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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Karen Treiger’s Soul is Filled with Joy

Sometimes you hear a story, and you just know it has to be told. And sometimes you realize the only person who’s going to tell that story is you. 

For years, Karen Treiger had heard the stories about how her in-laws met in the forest outside the Treblinka Death Camp during the Holocaust. Sam escaped after taking part in a small but mighty uprising in the camp. In the forest he met Esther, who’d been hiding there with the help of neighboring farmers for a year. The pair hid in the forest for another year before the country was liberated by the Soviets, and they eventually made their way to America. 

Karen had always been fascinated by the story and wanted to make sure it was preserved but wasn’t sure she was the one to do it. She was a lawyer who had never had dreams of being an author—she’d never even written more than law briefs and legal documents. But when her father passed away about five years ago, and her youngest daughter was getting ready to head to college, it seemed like the time was right.  

“The stars aligned,” Karen says. “I knew if I was ever going to do it, this was it.” 

So she quit her law practice and dove into the story—and she hasn’t looked back. Karen began the process of writing “My Soul is Filled with Joy: A Holocaust Story,” with countless hours of research. She read boxes of letters, traveled to Poland twice, met long-lost relatives, and walked through the same forest her in-laws met and hid so many years ago. She was even able to connect with three of the surviving children from the family that helped hide Sam and Esther. And slowly the story morphed from Karen’s original plan.  

“Their story became my story,” she says. Karen eventually structured the book in two parts: one that recounts Sam and Esther’s story, and a second part that focuses on her own journey through the past.  

Karen is already being recognized for her work: she won a 2019 Independent Publisher Book Award bronze medal in the world history category. And now she’s thrilled to bring her family’s story to the J. Karen grew up on Mercer Island, and joyfully recalls hours spent in the JCC pool at swim team practice. “Coming back and bringing a piece of myself as an adult to this space where I have so many amazing memories from growing up is really exciting.” 

The fact that her talk is on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) makes it even more powerful. She acknowledges how difficult it can be to really feel the reality of the atrocity when you just think of the 6 million Jews murdered during the Holocaust as a generic number—and that’s part of what she’s trying to combat with her book. “By telling the story of two people, you can better understand the whole,” she says. “My hope is that it helps bring the 6 million into focus in a way that’s meaningful.” 

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J Camp Runs in the Family

Passing down traditions through generations is something that everyone hopes for. For some, it’s a family recipe or vacation spot – for Linda Morgan, it’s summer camp at the SJCC.

Linda first attended the J’s summer camp as a child in the early ’60s. Years later, when she needed a summer camp for her own children, Melissa and Todd, she knew exactly where they’d go. “There was just no question it was going to be the J,” Linda says.

Summer camp is a formative experience for so many children—and Linda’s kids are no exception. Linda recalls a particular summer of J Camp that sent Melissa off in a totally new trajectory. Though she’d never been a theater kid, at age 10, Melissa attended drama camp at the J, and ended up getting the lead in “Peter Pan.” Linda marveled at her daughter on stage, with a booming singing voice and stage presence no one knew she had.

“It was really transformative for her,” Linda says. Melissa continued to perform throughout middle and high school, and when she went off to law school, she was cast in their annual “Law Revue” production. One of the writers was a third year—someone she never would have crossed paths with if not for this show—and they later got married.

“I’m going to go so far as to say that because of the JCC launching Melissa in a theater direction, she met her husband,” Linda says with a laugh. Melissa and her husband now live on Mercer Island and their two daughters, Ariella and Sasha. The kids, now 16 and 14, followed in their mom and grandma’s footsteps, spending many childhood summers at J Camp.

Linda is glad she’s been able to pass on the joy of summers at the J to her kids and grandkids, and is happy to see that J Camp continues to be an annual tradition for so many families. “There’s really nothing better,” she says. “In an age where kids are pulled in so many different directions, camp brings them together—back to their heritage, their traditions, and their community.”

And, above all, she adds, “It’s a lot fun and the kids have a ball.” What more could you ask for?

You can help start a lifelong J Camp tradition for kids this summer by participating in our Campership Scamper. We’re raising funds for J Camp scholarships to help every kid go to camp and create amazing memories, just like the Morgan family. Join us on Sunday, May 19 for a half-mile inflatable obstacle course for a cause! Don’t want to Scamper? You can still help a camper! Learn how you can help.

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