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Hebrew Home of Greater Washington celebrates 100 years of service

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2010; B01

One day in 1910, the story goes, a young Jewish immigrant named Hymen Goldman, who had come to America only four years before, happened upon an elderly and bearded man sitting on a bread box outside a North Capitol Street grocery store, weeping.

The old man was a homeless Jewish widower. Goldman, 22, was born in Russia and had arrived in Washington with 20 cents in his pockets. But he was moved by the old man's plight. "It was pitiful to see a man with a long white beard sitting and crying," he later wrote.

Goldman spoke to his father-in-law, who summoned Jewish civic leaders, who launched a drive for nickels and dimes to board the man in a widow's rooming house on M Street for $3 a week.

Thus was born, amid the grit and compassion of harsh immigrant life a century ago, the venerable Hebrew Home of Greater Washington.

Now part of the Charles E. Smith Life Communities, on a modern 30-acre campus in Rockville, the Hebrew Home this year celebrates a kaleidoscopic century of caring for the elderly. Along its halls, at three main locations over the years, have walked residents whose lives seem fresh from the pages of American immigration history.

There lived Sadie Hershey, another immigrant from Russia, who as young woman survived the March 25, 1911, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire -- a blaze in a New York garment factory that killed 146 workers and is thought to be the worst New York workplace disaster before Sept. 11, 2001.

There, in more recent years, lived Mikhail Surikov, a Soviet artillery commander during World War II who participated in the liberation of Budapest, Prague and Berlin from the Nazis, and who was present in 1945 for the famous meeting of U.S. and Soviet troops on the Elbe River in Germany near the end of the war.

There in the 1970s lived Alfred Klein, who came to the United States in 1898 speaking Yiddish from what is now Belarus. He hawked newspapers as boy in New York, and went on to become the chief law officer of the U.S. Civil Service Commission.

There at the home have lived a former teenage cloth presser -- "the iron weighed more than I did," he recalled in a memoir -- union organizers, tailors, newspaper writers, lawyers, doctors, social workers, rabbis, soldiers, housewives, economists and others. There today live a handful of survivors of the Holocaust.

"What prompted all the Jewish people to come to America?" Klein once wrote. "It was still a new country and it was still the country of promise."

But it could be a tough and alien place for often-penniless, Yiddish-speaking emigrants from remote European villages, especially if they were elderly.

"What you were dealing with in 1910 was, there was this whole wave of Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe around the turn of the century," said Marilyn Feldman, a spokeswoman for the home, who serves as its historian.

Memoirs of residents, who often fled oppression, pogroms and Russian army recruiting gangs, recall harrowing sea voyages, disorientation in American cities, and the kindness of other Jewish immigrants.

Still, Feldman said, "people who maybe came over to the United States but didn't have any kind of family support network . . . could find themselves elderly, alone and in need of support, and there was no place to turn."

The action of Goldman, who later became a Washington business executive and Jewish community leader, was but a stopgap.

The community supported its elderly in boarding houses for a few years, Feldman said, before acquiring a three-story brick townhouse in 1914 at 415 M Street NW as the first "Hebrew Home for the Aged."

The $10,000 home, which could accommodate 50 residents, opened amid fanfare. A chorus sang, and a soloist performed "Forsake us Not in Our Old Age," according to a newspaper account.

"At first there was no staff," Feldman said. "It was just a place for people to live. Then there was a matron, and things grew from there."

In 1925, the home moved to a large building at 1125 Spring Road NW, then moved to Rockville in 1969. Today, with more than 550 beds, it is the largest nursing home in the mid-Atlantic region, Feldman said.

"From humble beginnings back on M Street, we've grown to a large and complex elder-care organization," said Warren R. Slavin, president and chief executive officer of the Smith Life Communities. "It's difficult to go anywhere in the community and not find somebody whose relatives, whose parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers or sisters, we haven't served."

"There was a sense back then . . . that continues to exist today, that we have an obligation to care for vulnerable members of the community and to take care of our own," Slavin said. "You couldn't count on government. There were no such programs. You had to rely on each other. There was a real feeling of communal responsibility. Those who had resources shared them with others."

The late Ben Sperling came to the Hebrew Home as an old man after a hard life that began in Lithuania, took him to Ellis Island, a pushcart in the city and then to years in the grocery business.

Before he died in 1978, he said he had discovered painting and was delighted with his new life in the home.

"It's foolish not to like it," he said. "Here you've got everything.

"It is a 'ganaydn,' " he said, using Yiddish, "a paradise."

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