In nine short years, he went from intern to director of Jewish Family Service. Now celebrating his 25th year with the Seattle social service agency, Ken Weinberg attributes his success at JFS to his enjoyment of conversation.
Even more than talking, Weinberg enjoys listening: He likes to hear peopleâ€™s stories. His way of participating in this interview was a good example. He was entirely there â€” not responding to phone calls or interruptions. And just like any good conversationalist, he was willing to reveal something personal about himself â€” in this case, his 25-year collection of appointment books.
JFS is a very different place from what it was in 1975, when Weinberg began his career there as an intern. From a staff of 12, the agency has grown to 95. “It was a little organization in a little space. A Ma and Pop store with great people doing great things, but a few things. Itâ€™s turned into a QFC with far more and improved products,” Weinberg said. There were no group homes, no domestic violence program, no presence on the Eastside. JFSâ€™ growth responds to the tripling of the Jewish population during that period and to the agencyâ€™s vigorous outreach. It also reflects the expanded role of the agency.
“In the 1950s, â€™60s and â€™70s, many Jewish Family Services were counseling agencies,” he said. He has participated in, and led, the expansion of agency services to needy and vulnerable groups â€” elderly, low income and mentally ill.
“This is a great community,” he said. “If you let people know about a need, they will help meet it. I told a small group about the need for group homes, and a few people bought houses and gave them to the agency. There is an incredible willingness and generosity.” The Jewish presence in philanthropy in Seattle is extraordinary. “Weâ€™ve been helping each other as long as thereâ€™s been a civilization in the world,” said Weinberg in the videotape made for JFSâ€™s 100th anniversary.
Weinberg had planned to move on after graduate studies in social work at the University of Washington, but his internship at JFS has extended into a job as a counselor, and eventually as director of the agency in 1984. Seattle became home for his family.
Weinberg says he has little to regret from his tenure at JFS. He thought he would regret the decision to buy the present building at 1601 16th Avenue. He didnâ€™t know how they would get all the money they needed, and visions of “what ifs” filled his dreams for weeks, “but I had to look assured,” he confided. A related regret is that the agency didnâ€™t buy the lot across the street, which now houses a large apartment building. His office faces the building, so he has plenty of opportunity to think about that choice.
One thing he might have done differently is start an endowment fund early in his tenure. He says he didnâ€™t have the vision at the time, focusing instead on todayâ€™s problems and programs. “Itâ€™s about having enough money for the next 20, 50, 100 years.” The fund is now in place, and Weinberg is thinking ahead about future community needs. He wants JFS to be a safety net for all Jews; no one should be turned away.
This silver anniversary has the flavor of a love fest. One day the staff declared him “King Ken” for a day. Dressed as courtiers, they scattered rose petals where he walked. They amused him with songs, poems and skits.
The formal community celebration was more elegant (although not necessarily more fun) â€” a gala at Benaroya Hall with 550 people in attendance. Weinberg has found all the honors overwhelming. He showed the special edition of the Moss Haggadah with 50 pages of tributes.
Most unexpected for Weinberg was the naming of the administrative wing of the JFS building for him.
He summed it up by saying: “I canâ€™t believe how lucky I am to have this job. I donâ€™t have to change my identity when I come to the office. Itâ€™s important to me to be who I am â€” not one thing in my life and something else in my job. I can do at the job what I want as a person â€” to help other Jews. How could I ever leave this job?”
(Judith Stoloff is a community planner, chaplain and free-lance writer in Seattle.)