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Jewish Family Services head believes people influence world one-by-one

Deborah Taylor

Deborah (Taylor) Press

Emergency assistance, referrals, senior meals, home visits, telephone reassurance, volunteer recruitment, domestic-violence outreach and food baskets are among ways the Spokane Area Jewish Family Services seeks to “heal” or “repair” life for people in Inland Northwest Jewish congregations—Temple Beth Shalom, Congregation Beth Chaverim and Congregation Ner Tamid in Spokane and the Jewish Community of the Palouse—and anyone in need of social services.

“While most who call are from the Jewish community, as a nonprofit we support anyone in need.  As part of our Chanukiah of Sharing program last year, we provided a woman with a Christmas dinner and gifts for her children,” said Deborah Taylor, director.

Six years ago, she and her family moved to Spokane from Teaneck, N.J., to be near her sister, who has lived here more than 25 years.

Story on 2012
Rabbi Tamar Malino.

“Most religious faiths value the same things, such as working for peace on earth and doing good deeds.  Judaism is deed oriented,” she said in a recent interview.  “What counts is what you do on earth, the legacy of your deeds.  That is your spiritual legacy for future generations.”

Deborah says few people affect the world in grand ways, but most affect it “person-by-person or community-by-community” by doing good.

“If we change one person, we change the world.  If we destroy one life, we destroy the world.  If we save one life, we save the world,” she said.  “Often we do not know that or how we have helped someone.”

She told of conversing several times on the phone with a woman, hearing her story and offering her support in her struggles.  Later she met the woman at a gathering.  The woman told Deborah that she had “helped put her on a new path with her family” and that her children became involved with the youth group and were growing in their Judaism.

“We do not know what will or will not click, so it’s important just to honor people we meet in our daily lives,” Deborah said.

Her experience stuffing envelopes for the Congress of Racial Equality during junior high in New York City started her on the path of helping, followed by her being politically active during high school and college.

Deborah Taylor

Deborah Taylor converses
with people who call to give reassurance and referrals.

She studied at a French high school in Manhattan and earned a bachelor’s degree in French at Syracuse University.  After earning a degree in physical therapy, she worked first at Harlem Hospital and then at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Medical Center in Manhattan until 1986.

She married Lee Taylor in 1985 and lived in Teaneck, N.J., stopping work for a while to rear their two sons.  She started doing physical therapy part time, providing home care for geriatric patients, many of whom were discharged from a hospital prematurely. 

It was stressful work. 

At the age of 44, when her sons were four and eight years old, she stopped work to recuperate from breast cancer.  Within a few months her father died and her husband was “downsized” from his company.

“After chemotherapy and recuperation, I decided to find a job I liked,” said Deborah, who has had no recurrences.  “Having cancer taught me about life. I became more grateful, thankful for every moment.”

A job “fell into my lap” as outreach director for the New Jersey/West Hudson Valley Council of the Union for Reform Judaism.

She worked with intermarried couples, their parents and their grandparents; served people exploring Judaism, teens learning about their Jewish identity and conversion candidates, and led workshops nationally and in the district’s 52 congregations. 

Deborah said her husband was not Jewish when they married, but converted after nine years.  Their sons are Jewish and respect his mother’s commitment as a Christian.

Deborah was born into an ethnically and culturally Jewish family.  They were not observant.

She investigated Judaism among other religions when she sought a spiritual community.

“When I chose Judaism, I knew I belonged,” she said.  “My children have gone to Hebrew school, Sunday school and synagogue, which I missed growing up.”

Her respect and appreciation for aging people began with knowing her grandparents and some great grandparents.  Her great grandfather died when she was six.  She remembers her grandmother taking her to visit her great-grandmother in Brooklyn when she was eight.

“We walked into her house.  I saw a petite, white-haired woman,” Deborah recalled.

“Mom, it’s me, Jenny,” said her grandmother.

“Jenny, come in from playing,” said her great-grandmother.

It was Deborah’s first encounter with dementia, which she has met many times in physical therapy and work with elderly people through Jewish Family Services.

“It was weird, but didn’t scare me.  I was curious.  My grandmother explained it.  They spoke Yiddish, and my grandmother translated,” Deborah said.

She values the insight, wisdom and experience of older people.

“They have much to teach.  We would not be in the messes we are in if we listened,” she believes. 

“Even people who lose short-term memory can give pearls of wisdom,” she said, telling of meeting her husband after following the advice of a 92-year-old physical therapy patient.

Deborah also gained insight on the role of religion in healing.

When a colleague—who was trying to convince a blind, diabetic man at Harlem Hospital to be fitted for a prosthetic leg after his had been amputated—took a day off, Deborah took over.  Using a walker was taxing his system. 

“I asked him how he liked using the walker.  He said it was better than nothing, but he knew that God would make his leg grow back,” she said.

So Deborah, then 22, responded with respect for his faith: “Okay, God will make your leg grow back, but do you think God would be mad if in the interim you used a prosthetic leg?”  He thought about it and decided to try one, so his life was much more pleasant.

“Then the concept of faith was alien to me,” she said, “I realized whether I agreed with his idea about God, I needed to respect his faith before I could help him gain a less stressful way to walk.”

When the Taylors moved to Spokane, Lee found work in a startup company and now is director of Camp Fire USA.  When Deborah began her job search, she wanted something in the nonprofit community, eventually finding a match just over a year ago with the Spokane Area Jewish Family Services (SAJFS).

Its board recently decided to provide services for people suffering domestic violence, so Deborah took training with the FaithTrust Institute in Seattle and the Washington Office for Criminal and Victim Justice.  SAJFS seeks to educate the Jewish community about domestic violence and work  with Faith Partners Against Family Violence to help raise awareness in the community.

In April, Deborah also expanded her horizons, while building three cinder-block homes with Habitat for Humanity in Guatemala.

“It was a spiritual experience, doing everything together by hand—chiseling holes in the concrete blocks, bending rebar and mixing cement—from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., when it was 105 degrees.

“The poverty was overwhelming.  The rudimentary houses we built fulfilled a family’s dream,” said Deborah, aware that simple services, such as SAJFS’ monthly senior luncheon education program, have a broader impact.

In July, she showed the seniorsthe film, “Paper Clips,” about a small-town Tennessee school that helped a class comprehend the loss of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust by collecting 6 million paperclips.

“They wound up educating the community, which then created a Holocaust memorial,” she said.

Along with serving people to meet immediate needs, she believes it is important to help people recognize and end prejudices “we all have.”

There is always someone needing help, she said, always someone with fewer privileges but of no less value.

“I see people as human beings—regardless of degrees, income or housing—seeing a glass half full, not half empty,” she pointed out. 

“My belief as a Jew is to respect other human beings and engage in social causes on their behalf,” Deborah said.

SAJFS’ visionis for every family to have a strong support system, each senior to thrive and be surrounded by friends, and people who struggle to have access to social services.

To do that, it provides information, education, assistance, advocacy, reassurance, visits, food, transportation, home-monitoring systems, referrals and follow-up.

For information, call 747-7394.

By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - Copyright © September 2006