have felt enslaved in a relationship.

Even as she focuses on cultural relevancy, Lifton and her staff consult with other groups, participate in county and state domestic-violence coalitions and help people who aren’t Jewish.

Like the sign says, help yourself, help others and do it when the need exists.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.