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Far From Home

Ellen Sheps lights Hanukkah candles in her Renton apartment.

Image: Rachel Román

The route to Ellen Sheps’s Renton apartment is long and winding. The GPS blares “take a left,” “take a right” over and over. The estimated 20-minute travel time stretches to 40 minutes — at two in the afternoon.

Sheps, 57, moved to Renton from Grand Haven, Michigan, to be near her youngest daughter, Becca, who attends Washington State University in Pullman. Since Sheps had always been active in her Jewish communities — including vice president of Bnai Abraham Synagogue in Easton, Pennsylvania, and educational director of its Hebrew school — Becca suggested that she move to Seattle.

“She knew how much that meant to me,” says Sheps, who identifies as a Conservative Jew. “Judaism has always been my core.”

But when Sheps searched for housing near Jewish communities in Seattle — including Mercer Island and North Seattle — she couldn’t find anything in her price range. “It was sticker shock,” she says.

Now this once-active Jew finds it difficult to participate in Jewish life. Driving to the nearest Conservative synagogue, Herzl-Ner Tamid, can take up to 45 minutes.

“I miss having a Jewish community. Out here, it’s like you’re alone and have to travel,” Sheps says. “It feels like a loss.”

Sheps’s story highlights the impact of the Puget Sound region’s rapid growth, soaring home prices, and increasing traffic — Jews who head outside of Seattle city limits to look for affordable housing are miles away from the centers of Jewish life. It’s an issue the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle is studying closely, with plans for a high-impact investment in building up Jewish neighborhood connections.

Sheps is not alone in facing real estate sticker shock. Svenja Gudell, chief economist for the online real estate company Zillow, says the median value for a single-family home in the metro area of King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties was $359,400 in September 2015, an 8.2 percent increase from September 2014. “That is a very fast rate of appreciation,” Gudell says. “Usually, you’d see a 4 percent rate increase.”

Within the city of Seattle, prices are even higher. The city’s median home price was $515,300 in September 2015, up 11.8 percent from September 2014. Seattle’s thriving economy is driving the upsurge. More employment and higher wages increase the population and demand for housing, Gudell says.

The solution for many would-be home-buyers is to look for cheaper real estate in the suburbs. Like Sheps, more Jews are renting or buying in communities like Renton and Shoreline, where home prices are cheaper but there are few or no Jewish resources or programming.

According to the 2014 Puget Sound Jewish Community Profile, 12 percent of Jewish households in the Puget Sound area are located outside of King County. Robin and Rabbi Daniel Ehrlich bought a home in Snohomish County in August 2009 in part because housing was more affordable. They purchased their first home in Edmonds for $300,000 — half what they would have paid in North Seattle.

“I was very cautious about my career and the economy, so I wanted to get a house where I knew I could afford the mortgage,” says Daniel, 42. The Ehrlichs are Modern Orthodox and attend the Chabad Jewish Center of Snohomish County in Lynnwood. Daniel says many Jews who attend services at the center drive from other areas. Others, he says, drive outward to synagogues in North Seattle or Everett.

“As far as what is up here Jewishly, it’s lonely. We feel isolated,” Daniel says. “I’m happy to have a home base and a house, but I think I’d be happier if we were in a Jewish community.”

Robin, 41, agrees that it is difficult being a Jew in a mostly non-Jewish area. “I feel very fringe,” she says. “I’ve had to educate people and the public school system. I have some good friends, but I feel a little bit different. They don’t understand Jewish.”

Some living in areas with limited Jewish resources have taken matters into their own hands. RSVP real estate broker Julie Varon — who works in Eastside communities including Mercer Island, Bellevue, Issaquah, Kirkland, Newcastle, and Sammamish — says many Eastside Jews build community where they are.

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The Edmonds Alternative

Rabbi Daniel, Lev, Robin, and Golda Ehrlich

Image: Rachel Román

“It’s hard to say where the core Jewish community is because it’s quite spread out,” she says. “There is a [communal] Shabbat gathering all over the Eastside. It’s an intentional gathering and a way to feel Jewish on the Eastside.”

Within Seattle, affordable pockets remain in neighborhoods with Jewish resources and community, such as the Seward Park neighborhood. Due to its proximity to the Rainier Valley, prices are more affordable in that area, according to John L. Scott real estate broker Kent Swigard.

Seward Park is an area that Sheps plans to look into. Since she is shomer Shabbat, Seward Park’s five Orthodox synagogues, easier access to kosher options, and close-knit Jewish community appeal to her.

“I think being in a Jewish community will allow me to embrace the feeling of family, and I would get to know the community and not be an outsider,” she says. “I like the havurah [fellowship] of a Jewish community.”

Reaching Out
As part of its mission to create Jewish Connections for Life, the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle is considering ways to bring Jewish resources to underserved areas in the Puget Sound region. To do this, the Federation is hiring a research firm to identify specific community needs and the best partners to fulfill those needs.
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