Irene Emsellem Kaplan

Irene Kaplan

President, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington

The Washington Jewish community is a very interesting community. It is a community that started mostly as transplants. . . What we found in our last demographic study is that more people are coming to Washington and staying than are coming in and doing their job, and then going back to where they came from . . . We are the only community on the East Coast that is actually growing. Our community is now 215,000 Jews.

My father was an immigrant to this country [from Morocco]. He came here in 1928 . . . and then he found a beauty shop that was for sale here in Washington and he bought it and opened a shop on Connecticut Avenue . . . [later] he opened a beauty school. From the beauty school, he started bringing more and more Sephardim into the area . . . they came in through the education permits my father was able to obtain for the school. He would bring them here and start them off in business.

Our home was like the Sephardic JSSA (Jewish Social Service Agency). Whenever anyone had a problem, it was “Call Uncle Albert.” That was my father. That was how they referred to him. And my mother and father counseled, helped get people started, gave them the means to get started. Our door was always open for people who came and had no place to go. They would stay with us until they could get established. …

I can’t remember a time growing up where we didn’t have someone in our home who needed a place before they set out in the world here in the United States. … in one bedroom, we had four beds. You couldn’t walk between them. It was wall to wall beds where people were sleeping. Because that’s how they got started. It was this caring for each other. There was a concern for helping others. And you know, the real idea of Tikkun Olam — one person at a time.

What I picked up was a sense of community that is so much bigger than myself. And if everyone didn’t help and if everyone didn’t pitch in, then there was no community. . . you do the most you can, not the least you can. That’s what was instilled in me by my parents, by my father and my mother, that you are there to help. And it doesn’t matter what your needs are. If you have more than the next person and they need help, then you help.

May 27, 2005