In 1919 a 20-year-old young man who never went to high school arrived in Seattle from the Isle of Rhodes. A century later his estate has donated over $100M to Jewish education in Greater Seattle area and initiatives in Israel.
Samuel Israel was many things. He was a brother, son, uncle, and neighbor. He was a property owner and landlord, but also a farmer, photographer, environmentalist, hunter, and tinkerer. He engaged in the community on his terms and wrote his own rules. And he left a legacy to support the Greater Seattle area Jewish community and the State of Israel that will continue to have an impact for decades to come.
“Sam was a collector,” said Adam Hasson, Sam’s nephew and the Director of Real Estate for the Samis Land Co. “He collected an incredibly diverse portfolio of property in Washington, but he also collected hobbies and interests. He was a passionate man – engaged, curious, and active.”
Sam’s family knew him to be a student of religion, archaeology, and photography. Visitors to his home at Soap Lake in Eastern Washington would listen to Sam talk about his latest interests, sit for photo sessions, or accompany Sam in his Jeep to see his latest project on the farm. In life, Sam had a lot going on. But there were a few things he lacked. Having never married, Sam Israel grew old without the companionship of a wife or children of his own.
Understanding Sam’s Wishes
“As a single man worth millions, Sam talked a lot about setting up a foundation,” said Eddie Hasson, Sam’s nephew and a founding board member. “He began to work on it in the 1970s. When Sam passed in 1994, the Samis Foundation had three trustees and a one-page document outlining guidance for grantmaking.”
Ultimately, the Samis Board grew to 18, with several members who were relatives and knew Sam during his lifetime. While his written wishes for giving are only a few pages in length, members of the board take seriously their mission to fulfill Sam’s vision in all their giving.
When Sam established the foundation, he was fairly general about what he wanted to support in Greater Seattle area. He spoke about Jewish education for children, and the board knew he was interested in Jewish day schools and high schools. They expanded this guidance to include experiential Jewish education – Jewish summer camps, teen Israel experiences, and youth groups – that allow a broader range of children to benefit from Sam’s generosity.
“Sam was always interested in the educational endeavors of his nieces and nephews and helped the Seattle Hebrew Academy financially while he was living,” said Connie Kanter, CEO of the Samis Foundation. “Sam didn’t have a formal education himself after his bar mitzvah at age 13. He was an immigrant and a self-made man. But he had a thirst for knowledge and envisioned his wealth making a difference in helping kids.”
Evolving the Mission While Sticking to the Vision
Sam was more specific about the initiatives he wanted his money to fund in Israel. He listed immigration, college scholarships, archaeology, and wildlife, as well as ‘widows and orphans because they have lost their provider and the poor’. On this last point, the Foundation board needed to explore opportunities to fulfill Sam’s vision in a way that would have the right kind of impact.
“We found a real need in Israel for funds to support shelters for victims of domestic violence. While not technically widows and orphans, the women and children they serve have often lost their provider,” said Kanter. “This is one example of how the Samis board keeps Sam’s vision in mind while also keeping the Foundation current with the needs of today.”
With Sam’s directive in mind, Samis supported three capital projects for shelters in Israel, including a groundbreaking concept for allowing mothers to bring their teenage sons to a shelter – something that had previously been barred by Israeli law.
Sam was also sympathetic to the impact of natural disasters, and he wanted to donate money to help. Samis annually designates funds to provide immediate support for disasters anywhere in the world.
Sam is Always with Us
“We’re always talking about Sam’s intent when we discuss how to allocate grants. Sam is on our shoulders all the time,” said Eddie Hasson. “All of the trustees try to keep Sam’s vision in their heart to make sure we’re considering what he would have wanted to do.”
Our Brother’s Keeper, an autobiographical book about Sam’s life, will be published this Fall and available for order on Amazon. The title comes from one of Sam’s personal sayings, a reflection of the responsibility he felt for using his assets to help others. In the book, Sam’s nephew David Hasson talks about Sam’s habit of not completing things.
“There was so much going on in his head that he just would go from situation to situation and was never able to really sit down and plan and do a complete project from beginning to end,” he said. David Hasson described Sam as, “a man of ideas, and on all topics…he just was a man who was constantly thinking.”
This description of Sam Israel says a lot about his legacy and the continuing evolution of the Samis Foundation. Born of a big idea, the Foundation will in many respects always be incomplete – carrying forward Sam’s vision while continuously changing to meet the needs of today.
“The trustees and I are dedicated to making sure Sam’s vision is always the basis of our work – that we’re spending his money wisely, making good investments, and meeting the needs of our grantees,” said Kanter. “We’re always trying to identify where our philanthropy can strengthen the Jewish community and ensure that it is also directed in the best ways to achieve Sam’s vision. With the first year of our five-year strategic plan underway, and the Jewish new year upon us, we are excited for the impact we can make now and in the future in honor of Sam.”
– Written by Liz Behlke