In 1972 Sam Israel attempted to export his pack of Hereford cattle from his ranch at Soap Lake in Grant County, Washington, to Israel. It would be simple: just get a 747, put the bovines on it, and jet them off to the land of milk and honey.
Only two — well, maybe three — things proved impossible for Sam Israel in his 95 years. First, the cattle transport, because of inviolable agriculture restrictions on bringing foreign cows into Israel; second, a more modest, but probably equally impossible idea: creating a cemetery for all Jews, regardless of which community they were part of while alive; and third, marriage. His would-be bride’s father felt Sam was too “unprofessional.” Plus, he had an accent. Little did he know that by the time of Sam’s death in 1994 he would be worth between $100 and $200 million.
Everything else Sam wanted, he got, and everything he wanted to do, he did. An eccentric figure, he was revered by his relatives as “Uncle Sam,” scorned by some as a slumlord, admired by others for saving Seattle’s architecture. As a young man he was a debonair fellow who drank like a fish and smoked like a chimney, but later in life he was a sober ascetic who slept in a dilapidated shack in Soap Lake with a dog and a shotgun beside his bed. He was a hunter, an animal lover, a photographer, a musician, a lover of Israel, a benefactor to strangers in need, a teacher, and a person whose bad side you didn’t want to be on. To be on his good side, one needed to do only one thing: agree with him.
That’s how Irwin Treiger kept his job when Sam appointed him to help set up the Samis Foundation in 1987 to distribute his wealth in perpetuity. Treiger abided by Sam’s unusual demands to appoint trustees for life and to keep an Orthodox rabbi on the board, “to make sure there was no hanky panky going on in this foundation,” Sam’s nephew, Eddie Hasson, says. The first order of the foundation was to care for the cemetery, if it ever came to be. After that, Sam ordered that his estate should benefit Jewish day schools and a variety of causes in Israel. Since the establishment of the foundation Samis has given around $80 million to local Jewish schools; Jewish overnight camps; Israel experiences; and environmental, humanitarian, and educational causes in Israel. With the help of Samis, Jewish families in greater Seattle can afford Jewish education — a luxury other cities don’t have — all because of a man whose own level of education was stunted by immigration, whose English writing skills were limited, and whose Hebrew was nonexistent.
Sam Israel arrived in Seattle in 1919 at the age of 19 with $900 in his pocket from Rhodes, where he was an apprentice to a Greek shoemaker. With that $900 he bought a home at 1805 E Spruce Street in the Jewish neighborhood of the Central District, just down the street from his parents. He continued to work repairing shoes and negotiated a contract with the military, which, during World War II, sent him truckloads of army boots to repair for $1 a pair but lagged on payment. Sometime after the war the army reimbursed him, and Sam went to the bank with millions of dollars, which kicked up the ante on his lifetime hobby: buying property.
Unlike most real estate investors, though, Sam didn’t seem to be interested in getting rich for any immediate goal. Despite his early debonair lifestyle and fancy suits, he lived in what could be called extreme austerity for most of his life, even living off Social Security when his annual income could have furnished several mansions. His commitment to buy and never sell stemmed from his mistrust of cash. “He told me that the only way to be wealthy is to have real estate,” Hasson says. “Cash is worthless.” Back in Rhodes, Sam’s father was a successful merchant of cigarette rolling paper. “Back then there was no such thing as buying a pack of cigarettes,” Hasson says. “He bought the paper in Turkey and had a little factory in Rhodes.” When they left for America — so that their sons would avoid conscription — Sam’s parents sold everything; then the Ottoman Empire fell, and their money became worthless. “He always said, ‘Stick with real estate and you can’t go wrong,’” Hasson says.
It didn’t go wrong for Sam. In fact, it went very, very right. Decades came and went, and Sam Israel’s properties — including the Corona Hotel, the Schwabacher Building, and the Broderick Building — fell into disrepair, leading some to accuse Sam Israel of being a slumlord, while allowing artists and tenants to occupy cheap studio space and inadvertently preserving the architecture of downtown Seattle. After Sam’s death, the Samis Foundation began renovating and selling some of the properties, even buying Pioneer Square’s iconic Smith Tower for $7.6 million in 1996, fixing it up to the tune of $28 million, and selling it a decade later for an elegant $47 million.
Not only did Sam have little interest in doing anything with the properties themselves, he had little interest in even visiting Seattle after moving to a farm on Soap Lake in 1961, which he’d bought from the Northern Pacific Railway in 1949. He let his brother handle the real estate matters in the city and had a secretary come out to the farm once a week. This arrangement allowed him to tend to his horses and cattle, which, according to one legend, he didn’t have the heart to kill and which eventually died of old age here in the diaspora. Nevertheless, he maintained a good relationship with his family and the Jewish community, whose representatives came out to the ranch for visits. “The famous story is Marty [Selig],” Hasson says. “He went there by helicopter. He landed in Ephrata. Sam went to pick him up, but his Jeep was broken, so he took his tractor.” According to this legend, Selig had gotten to Ephrata in 36 minutes, but it took two hours to get to the ranch by tractor.
According to Hasson, Sam bought the Eastern Washington property because it reminded him of the Isle of Rhodes, while others claim it reminded him of Israel, a place he visited once and for which he harbored a deep love. Sam touched down in the first plane to land in Israel after the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and took “thousands of pictures,” Hasson says — mostly of kibbutzim. Today, Samis donates to Israeli causes in five areas: immigrant absorption; archaeology; wildlife protection; university scholarships for gifted, needy students; and assistance for human welfare. Higher education is part of the mission, and this year the foundation donated to the Jerusalem College of Technology Endowment for Haredi Tutoring and Job Placement, as well as the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel’s “Hoopoe Foundation Education Programs.” Samis is also helping establish the Sam Israel Breeding and Veterinary Center at SEA Israel Aquarium, and it helped build a battered women’s shelter in Beer Sheva in partnership with the Rashi Foundation. Locally, Samis granted $3.5 million to Jewish day schools, overnight camps, Israel experiences, and youth groups in 2016, and it gave thousands to Houston flood relief and Ukraine Community Emergency, among others.
“What we care about is what Sam cared about,” says Rabbi Rob Toren, executive director of the Samis Foundation. The trust can technically go to any charitable cause, but Samis sticks to Sam’s directives. Toren notes that Sam’s fiscal relationship with Jewish day school education goes back to the day he called the president of Seattle Hebrew Academy and offered to pay off its mortgage, under the condition the school never take out a loan against the building again. “He would go into schools in Grant County and he’d talk about Judaism and Jewish tradition and Israel,” Toren says. “He was very, very proud of being Jewish. He visited Seattle Hebrew Academy and was overwhelmed by what he saw there.”
What Sam lacked in education he made up for in generosity to the cause. “He wanted to make something accessible that, for whatever reason, wasn’t part of his own experience,” says Lisa Colton, chief learning officer at See3 Communications, who is working with Samis to use its voice to help families in the Jewish community learn more about Jewish day school education. Toren and Colton hope that Samis’s mission to provide high quality, affordable Jewish education and experiences will help local families choose the Jewish day school option. Samis today grants money to teacher education, financial aid, and classroom technology tools to assist schools in assessing educational outcomes and to support efforts to promote values-based character building. “We try not to get too organizational and bureaucratic,” says Toren of how Samis selects its projects, particularly when it comes to Israel. “We try to be responsive and partners to our organizations. We’re delighted and privileged to be able to help.”
When Sam turned 90, he threw a party and invited the entire towns of Soap Lake and Ephrata, and he gave each of the area Boy Scouts — whose camp he hosted on his property — a $100 savings account. “And of course this came with a lecture, how to behave, how to save money,” Hasson says. “That’s the way he was. If you were on his wrong side, you were in trouble.” Only one person, perhaps, scared Sam. “He was scared to death of his mother,” Hasson says. “His mother was on his case to help his brothers” — which Sam did, by teaching shoemaking to each of them and helping them open their own shops. He went to the grave with his mother’s mandate. On his tombstone is a simple message: “Samuel Israel, a shoemaker, 1899-1994.” Below that: “For we are our brother’s keeper.”