Lani works with our seniors — survivors, fighters and the ones who never seem to catch a break. She is one of those dedicated people who has pictures of her with her clients above her desk. The type of person we would want taking care of our parents, or of ourselves.
When I stopped by her office recently, she apologized for the boxes and files stacked around. For a very brief, terrifying moment I thought she was emptying out her desk. Sensing my concern, she said that one of her clients had just died and these were the last remnants of his life. “In the absence of family,” she explained, “the nursing home was going to throw his things away.”
Her client had difficult, even tortured relationships, and there was no one to call. Lani knew all this because it is sadly too common in our world at JFS. So, she intervened. As a final act of service, she collected his things and now there were boxes in her office.
There were his baby shoes. A picture of him lounging in his bunk during the war. A grainy old photo of his daughter, who had taken her life years ago. In the photo, she is young, the wind is in her long dark hair, the golden sun on her face. A memory of a happier time. Next to the photo was a stack of handwritten letters, the last remnants of his broken relationships with his children. Setting down the letters, Lani looked up and commented, “It doesn’t matter how complicated the relationships — parents will always save their children’s letters.” And Lani felt these memories and mementos deserved a resting place other than the trash.
She and the rest of our front-line staff are the last line of defense for those we serve — a final thread of the safety net before they fall. One of the most profound things about JFS is how seriously we take that responsibility to our clients — it is a calling. It is pervasive at every level of our agency, from Sabia, Jennifer and Mark who welcome people at the front desk to our Board of Directors. That calling is the soul of JFS.
Together we advocate, we argue and we fight to give voice to people who are often denied one. Our staff walk with people through their most vulnerable moments — in support and solidarity. We are with them in their regrets and resentments. We walk with them through their darkness, through their confusion, through their fear.
Kris in our supportive living program sits with the elderly parents of a disabled adult child when they ask, “What will happen to our son after we die? Will you make sure he is okay — that he is not forgotten? Will you make sure he is safe after we are gone?”
And we walk with our clients at the end of their lives so they are not alone. And at times we are with them even after they have died to ensure they have a proper burial. Adam, who directs our aging program, was recently asked to carry the casket of a client — a testimony and a tribute. And when needed, we collect their final cherished objects like those in Lani’s office. And we pack them in a box, and we find a family member to offer them to.
Upon hearing I am a rabbi people often ask, “Where is your congregation?” I respond that I have the privilege of serving the vulnerable in Seattle. They are my congregation and the people I ultimately hold myself responsible to. We put our clients and their dignity at the center — continually asking ourselves, “Is this in the best interest of those we serve? Will this advance their lives?” We are driven not just by the question, “How much have we done?” But also, “How well are we doing it? Are the people who turn to us any better off?”
These aren’t abstract questions. They are foundational. We are unwavering in our dedication to our clients. We grieve with them and grieve for them. They become part of our extended family. The people we serve will never just be numbers, they will always be individuals with stories, with hopes and with a name. In this way, we say, “You matter. Your life matters. And you are not alone.” We are with you on your journey. Be it a journey of recovery. A journey of escape. Or the journey at the end of life.
We will walk with our clients, even if it is uncomfortable at times. And lately it has been uncomfortable. I suspect to some degree we are all feeling a confrontation with conflicting values these days. For many complicated reasons, we are at a time when serving the vulnerable has become politicized. When welcoming the stranger has never been as difficult.
We have been doing this work for 125 years. And our position has not changed, but the landscape around us has. This has led to some hard conversations among our staff and Board Members as we try to find our way in this new reality. But I have never been more proud to work with a group of people as I have been working with the staff and Board at JFS as we have wrestled with how to respond as our clients’ lives have been upended by decisions far beyond their control.
Our Board and staff have spoken to each other with respect, with honesty. And with trust. We have not always agreed upon the path forward, but we have continued to work together to stay true to our mission and do what is in the best interests of our clients.
I have been grateful for the wisdom, guidance and perspective of Board Members, mentors and staff who have sat with me to think through key decisions and the implications of those decisions. Even those decisions they opposed. In service of our mission, they have gone beyond their personal perspectives. Despite the complexity and difficulty of the choices before us, they have never turned away and have continually given their best thinking. With humility and integrity, they have engaged in learning, reflection and thoughtful decision making — all in service of the vulnerable. It has left a profound impact on me.
Recently, I have received many emails and calls from community members about our philosophy of refugee resettlement. The vast majority have been supportive, but some have strongly disagreed — challenging us for resettling people beyond the Jewish community.
For the most part, the communication has been respectful, from people seeking greater understanding. Or wanting to share a different perspective. Continuing to invest in each other with open and honest dialogue is critical at this moment. Instead of walking away in judgement when we disagree, we need to turn toward each other, even when honesty might feel risky and uncomfortable.
We must sit in that discomfort to build and strengthen our civil society. And as a Jewish social service agency, our enduring belief in the values of civil society compels us to serve people beyond the margins of the Jewish community.
And the people we serve are just that. People. They are merely humans. Like you and me. People who, for various reasons, at this moment, are vulnerable and far too often alone. So, we walk with them as they struggle to begin a new life free from addiction, free from an abusive partner or free from an abusive government. We walk with them and try to help them find their path home.
And we know these paths are rarely straight. They wind and twist and rise and fall through the darkness and the dawn. Through fog — through success and failure and back again. We celebrate their small steps because we have witnessed how these small steps can lead to big strides. And we have learned that walking together when the path is uncertain offers people hope, faith and courage. It strengthens the human spirit.
For us, these are timeless concerns that extend far beyond the latest headline or news cycle. And we must never and will never abandon the vulnerable in our community out of fear or for self-preservation. Poverty and hunger have no political affiliation. Addiction and mental illness cross party lines. Unemployment steals dignity on both sides of the aisle. These aren’t partisan issues. Our mission and our work are not political positions; they are moral imperatives.
At JFS, we are resolved to never sacrifice our integrity out of fear. We are resolved to help our clients live out their highest aspirations — and help our community live out our highest values. To remain worthy of our communal stories — of the sacrifice of our ancestors. We become a light unto the nations by striving to fulfill our hopes and dreams, not by succumbing to our fears and suspicions. The eternal flame, like the Statue of Liberty, is a beacon that shines in multiple directions. Across time and space — both toward the sea and toward our shore. Across horizons and in all languages. Just as it did for our ancestors.
We must always stay true to our history and our values — never hardening our hearts. Just as important as what do we do at JFS are the guiding values of why we do it. Our future lacks meaning without understanding the lessons of our past and our place in the present. I find great strength in looking to our tradition and our collective memories to chart a path forward.
It is this spirit that leads people like Thao and Mohamad to work at Jewish Family Service to welcome a refugee from the Ukraine. And Lani to make sure an old man’s letters and photos, his memories and the remnants of his life on this earth, aren’t just tossed in the trash.
As Viktor Frankl wrote, “Being human means being conscious and being responsible.” Our tradition and our experience command us to respond — and we take that command very seriously. We must stay true to who we have always been as a people, even through the discomfort. And this is never easy. And never will be easy. Together we must speak our truths and live our values as individuals and as a community.
At JFS we believe the world that is, is not the world that has to be. And when we walk with the vulnerable in support and solidarity, and when we offer dignity to a person who has time and again been stripped of it, we are doing something that transcends the moment and transcends our individual lives. We are tipping the scales toward life and possibility. Toward hope. And as we give hope to others, they give hope to us all.
By Rabbi Will Berkovitz
Will is CEO of JFS. He and his wife Dr. Lelach Rave, live with their three children in North Seattle. Will is a long-distance runner, avid hiker and backpacker. He particularly enjoys volunteering in the Polack Food Bank and helping with refugee resettlement.