Through its work, the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society demonstrated Judaism’s commitment to “tzedakah,” which is alternately defined as “justice,” “righteousness” or “fairness.” The concept, deeply rooted in biblical teachings, involves giving to others in order to create a more perfect world — one way that Jews are commanded to serve God. The duty to perform the “mitzvah,” or good deed, of tzedakah explains the overwhelming response by the global Jewish community to the plight of refugees who were displaced, impoverished and separated from their families as a result of World War I and the Russian Revolution.
The spirit of tzedakah was evident in the Seattle home operated by the society, which cared for so many of these refugees. As described in my March 11 post, volunteers were actively involved in everything from doing laundry to providing bond from their own personal property to secure the release of detained immigrants. While they were paid for their service, many members of the staff, which included home manager Abe Spring and a chef, stenographer, steward and waiter, showed extraordinary dedication to the well-being of their charges, putting them at ease upon their arrival, acclimating them to their new surroundings and shielding them from any harm.
The immigrants who stayed for any length of time seemed grateful for the generosity and kindness they experienced at 512 18th Avenue. They called it “Stolofka,” according to various references to the home, which is said to be Russian for “shelter.”
While I did not hear any stories from my own family describing the home in Seattle, others who stayed there clearly did share their experiences. The mother of noted opera star Beverly Sills apparently was one of those cared for at the Seattle shelter house, according to a woman whose own mother had volunteered at the home and remembered Sills mentioning it in a television interview during the 1980s, as reported in the January 1990 newsletter of the Washington State Jewish Historical Society. I have no confirmation of this fact, but according to The New York Times, Sills’ mother, Shirley Silverman, who reportedly was born Sonia Markovna and had the last name Banchikov before it was changed to Bahn when she entered this country, did immigrate to America in 1917 and was born in Odessa, Russia — making it fairly certain she made a similar journey as my great grandmother and my grandmother and her sisters.
The shelter house in Seattle known as Stolofka made a difference in the lives of many new arrivals to America. During its relatively short existence — from 1916 to about 1920 — the home provided 20,000 nights of lodging, served 100,000 meals and managed wire transfers totaling $250,000 from relatives in various locations to their family members who were temporary residents, according to the historical society newsletter. “… it is nothing short of remarkable that the Seattle Branch has been able to accomplish so much constructive work in the few years it has been in existence,” a national HIAS official said during a visit marking the end of the program, the article reported further. “Our branch in Seattle is one of the best examples of philanthropic effort America has produced in a number of years.”