Hebrew Home of Greater Washington celebrates 100 years of service

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2010

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.

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