There is no word for history in the Jewish tradition. The word we have is memory. My family’s memories and our story have been on my mind a great deal since my father died back in January.
“I guess I made it 90 years and four months,” he said the week before he passed. Occasionally people would say to him, “May you live to 120.” Inevitably, he would chuckle, “Hmm…that sounds more like a curse than a blessing.”
A long life is a beautiful thing if you have health, meaning and the resources to live with dignity. But for many, that is not how things turn out. And living enough years to gain the long view can be complicated. With that view of life, you can sometimes see your fortunes shift or the tides change as societal views turn — not always for the better.
After 125 years, we have seen a tremendous amount of change at JFS, yet some things stay the same. From our inception, we have always viewed the word hope as the most powerful of verbs.
It is not the sweet, gauzy stuff of greeting cards. It is something rougher, harder, with sharper edges. It requires mutual work, effort and commitment, not only from our staff but also from those who turn to us. It is the active kind of hope — the kind of hope that burns in the gut.
At JFS, we have an unrelenting resolve to assist those who are vulnerable in our community. It was our ancestors’ founding value, and it is affirmed daily by those who serve at JFS today, as volunteers and as professionals. Infused in the DNA at Jewish Family Service is the power of that word hope. And the belief that, if we work together, we can not only change individual lives but also improve our community. It is our recognition of this enduring commitment, driven by hope and determination, which is the source from which we draw our inspiration and strength.
From our Food Bank, which started out as a modest shelf in a closet, and today gives out 30,000 pounds of food each month. From supporting the survivors of a mine accident in Roslyn in the 1890s, to supporting survivors of the Holocaust and domestic violence today. We look to our past as a guide for our future.
When I was a kid, I was raised with railroad tracks in our backyard. They were so close that when the trains would go by, our little house would shake. Growing up, I never had new clothes on the first day of school and rarely on any other day. I paid my way through college by selling shoes and winning an occasional game of poker.
There was a long period in my life when I wouldn’t tell that story. I was embarrassed by it. But what are we without the truth of our stories? There is a strength in owning the reality of our lives. The good and the bad.
For some of us, the story is like a compass pointing to our true north. For others, the fuel that motivates us to run the opposite direction. Like it or not, we all learn from our stories and memories. They help define us.
As I have moved past the life of my childhood, I continually wonder: How do I pass those hard-learned truths and values along to my kids who live in a world so different than the one I knew? It is the same question we struggle with at JFS.
How do we pass along our founding stories and values? How do we make sure the next generation never forgets the struggles and motivations of those who came before us? How do we help them understand why our connection to those stories matter? That they can give us an infinite well from which to draw strength. They fuel the flames of aspiration, give context to our work, give meaning to our lives.
Those stories show us how far we have come and remind us of those who helped us on our journey. We repay those debts by paying it forward to those who are still struggling on that great climb toward a better life.
My dad was a blue-collar guy, and my mom worked at a deli and bakery — truly the salt of the earth. They were easy to look over, and often were, which is how it is with many of the most beautiful things.
They are both gone now, but they always encouraged me to seek wider horizons and not be defined by the narrow boundaries of the now. They instilled in me a drive to dig deeper and reach higher — a hope in something more felt than seen.
It left me with a belief I could move beyond the pessimistic boxes and labels placed upon me — that internal expectations are more potent than external ones. This is what we hope to ignite in people who turn to JFS.
And yet, my parents also taught the importance of remembrance. My father would often say, “Don’t get too big for your britches,” and “Don’t forget where you came from.” So, I have been thinking a lot about those railroad tracks and our little house shaking as the train passed by.
About what it means to remember our roots while also branching out to a much larger world.
I have spoken to many of you over the years, and we have talked about where we have come from.
“My dad was a foreman in a factory. My mother helped me edit my dissertation,” reflected one person.
“My mom worked two jobs to make ends meet. I was a latchkey kid,” said another. “I never saw my father.”
Or, “We lived in a one-bedroom apartment. I had a closet for a bedroom.”
Yet another shared, “There was addiction and mental illness in my family. It was never mentioned.”
Even though our house shook, the foundations of our family were strong. For many of the people who turn to JFS, that is not the case. As one person commented, “My house shook too, but it wasn’t from a passing train.”
A friend of mine has the steamer trunk his grandfather brought with him when he left Eastern Europe. It sits next to the front door. A reminder of his past — maybe a tribute.
I think of all the trunks that all our ancestors dragged with them as they crossed oceans and continents looking for a better life for their children. How many hopes and dreams were packed among the family heirlooms, worn-out clothes and personal demons? It was the alchemy of those things, and luck, which transformed some lives to fantastic success and others to a cycle of intergenerational poverty.
For the 125 years JFS has been in Seattle, we have witnessed the city transform and our community evolve. Back in 1892, Seattle had only recently become a city, and there were only about 42,000 people living here.
But, we were already wrestling with how to balance serving the particular needs of the Jewish community while defining our role in helping anyone who was vulnerable in the city to which we are a part and we owe so much.
Today, we live in such a disposable and transient world that we often don’t pause to recognize the people who set the foundations upon which we build our lives. Their stories deserve to be preserved, told and retold. And, our lives have been made infinitely easier because of their hope, efforts and struggles. Our task is to give honor to that legacy by adding our voices to our communal story. By being here today and affirming our work, you are doing just that.
Like so many in this room — like so many of those who have come before us — the story of those we serve is one of determination, perseverance and, often, uphill battles. The unending hope to break free of the chains and gravity that keep pulling them down. Struggling against overwhelming odds to succeed in the world and provide a better future for their children.
What an overwhelming experience it must have been for our ancestors to step off the boat knowing virtually no one and not speaking the language. Truly being strangers in a strange land.
And, like our ancestors before, some of the people we serve today are strangers in a strange land. For others, they feel like strangers to themselves or in their own home.
Think about what it takes to maintain hope when you are lacking a solid foundation — a safe place to start. What is it, if not a fearless hope, that drives a person to leave an abusive, controlling relationship? It is a burning hope to repeatedly apply for jobs if you’re unsure where you’ll shower and shave before the interview. The hope that drives a person to persist, when, despite qualifying for subsidized housing, they are told, over and over, the waitlist is now measured in years and not months.
No child says when they grow up they are going to become an addict, or face domestic violence, or struggle with mental illness. Nobody moves to Seattle because our food bank or rental assistance programs are so good.
Like everyone in this room, the people we work with have goals and dreams. The thing is: not all of us start from the same place, and those dreams may be more modest. Or, just feel completely out of reach. For many of the people we work with, their dream might be a job or a safe place to live. Or, just not to live in a nightmare. Or, simply for someone to appreciate they did the best they could.
But, they are always driven by that word hope. The belief that their world as it is, is not the world that must be. They don’t want a bad stretch in their life to define their life.
One of the most important things we do is give people a chance to tell their story. To have a safe space to feel heard and understood, and not isolated and alone. To be able to share where the road turned, and they found everything crashing down. Maybe it began with a child’s struggle with mental illness or addiction. And, gained momentum with the loss of a job or a marriage. Being present, listening and helping someone find their path through the darkness is more than sympathy. It’s a beginning of next steps.
In many ways our staff serve as interpreters for our clients as they try to navigate the thinning social safety net and translate their options when so many doors seem to be closed and locked.
They give them faith and strength. They activate hope. They let them know that they are not alone, and we will not abandon them. That is not what our community does.
On so many occasions I have left JFS feeling inspired and humbled. Not just because of what our team has done for our clients, which is truly inspiring, but because of the hope our clients have given us. Because of their dogged determination. Their fearlessness.
JFS has always been something more than simply a local social service agency. Jewish Family Service has always been about a shared belief in a higher ideal. A collective awareness of what is possible when we work together. A recognition that we are commanded to action. Called to turn toward and not away. That we must never be bystanders to another’s suffering. That we each have the power to write the narrative of our lives — and help someone write hope back into their story. And in the end, our lives are greater than our short turn on this earth. That as individuals we can make a difference. But together, we can change the world.
By Rabbi Will Berkovitz, Chief Executive Officer