“You know Josh’s story? I’d love to have more Mr. Gortlers!” said Carmen Ortiz Hendricks, dean of Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work, amid a chorus of cheers for the new Joshua H. Gortler and Sarah B. Gortler Scholarship in Geriatric Social Work at her school. A festive reception at the Seattle penthouse home of Becky Benaroya on Oct. 18 brought YU’s President, Richard Joel, to Seattle to join longtime friends and family of the Gortlers in honoring these two pillars of Seattle social service.
The Gortlers are “outstanding examples of the kind of person the university tries to turn out,” Joel said. “Look at Josh’s life — I could write it as a poster child for YU. He has the drive to say, ‘I’m here for a reason.’ You have a YU couple, Josh and Sarah [Stern, YU’s women’s college]: they both brought parallel values.”
Josh Gortler’s story — before Seattle, before Sarah, before social work — begins in Poland, as a scrappy child on the run across Siberia and Uzbekistan, fleeing the Nazis. He passed through Displaced Person camps, where he became a Bar Mitzvah, and on to Arizona, where his parents packed him a couple of sandwiches for what they were sure would be a trip of a few hours, and sent him off on a bus to New York. He would attend high school and college at America’s only Orthodox Jewish university, and earn his MSW as a member of the second class of graduates from YU’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work.
“I saw how much the social workers did with DP camp survivors, helping them with their trauma and with putting their lives back together,” Josh Gortler told Susan Myers, YU’s principal gifts officer, who also attended the Seattle celebration. “I felt like I wanted to dedicate my career to helping people and giving back to society as well.”
For 46 years in Seattle, Josh Gortler worked hard to turn the profession of Jewish senior care into a national example of excellence. As head of Seattle’s award-winning Caroline Kline Galland Center, the visionary behind the building of The Summit at First Hill assisted and independent-living facility, and now president of the Kline Galland Foundation, he has turned his expertise around to serve the future of his chosen career.
On his retirement as CEO of the Kline Galland home, the board wanted to give Gortler a generous gift. Asked what he would like, he requested funding for a scholarship to train geriatric social workers. Launched by that board with $150,000, the fund — thanks to Gortler’s talent as a fundraiser — has now reached over $200,000. According to Joel, the plan will be either to award five $2,000 scholarships or two $10,000 scholarships. The Gortler awards will give first priority to undergraduate students of YU and Stern who plan to attend YU’s Wurzweiler school and specialize in geriatric social work.
The cost of the social work degree without financial aid would be about $60,000, according to Dean Ortiz Hendricks. Myers pointed out that Gortler’s entire education at YU was on scholarship, making this gift “a wonderful way for him to give back.”
According to Ortiz Hendricks, Wurzweiler students in geriatric social work benefit from access to “a huge population of diverse older adults. Cultural competence is going to come into the field in a strong way,” she said.
The first-ever Latina woman to head a Jewish school of social work, she noted that YU’s school of social work is considered “very small,” she said. “Four hundred students, the smallest in New York. We know every one of our students.”
Some 60 people, including family, Seattle Jewish community leaders and longtime Kline Galland staff, attended the event. Becky Benaroya and her husband Jack, who died earlier this year, have maintained a deep friendship with the Gortlers. Becky Benaroya served as a longtime Kline Galland board member.
“At YU we combine great text training and an environment that says ‘your studies here are bigger than you.’ Young people today want to know that they matter — my life matters, for myself and others,” Joel said. “Which is why I’m so gratified that when Josh thinks of his legacy this is what he thinks of.”
Denver native Sarah Barash Gortler has long served Seattle’s senior population as well — as a well-respected social worker for Jewish Family Service. The two are avid world travelers and concertgoers, proud parents and grandparents, including one grandchild now beginning studies at Yeshiva University.
Josh Gortler is a natural performer who can let loose with a wild rendition of “Tumbalalaika” or hold a high school audience spellbound with his personal story. He frequently reaches out to students across the state as part of the Washington State Holocaust Education Research Center speakers’ bureau.