Today the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, like Jewish Federations across North America, sees itself as the "central address" for the Jewish community at large. In Seattle, the Federation is the central organization that represents the interests of the 40,000 Jews who live and work in the greater King County area.
The Federation fosters Jewish education in day school, supplemental, and classrooms without walls; it protects the rights of the community and advocates in a legislative sphere; and it funds rescue, rehabilitation, and relief efforts in Seattle, in Israel, and in more than 60 other countries through its beneficiaries.
The evolution of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle from a small community-wide fund to a multi-million dollar fundraising institution (with a full complement of services) reflects the growth, the development, and the needs of the Seattle Jewish community.
The Jewish community came together in Seattle during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Initial attempts at communal organization included the founding of Jewish welfare societies: first the Hebrew Benevolent Society (1873) covering the entire Puget Sound region, followed by the Ladies Benevolent Society (1892), and then its male counterpart, the Seattle Hebrew Benevolent Society (1895).
Each group addressed the needs of new immigrant populations from Poland, Russia, Turkey and the Isle of Rhodes that were pouring into the region. This infusion of population led to the creation of several religious institutions. Synagogues sprang up, for the most part in a one or two square mile area (the Central Area). They included:
- Bikur Cholim, November 1891 (Orthodox)
- Temple De Hirsch, May 1899 (Reform)
- Congregation Bikur Holim, 1910 (Sephardic Orthodox)
- Congregation Ezra Besaroth, 1914 (Orthodox)-- evolved from Koupa Ozer Dalim Anshe Rhodes, an organization to help the newcomers and needy from the Isle of Rhodes
- Herzl's Congregation, 1906 (first chartered Orthodox and then the first Conservative Jewish institution in Seattle, 1930)
Synagogues served more than the spiritual needs of their congregants. They also built and administered the infrastructure for educational, social service, and religious/life cycle requirements.
The insular nature of the Jewish community in Seattle began to change in the 1920s. Urbanization, growth and prosperity, the ensuing Great Depression, the near annihilation of European Jewry, and the creation of the modern Jewish state of Israel all had an enormous influence on the community. These significant events of the twentieth century ushered in the federated system in Seattle and across North America.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle was created in January 1928. Called the Seattle Jewish Fund, it served as the city's first centralized Jewish umbrella institution. The Seattle Jewish Fund was born out of a communal need to raise funds, allocate them, and evaluate non-local Jewish organizations. Charter board members included representatives from the B'nai B'rith lodge and local Jewish congregations. Fred Fisher served as the first president. A list of the beneficiaries included nine national agencies and 15 Palestinian (pre-1948 Israeli) groups.
At the beginning, the Seattle Jewish Fund experienced many difficulties. Lack of participation, in part due to the Great Depression, hampered this community organization's performance. After four years of trying to break the $16,000-level in fund raising, the organization went into a hiatus.
However by the spring of 1936, leaders of the Seattle community revisited the idea of an umbrella community fund. Community leaders could not ignore the news coming out of Nazi Germany. The monies raised by the reconstituted Federated Jewish Fund would be targeted for rescue and relief operations in Europe and Palestine. One year later the Federated Jewish Fund had raised $37,650 from 560 pledges.
During the 1940s, the Seattle Jewish Community faced the enormous task of raising money to help Jews devastated by the Holocaust. In 1943, Sam Holcenberg was named the first Executive Director to work on behalf of the 10,000 survivors who lived in Seattle.
By 1945, the Seattle Federated Jewish Fund had raised $164,000. That year, representatives of the United Jewish Appeal -- the largest national Jewish philanthropic organization working on behalf of Jews in then-Palestine and in Eastern Europe -- paid a visit to the Board of Directors of the "Federated." They made the case that more dollars were needed to rescue, rehabilitate, and resettle the survivors of the Holocaust. The Seattle community responded by raising $390,000 in 1946. Of this, $100,000 was earmarked for local use. This was the beginning of the Jewish Federation as we know it today.
Since that time, the Federation has gone through several name changes: in 1950, it became the Federated Fund and Council of Seattle; in 1966, it was renamed the Jewish Federation and Council of Greater Seattle; in 1973, it took on the name it bears today, the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.
The names reflect the growth and dispersion of the population from the central area to the suburbs of the greater Seattle area. Today the name demonstrates the umbrella nature of the organization. The beneficiaries include the Stroum Jewish Community Center, the Jewish Family Service, the four Jewish day schools in the area, the Hillel at the University of Washington, the Jewish Education Council, the Jewish Transcript (the community newspaper), and the United Jewish Appeal.
The UJA is still in the business of rescue, relief, and rehabilitation. During the 1990s, the Federation system rescued more than 800,000 people, fleeing perilous situation in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Ethiopia.
The balance between local and overseas allocations underscores the commitment of the Jewish Federation to the Jewish act of Tzdakah. Tsdakah (Justice) is the Jewish expression of philanthropy. The idea that each Jew is responsible, one for the other, is the imperative of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.