SJCC Blog

Faces of the J: From Preschool to “I Do”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did Emily and Aaron Alhadeff’s parents realize they were matchmaking when they decided to send their kids to the SJCC Early Childhood School? Probably not, says Aaron with a laugh—it just turned out to be an added bonus.

The couple became good friends in preschool (“we’re standing next to each other in every one of our class pictures,” Emily says) and stayed connected over the years. In fourth grade, Emily wrote Aaron that classic elementary school note of romantic angst: “Do you like me? Check yes or no.” The rest, as they say, is SJCC history.

When Aaron returned to Seattle after college, the J was the first place he volunteered. It was a natural step, given how connected both he and Emily had been over the years. They both went to J Camp, Aaron participated in the JCC Maccabi Games (a Jewish Olympics-style competition), and he later went on to serve as the J’s board president, from 2012-14. When they had kids, they knew they’d send them to preschool at the J. “There wasn’t even a thought to go anywhere else,” Emily says.

Several of their preschool friends had kids in ECS around the same time, and Emily and Aaron watched as their kids began forming the same types of lasting friendships they had. Plus, their parents would come to events alongside the same friends they used to see when Emily and Aaron’s generation was in preschool, but now they were attending as grandparents. “It really came full circle for all of us,” Aaron says.

As their kids have gotten older—Max is 13 and Charlie is 11—the J isn’t as integrated into their daily lives as it once was, but it’s an organization they’re still dedicated to supporting. “We realized that if neither of us ever stepped foot in here again—never went to another carnival or film festival or had another kid in any program—it was still an important place to support, because it remains a backbone for community and continuity for everyone,” Aaron says.

This community has helped shaped so much of their lives, and they want those strong connections to be available to everyone – whether they’re Jewish or not, whether they have generations of Seattle roots or just moved here last week. “Knowing there’s a place with a low barrier point of entry that’s accepting of everyone, where finances don’t need to be a barrier, and that’s welcoming from both a Jewish perspective and a human perspective is extremely important to us,” Aaron says.

As their kids grow up, Emily and Aaron are confident the boys will stay connected to the J. It’s so woven into the fabric of their family, they don’t feel the need to tell their kids the importance of the organization. Rather, they show them through their active involvement. “They just know. It’s organic.” Emily says. “As long as they can remember, the J has been in their lives.”

The J has had an invaluable impact on their lives, and they know it’s been the same for countless families over the years. “We’re not a unique story,” Aaron says. “But we are representative of a lot of the good the J does—both that we’ve been able to give and to receive. For us, for our parents, and for our kids.”

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Celebrate Generations of Friendships, Traditions + Family

For so many families, the Stroum Jewish Community Center of Greater Seattle is simply part of their DNA. 

They grew up here—from preschool and J Camp to volunteer committees and board presidencies. It’s not uncommon to hear stories of people who are still best friends with—or even married to—the friends they made in the J’s Early Childhood School, to talk to adults who played basketball here as kids and now coach their children’s Dinky Dunkers team, or to see multigenerational families making the J part of their holiday traditions year after year.

In 2019, the SJCC is celebrating its 50th anniversary on Mercer Island and its 70th in greater Seattle. In that time, the J has had 34 board presidents, two different names, and expanded its programs to reach more and more families, but, says longtime member Sharon Lott, its heart hasn’t changed.

“It’s still a home away from home where people open their hearts to others and where everyone is welcome,” she says. “There may be more people and programs, the building may change, but the values are still the same.”

Throughout this year, we’re sharing stories of families who’ve been impacted by the J—and impacted the J in return. Three longtime J families—the Lotts, Alhadeffs, and Fishers—reflect on their generations of involvement.

The Lott Family
Three Generations of Best Friends

“There’s something special about this place,” Sharon Lott says. “The people you meet here, you kind of fall in love with them in a sense. It’s a little bit magical.”

Sharon and her husband, Marty, have been a part of the SJCC on Mercer Island since it began—literally. They were at the groundbreaking for this building in 1968, shovels in hand. Marty’s father, Manny, had been part of the group that helped fundraise for the Mercer Island facility. Both families had been involved long before the move to Mercer Island: from dances at the downtown Seattle location, to BBYO meetings, to card games and workout sessions. “The J has touched every single person in my family,” Sharon says.

One of Sharon and Marty’s strongest connections is with the Early Childhood School, where their two sons, Jeremy and Jordan, attended preschool, and where three generations of best friendships began. “It’s where we met our very best friends who are still our best friends to this day,” Sharon says. “My children and their children became best friends in ECS and now my grandchildren and their grandchildren are best friends too.”

Finding lifelong friends at the J can happen at any stage of life. For Sharon’s mom, Frances, it didn’t happen until after her husband passed away in 1980. In search of community, she started volunteering with the J’s Golden Agers club. “It was such a good salvation for her,” Sharon says. She began to teach Sephardic cooking classes, learned to swim, and made amazing friends. “It was the best thing that ever happened to her.”

Passing the Jewish connection—and particularly her Sephardic heritage—down through the generations is something that’s extremely important to Sharon, and it led her to create Sephardic Day at the J in 2017. This community festival was a celebration of the food, music, language, and traditions of Sephardic culture, Jews who hail from the Mediterranean. “I really wanted to do something so my grandchildren would know where they came from, know their heritage, and understand why growing up Sephardic was so important to me,” Sharon says. She was thrilled the program reached far beyond her own grandchildren—more than 550 people attended that first festival. “People came out of the woodwork,” she says. “They had such a sense of pride to see their culture celebrated.”

Over the generations, Sharon and her family have been grateful to have the J as a hub for the community and their family. “It’s so important for people to be in a place with Jewish values and ideas, where they get to have pride in their Jewish identity, where they can understand what being Jewish means.” That’s why the Lott family has supported the J for so many years and will continue to do so, Sharon says. “We’re fortunate to be here and enjoy the J, just like our parents, our grandparents, our children, and our grandchildren,” Sharon says. “I want my grandchildren to have the same life-shaping experiences Marty and I had here. We want to perpetuate it for the future.”

The Alhadeff Family
From Preschool to “I Do”

Did Emily and Aaron Alhadeff’s parents realize they were matchmaking when they decided to send their kids to the SJCC Early Childhood School? Probably not, says Aaron with a laugh—it just turned out to be an added bonus.

The couple became good friends in preschool (“we’re standing next to each other in every one of our class pictures,” Emily says) and stayed connected over the years. In fourth grade, Emily wrote Aaron that classic elementary school note: “Do you like me? Check yes or no.” The rest, as they say, is SJCC history.

When Aaron returned to Seattle after college, the J was the first place he volunteered. It was a natural step, given how connected both he and Emily had been over the years. They both went to J Camp, Aaron participated in the JCC Maccabi Games (a Jewish Olympics-style competition), and he later went on to serve as the J’s board president, from 2012-14. When they had kids, they knew they’d send them to preschool at the J. “There wasn’t even a thought to go anywhere else,” Emily says.

As their kids have gotten older—Max is 13 and Charlie is 11—the J isn’t as integrated into their daily lives as it once was, but it’s an organization

they’re still dedicated to supporting. “We realized that if neither of us ever stepped foot in here again—never went to another carnival or film festival or had another kid in any program—it was still an important place to support, because it remains a backbone for community and continuity for everyone,” Aaron says.

As their kids grow up, Emily and Aaron are confident the boys will stay connected to the J. It’s so woven into the fabric of their family, they don’t feel the need to tell their kids the importance of the organization. Rather, they show them through their active involvement. “They just know. It’s organic.” Emily says. “As long as they can remember, the J has been in their lives.”

The J has had an invaluable impact on their lives, and they know it’s been the same for countless families over the years. “We’re not a unique story,” Aaron says. “But we are representative of a lot of the good the J does—both that we’ve been able to give and to receive. For us, for our parents, and for our kids.”

The Fisher Family
The Ties that Bind Generations

Over the years, Eddie Fisher and his family have celebrated countless milestones at the J. Those special occasions—from first days of preschool to his granddaughter Paige’s bat mitzvah—are often marked with a family photo on the wooden bench in front of the building. The bench is special to the Fishers because it’s dedicated to the memory of Babs Fisherz”l, Eddie’s wife, who passed away in 2004. For Kim Fisher, Eddie’s daughter-in-law, the spot perfectly encapsulates their connection at the J. “It’s a symbol of family, commitment, friendship, and our future,” she says.

The J connection has always run solidly through the Fisher family. Eddie’s three sons (Eric, Rodney, and Craig) grew up at the J and Eddie was Board President from 1980 to 1982. Kim has been involved at the J for over 40 years, from gymnastics classes to the Board of Directors. Most of Eddie’s nine grandchildren have spent countless hours at the J. Rodney and his wife, Lauren, have three daughters who are wrapping up a memorable summer at J Camp: 15-year-old Dani has been a counselor in training for Performing Arts Camp, and 13-year-old twins Ava and Barrett have been adventuring around Seattle with X Camp. “Dani loves sharing her passion for theater with kids of all ages, and Ava and Barrett have made so many new friends and can’t wait to return next summer and follow in their sister’s footsteps,” Lauren says. Paige and Drew, Kim and Craig’s children, both attended the J’s Early Childhood School and J Camp, and have helped launch several teen volunteering and social action programs.

Keeping his family connected to the J from generation to generation (dor l’dor in Hebrew) is important to Eddie, but it isn’t a passive activity. “Passing down my stories, personal experiences, and love for community isn’t something you can just hand down to the next generation,” he says. “The respect and sentimentality I have for the JCC and our Jewish community has to be shown and felt, it has to be a priority. That’s the tie that binds my generation to the next.”

Eddie is thrilled to see the J continue as a thriving—and critical—hub for our community. “It adds value to a person’s quality of life,” he says. “It has done that for me and I hope it will continue to do that for many generations to come.” Kim echoes that optimism: “So much is changing about how we interact with one another, how we prioritize our time, how we work and play. My hope is that the J continues to be a place where we can stay connected.”

If Eddie’s grandchildren are any indication, the J is on the right path. They have deep roots here and he doesn’t see that changing any time soon. Paige agrees: “As I graduate high school and go to college and beyond I hope that at every phase of my future
I can find a way to connect at the J.”

Seeing younger generations have such a deep connection to a place that means so much to him has been truly meaningful to Eddie. “Seeing my grandchildren involved in the community is what it’s all about,” he says. “They are the future of the J and I couldn’t be more proud!”

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The Lullaby of the Baby Whisperer 

It’s not every day you get to meet a bonafide Baby Whisperer. At the Stroum Jewish Community Center’s Early Childhood School, we’ve been lucky to have haour own Baby Whisperer on staff for the past 30 years.  

Ask any parent whose child has been in Elaine Soeun’s class, and they’ll point to her calm, soft-spoken nature and her unmatched ability to soothe and connect with the children in her care. “She truly loves each and every child as if they were her own,” said Carrie Stull, Director, Early Childhood.  

Elaine has worked with children in several of our younger age groups over the years, but she was always drawn to working with infants. “I love that you can watch them go through so many stages of development within a very short amount of time,” she said.  

Her baby whispering skills extend beyond the children in her classroom to impact their parents as well.  Jessica Duitch recalled bringing her three-month-old daughter, Charley, to the J for the first time as “the scariest thing I’ve ever done.” But the moment she entered her daughter’s classroom and met Elaine, a sense of calm washed over her—a feeling she was lucky enough to have again a few years later when her younger son was in Elaine’s class too. “Elaine was the reason I was able to drop off my kids at three months old and not worry about going back to work. I knew they’d be taken care of.”

Elaine also took care of Leigh Anne Kiviat’s three sons, and she echoed Jessica’s sentiment. “Knowing my babies were with Elaine each day made such a difference for us. They were loved, safe, hugged, and happy—no parent could ask for anything more,” she said. 

This feeling of calm is something Elaine has also helped foster in generations of ECS teachers, said Associate Director Tara Bloomer, who worked with Elaine for over 12 years. “She has been such a role model for all of us for what it looks like to have endless patience and how to remain calm even when eight infants need something at the same time,” Bloomer said. 

Just after her retirement in April, Elaine was honored with the Mercer Island Preschool Association’s 2019 Exceptional Educator Award, which is presented to an individual who has made extraordinary contributions to the city’s preschool community. Her legacy continues in the lives of the hundreds of children and families she has impacted over the years

“I’ve loved getting to know so many lovely families over the span of my career,” Soeun said, and she especially loves seeing children who’ve graduated from her class—many of whom are adults now with their own children who attend ECS. “When they come up to give me a hug, some of them are taller than me now!” 

As she heads into retirement, Elaine is looking forward to spending more time with her family, catching up on TV shows, and traveling around the world. The J community has been truly enriched by having Elaine on our staff, and we’re extremely proud of the work she’s done—she’ll be missed! 

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Putting their money where their values are

So many of us start to figure out who we are and what we believe in during our teen years. We discover we have strong opinions and a voice that’s worth listening to. As the participants of the Stroum Jewish Community Center’s Giving Initiative for Teens discovered, that can be a powerful feeling.

“It’s important to use your voice,” said 17-year-old Boaz Malakoff. “You can’t be afraid to be the lone voice advocating for what you believe in.”

Malakoff, a junior at Mercer Island High School, was one of 34 high schoolers participating in the J’s new philanthropy program, the Giving Initiative for Teens (GIFT). It’s part of a national program that teaches teens about grant-making, non-profit management, fundraising, and Jewish values. It encourages engagement in the community and empowers teens to be part of the grant-making process from start to finish, as they work together to raise and allocate funds to distribute to local non-profits.

The results of the inaugural year? More than $21,000 in grants and a group of engaged and energized teens who are confident in standing up for what they believe in.

Guided by the Jewish values of “compassion” and “do not stand idly by,” the teens selected two funding priorities for the year: domestic violence and mental health.

They conducted site visits of the applicant organizations, which inspired 16-year-old Danielle Lavitt, because it brought their priorities into focus. “I don’t have to face these challenges in my daily life, so it was good to get insight into the issues that exist and what people really need,” she said.

Taking the things they learned during the site visits and making decisions that would have measurable impact was important to Matt Feldman, 16. “It’s about helping people and seeing the impact our values can have on others.”

When it came time to decide which organizations to award grants to, Malakoff said the discussions were always lively and passionate, and helped him realize his belief system can be applied outside of synagogue. “It showed me that Judaism can have a real-world impact beyond the spiritual aspect,” he said. “GIFT helped me figure out how to use Jewish values to make a difference.”

Not only did the program get the teens to explore their Jewish values, it also connected them to Jewish teens from across the community. Although the participants all come from Jewish backgrounds—attending Jewish summer camps, having a bar/bat mitzvah, or participating in youth groups—Lavitt noted that it can be hard to stay connected when they’re pulled in so many different directions. “It’s hard to get to temple as often as I used to, but my monthly GIFT meetings helped me stay connected to the community and to other Jewish teens,” she said.


The first year of GIFT wrapped up on May 22 with a Grant Ceremony to award the money they had raised to six local organizations: Eastside Legal Assistance Program, Jewish Family Service, Kent Youth and Family Services, King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, Mary’s Place, and Sound Mental Health.

Applications are now open for the 2019-20 school year. Mentors and teachers can also nominate students. Details and application forms can be found here. Application deadline is May 31.

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