JULIE BANK, President and CEO of Pasadena Humane Society and SPCA thinks she has the best job in the world because she can help animals and people alike.
“The issues we are dealing with are homelessness, abuse, lack of food, financial issues and trauma,” she says.
The 30-year veteran of animal welfare moved to Pasadena in August 2016 to take over operations after her predecessor, who held the job for 36 years, retired.
As a young girl, she liked animals. “I had stuffed animals all over my bed and pictures of animals on the walls.” She wanted to be a veterinarian until she found out that she needed good grades and go to medical school.
Instead, the New York-native studied finance at Brooklyn College and museum leadership and education at Bank Street College of Education in her hometown.
Not knowing exactly what she wanted to do with her life, Bank worked at a retail store in Manhattan as a senior. One day, a mobile pet adoption unit pulled up right outside the door.
She went to scratch the dogs’ heads and said to the driver without much thought, “I wish I could take them all home.” The older gentleman rolled his eyes. After a bit of heated back and forth with the 20-year old, he shoved a volunteer application in her face.
“I went home that night and filled it out just to make him mad,” recalls Bank. But during her first volunteer orientation a light bulb went on in her head.
She never got a chance to thank him for putting her life on the track it is still on so many years later.
“I remember him all the time because I remember that you never know what kind of power that you have over somebody else’s life, and how even one single interaction can make or break somebody’s life.”
Another chance encounter set off an unexpected journey to discover her Jewishness after giving birth to her son, Stefin.
“I had a bris because you’re supposed to have a bris and I didn’t quite understand why,” she says.
After the ceremony in San Diego, the officiating cantor asked if Bank felt that everything was in place for the baby.
She said, “everything but child care.” “We’ll do it!” said the cantor. So, he and his wife became Stefin’s baby sitters.
“I made a promise and a commitment to him that I would bring up my son really understanding his faith and his religion and his history and his family,” Bank, who turned 50 last year, explains.
She kept her promise. After San Diego she returned to New York, followed by stints in Arizona and Oklahoma City. Mother and son were active temple members in every city.
“For us as kids, Judaism was more about being with family than anything else,” Bank, whose partner is not Jewish, says. She has an older brother and remembers spending holidays with grandparents.
Today, it’s also about culture and being a part of a community.
After her move, Temple Sinai of Glendale became Bank’s spiritual home. Rabbi Rick Schechter remembers their first encounter.
“It was obvious that this was a family committed to Judaism.” He was impressed by then eight-year old Stefin’s colorful kippah that was a little too big for his head.
A year earlier, when the family lived in Oklahoma City, the child decided that he wanted to wear a kippah to school because he loved wearing one. His mom wasn’t convinced and suggested he speak to their rabbi.
The day they went to talk to her, an imam was also visiting. The rabbi recommended that Stefin seek the imam’s input since he also wore a head covering in public.
“So, the next thing I know, my 7-year old son trots over to the imam and they ended up having this amazing 15-minute introspective conversation about what it’s like to be different and what it’s like to wear head gear,” Bank recalls.
The imam left a present at temple for Stefin: a bag full of head coverings from different cultures. He loves wearing them but still hasn’t worn a kippah to school.
Her new community also knows about her work with the Humane Society. It has made her an inspiration, especially for kids.
“They know that Julie is modeling how we all can care for animals and make the world a better place,” said Schechter.
For Bank, her two life passions, animal welfare and Judaism, are connected. And this relationship is about more than helping animals in need.
“Judaism is so special in the sense that it is all about being kind and doing mitzvot and being respectful to the earth,” she says.
This shows in her work. Helping paws is a program designed to help people in crisis keep their pets.
A pet food bank, temporary boarding and low-to-no cost vaccinations enable homeless people to go to a shelter knowing that their beloved pet is well cared for.
“In some ways, it doesn’t really matter if you are talking about a loved one being a human being or a pet,” says John Brauer, CEO of Union Station Homeless Services in Pasadena.
Bank loves the two organizations’ close working relationship that has been helping people and animals for years.
“I always say we are not just an animal welfare agency, we are a social service agency and we impact people really deep at the core of who they are.”
Jessica Donath is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine and lives in Pasadena.