Pamela Waechter was just settling into her new role as top fund-raiser at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.
She had spent eight years working her way up through the ranks of her city’s central Jewish charity, starting as an outreach coordinator before serving both as a director of the women’s division and a special events planner. Finally, in February, she landed the job as director of annual giving.
Waechter, 58, was unsure whether she could rise to the challenge of the high-powered position, but her colleagues knew she was “more than qualified,” as one said.
As nearly 2,000 mourners gathered Monday at Temple B’nai Torah in Bellevue, Wash., to honor Waechter, who was killed during the July 28 shooting spree at Seattle’s Jewish federation, they remembered her for her overwhelming commitment to the Jewish community.
“The main focus of her life, other than her two children, was service to the Jewish people and the Jewish community,” Rabbi James Mirel said. Mirel is the senior rabbi at Temple B’nai Torah, the Reform congregation where Waechter had been a member since the late 1970s.
Waechter began life as a Lutheran and then converted to Judaism when she married Bill Waechter. Raised in Minnesota, Waechter moved with her new husband to Seattle, where she embraced Jewish life wholeheartedly, both spiritually and professionally. The couple later divorced, but her commitment to the Jewish community did not waver.
Waechter initially began volunteering for the synagogue before joining its board, and eventually served a term as the board’s president. In the 1990s, she also joined the board of the Union for Reform Judaism. “She undertook these tasks with a wonderful, positive attitude and a real commitment,” Mirel said.
Before becoming a staff member at the federation, Waechter worked at the Seattle-area Jewish Family Service, where she coordinated the food bank and worked in outreach. At the federation, Waechter was remembered as a zealous and dedicated Jewish communal servant. “Pam brought a passion to everything she did, a passion for Judaism, and a passion for social services,” said Robin Boehler, board chair at the federation.
She loved to garden, spend time with her two dogs and travel. Recently she had gone on a trip to Africa. Boehler said that she witnessed firsthand Waechter’s skill as an amateur photographer on past trips to St. Petersburg, Russia, and to Israel. “She was outstanding,” said Boehler, who first heard of the shooting when she got an urgent call on her cell phone as her plane touched down in the Denver airport, where she was changing planes.
Waechter’s two children, Nicole Waechter Guzman, 36, and Mark Waechter, 33, held a press conference over the weekend at Guzman’s home in north Seattle. “I called her ‘Super Jew,’” Guzman reportedly said at the press conference, referring to her mother.
While going through her mother’s papers, Guzman came across something eerily prescient: Stashed away in Waechter’s files were two letters — one to her daughter and one to her son — that she had written before leaving for a trip to Israel two years ago in the event that she didn’t make it back alive. The letters expressed her commitment to traveling to Israel, despite the potential dangers.
Other staff members at Jewish federations across the country expressed a similar sentiment. “I’m very proud and grateful to be able to do this work, and if this is what I’m doing when it’s my time to go, that’s fine with me,” said Susan Kardos, director of the initiative for day school excellence at Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies.
Kardos was among many staff members at Jewish charities who, for the most part, said that the horrific incident had in no way frightened them out of their jobs.
While federations play a role in funding and promoting Israeli causes, many staffers at such charities say that they tend to view their jobs primarily as delivering social services to the Jewish poor and infirm — making it particularly shocking to think that they could be viewed as potential targets.
“We’re a charity organization and we have to take these measures to defend ourselves?” asked Karen Flayhart, director of marketing and communications at the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati. “It’s outrageous.”
Another federation staffer echoed Flayhart’s dismay. “We do social service, humanitarian work,” said Gail Weinberg, financial resource development director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City. She added, “It just makes it all the more devastating that someone doing the work they cared so deeply about could have been killed, and others seriously injured.”