Drawn To The Island -- Jewish Center On Mercer Island Becomes A Community Magnet
Seattle Times Eastside Bureau
At first blush, Mercer Island looks much like any other suburb on Lake Washington - modest cul-de-sacs and millionaires' estates, country clubs and public horse trails. The school district is better known than the shopping district.
Good public education and easy access to Seattle often are cited as Mercer Island's primary attractions.
For Jewish residents, there is another draw: a rare sense of community.
Roughly 16,800 Jews live on the Eastside, according to the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. While there are no precise numbers of Jewish residents on Mercer Island, estimates put the total at around 4,300, or 20 percent of the island's population. That would earn Mercer Island the distinction of having the highest percentage of Jewish residents of any municipality in the state. The Jewish Federation estimates a total of 35,000 to 40,000 Jews live in King and Kitsap counties and Everett.
Much of the influx to Mercer Island came after 1969, when leaders of the Stroum Jewish Community Center of Greater Seattle decided to build a new facility on the north end of the island.
Today, evidence of Jewish life is everywhere: on the sidewalks Saturday morning as men and boys wearing yarmulkes walk to services held at the Yeshiva High School on Island Crest Way; in the grocery stores that stock aisles of kosher goods and Passover foods; on posters around town that advertise a blood drive at a local synagogue.
"When they chose to build the Jewish Community Center on Mercer Island, they created a magnet," said Howard Droker, an attorney who is researching local Jewish history.
Part of the move to suburbs
The Jewish migration to Mercer Island happened in a relatively short time, with religious institutions leap-frogging population growth.
In many ways, the burgeoning Jewish community on the island followed traditional Eastside growth patterns as families fled Seattle for open spaces, safe streets and successful schools across the lake.
There has been a German-Jewish presence in Seattle since the mid-1860s, and Jewish settlers had a significant impact on the early civic and political life of the city. One of the pioneers, Bailey Gatzert, served as City Council member and president of the Chamber of Commerce before being elected Seattle's first and only Jewish mayor in 1875.
In the 1880s, Jewish life revolved around Yesler Way, where Eastern European immigrants established synagogues, schools, kosher butchers and coffee houses. After World War II, much of the Orthodox community moved to Seward Park.
Half a century ago, only a few Jewish families lived on Mercer Island, but many Seattle Jews had a favorable impression of the wooded isle, said Merle Cohn.
Cohn, 80, remembers taking the ferry from Leschi to Fortuna Park on Mercer Island before the war for huge picnics sponsored by various Jewish congregations. More than 700 people would gather to play water sports and swing to big-band music in the dance hall.
"The Jewish community got a taste of Mercer Island from that beginning," said Cohn. "When people went to the suburbs, a lot of people were attracted to Mercer Island."
An attorney, Cohn moved to Mercer Island from the Madrona neighborhood 45 years ago, when there were maybe 10 Jewish families on the island. Like many other early Jewish residents, Cohn said he chose Mercer Island because of its school district's reputation. He lived in an apartment before saving enough money to purchase his own house.
Why choose the island?
For religious Jews, Mercer Island offered a lonely existence. Throughout the 1950s and mid-60s, there were no synagogues, and few grocery stores carried kosher foods.
When the Jewish Community Center outgrew its facility at the Elks Club Building at Fourth Avenue and Spring Street in Seattle, the island seemed an unlikely candidate for a new location.
The board of directors of the community center commissioned a demographic study to forecast where the center of the Jewish community would be in 20 years. Predicting widespread population growth on the Eastside, the study suggested the best place for the new facility would be in the middle of Lake Washington. Mercer Island was the next best thing.
Nonetheless, building the community center on Mercer Island wasn't a decision that garnered uniform support, said Meta Buttnick, who served on the board of the Jewish Community Center at the time. Congregations in Seward Park wanted it in their neighborhood; the burgeoning Jewish population in North Seattle wanted it there. When it came time for the groundbreaking, though, the community supported the board's choice, said Buttnick.
Community built on tradition
In 1969, Cohn and others purchased the present site for the Jewish Community Center at 3801 East Mercer Way. That same year, 46 families founded the Temple B'nai Torah, which held its first services at Mercer Island Presbyterian Church.
Cohn found another piece of available land across the street from the Jewish Community Center, and persuaded Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation to buy it. In 1970, construction began for a new synagogue.
Herzl-Ner Tamid now has a congregation of about 900 families; roughly 300 live on Mercer Island.
"The Jewish Community Center came over, and that brought the synagogue over. It was a migration," said Cohn. "I don't think there was a conscious effort to bring housing. We didn't know that would follow. But, lo and behold, people started to want to live there."
Soon, grocery stores began to carry kosher goods, and Jewish life thrived.
In 1988, an orthodox group, Minyan Mizrach, formed on the island. Four years later, Northwest Yeshiva High School remodeled a former Baptist church.
Minyan Mizrach eventually evolved into Shevet Achim, a congregation that once held services at a shopping center on the south end of the island. About 40 families belong to Shevet Achim, and attendance is growing, said Rabbi Yechazkel Kornfeld.
"One of the reasons people move to the island is because there are a lot of Jews there," he said. "Some people moved only because there is an orthodox synagogue within walking distance."
Orthodox tradition prohibits the faithful from driving to Sabbath services.
There have been sad moments in the Jewish experience on the island. In 1977, two vandals set fire to the Temple B'nai Torah. Rabbi Jacob Singer donned fire gear and rushed into the burning building and saved two Torahs, but the temple was destroyed. More recently, a small pipe bomb exploded on the grounds of the Jewish Community Center, near the Holocaust memorial.
Temple B'nai Torah moved to Bellevue last year. The congregation looked for property on Mercer Island, but could not find enough land to accommodate its expansion plans, said Rabbi Jim Mirel.
While the Jewish population is expected to follow demographic patterns to the eastern reaches of King County, the island will remain a stronghold of Jewish life in the Northwest, said Mirel.
"As long as the JCC is on Mercer Island, it will be one focal point of the Jewish community."
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