Samis Foundation:
Samuel Israel

Life and Legacy

Always a challenging and independent-minded person, when he moved to Central Washington in 1960, his reputation as a reclusive absentee landlord grew.  To his immediate family he was the revered “Uncle Sam”, but to others he remained a mystery.

Those close to him know about Sam Israel’s lifelong love of the outdoors and photography, his devotion to Jewish faith and history, and his generous support of numerous community organizations, from the Seattle Hebrew Academy to Boy Scouts and various wildlife and archaeological organizations in the United States and the State of Israel. He carried his faith in G-d, his Jewish identity, and a sense of personal responsibility for Jews and non-Jews from his home to the community and across the world. Sam never married, and upon his death in 1994 his properties were transferred to the foundation he established, and his fortune was dedicated to fund Jewish education in Washington State and other causes in Israel for the benefit of future generations. Today, the Samis Foundation carries on Sam Israel’s legacy, living and funding the heart of Sam’s motto: “We are our brother’s keeper.”


In 1912, Sam already had been apprenticed for two or three years to a Greek shoemaker, who worked in the “best shoe shop” in Rhodes, according to Sam, which was owned by a Rhodesli.  Here, Sam learned the trade of custom shoe making.  Sam and two other boys worked under the “Greek Master” without pay, sitting on small stools for long ten and twelve-hour days, and after five years, he became a “full-fledged shoemaker.”  Many years later, Sam recalled the experience: “He was the finest shoemaker in all of Rhodes.  When I think of that man, I bless him.  He only whipped me once.” 

Sam’s careful stewardship of the family shoe repair shops brought steady growth despite the fact that Seattle and the rest of the country entered the economic crisis of the Great Depression.  Large numbers of building owners suffered bankruptcy and properties could be bought for astonishingly low prices, often for only the back taxes owed.  The clearest sign of Sam’s financial savvy was the increasing number of his property purchases as the 1930s progressed.  In the six years between 1933 and 1939, he acquired seventeen properties for sums ranging from $600 to $42,577.  

The energy that Sam devoted to his shoe shops was mirrored in his hobbies—hiking, skiing, bodybuilding, fishing, and photography.  In September 1924, Sam’s brother Morris (age 24) married Gentil Levy (age 19) at Congregation Ezra Bessaroth.  By this time, Sam had become an avid—and talented—amateur photographer.  Sam’s photograph of the wedding party on the steps of the synagogue later became widely circulated (including appearing on various websites, such as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, the Rhodes Jewish Museum, and the University of Washington), although he has never been credited.

In late 1939, Sam (and many others) believed that it was “a question of time, there's going to be a war,” as Sam said.  The Army base at Ft. Lewis south of Tacoma issued a request for bids to repair shoes and boots.  More than a year would pass before the country entered the conflict, but the Army needed a major shoe repair contractor in the Northwest.  As the U. S. geared up for war, so did Sam.  He had been doing work for the government, and a new request for bids prompted a crafty move by the shoemaker.  All of Sam’s competitors bid over $1.50 per pair, and his bid of $1.25 won the contract.  Business was brisk and profits soared.  Sam’s operation needed more space, and fast.  To meet the demand, in April 1942, just five months after the U.S. entered World War II, Sam purchased a building near Wing Foot Shoe Renewing at 2107-2111 Third Avenue (on Third and Lenora) and named it the Army Building.  He set about installing equipment and systems for mass production.  Since they worked on only one style of footwear—the Army boot—they needed only one type of machine, and operations could be streamlined. 

In the late 1940s, Sam began acquiring property in Soap Lake, his family’s traditional vacation spot.  By 1960, he made the move from Seattle and became a permanent resident of the area.  Sam lived in a small, one-room wood house—more of a bunkhouse or cabin, roughly seven feet wide by nine feet long--that was sparsely furnished, containing only the bare necessities of life.  It was, says Eddie Hasson, “modest, to put it mildly.”  At the far end, there was a small bed with slats and a twin mattress.  There were two plain wood dressers and the tops served as counters.  Next to the bunkhouse stood the pump house, which had a cement floor, a shower, washing machine, toilet, and tiny kitchen with a stove, refrigerator, plus a plain table with a couple of chairs.  During the warmer months, Sam slept outside on a cot.  Nearby were refrigerators—not plugged in and not cold—that he used for storage, including food for his small group of rescue dogs.  The pack of strays, usually numbering a half dozen and all affectionately named “Mariuch”—individually and collectively—were a happy if noisy group of mixed breeds, mostly German Shepherds.  “He lived that way,” recalls Eddie Hasson, “for at least 25 years.”

Sam Israel had been doing charitable deeds and making donations to organizations since at least the 1930s.  In the Seattle area, Sam was a longtime and devoted supporter of many Jewish and secular causes.  He contributed to the Red Cross, the Community Chest, Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, the Jewish Federation, Seattle Hebrew Academy, Caroline Kline Galland Home for the Aged (commonly called the Kline Galland Home), and various Israeli charities.  In November 1984, Sam paid off the mortgage debt of Seattle Hebrew Academy on the condition that it will never again mortgage the property. 

In August 1991, Sam was honored for purchase and donation of a Sefer Torah to Congregation Ezra Bessaroth. On a sunny August afternoon, a colorful and lively procession walked the two-mile distance north from Kline Galland to Congregation Ezra Bessaroth.  Michael Toobert pushed Sam in his wheelchair, and Sam’s family (Israels and Hassons), plus various other members of the Congregation, took turns carrying the Sefer Torah under a chuppa (marriage canopy) along the sidewalk.  The group of some 300 marchers stretched for blocks, with a Seattle Police Department motorcycle escort blocking traffic at intersections for everyone’s safety.  The enthusiastic celebrants, representing all three Orthodox synagogues in the Seward Park area, joyously sang and danced along the route. 



Back to top of page

Share this page on Facebook