The woman didn't want to be known, and yet, no one can forget her.
The woman didn’t want to be known, and yet, no one can forget her.
It’s not just because she looked “otherworldly,” as someone put it. Like a Halloween witch: stooped, with a gaunt face and wiry gray hair.
The receptionist at Jewish Family Services (JFS) in Seattle struggled to piece together the woman’s broken English, made more impenetrable by her heavy Eastern European accent. Other staffers tried to help.
It became clear that, despite the fact that she had limped in off the street last month, carting everything she owned, the woman didn’t want a thing; none of the housing assistance or health care that JFS has been providing for years.
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“I’m thinking we need to get her to a senior case manager, get her on food stamps or some other assistance,” said John Streimikes, the assessment and intake specialist at JFS’s Capitol Hill office. “She tells me no, she doesn’t need anything.
“She needs help with someone taking her money.”
The woman had a donation for the people of Israel. “God’s people,” she called them. She was doing so in honor of her sister.
From what Streimikes could understand, the woman’s parents had died in the Holocaust. She and her sister were all each other had. At some point, they came to Seattle and ended up living in shelters. The sister fell ill and, before she died, reminded the woman to donate the money they had cobbled together.
Somehow, she found her way to JFS, and Streimikes’ office.
He watched as the woman pulled tiny wads of paper from places all over her cart, then unrolled and smoothed each one out. A $5 bill, a $20, a $10. After five minutes, she had put $840 on his desk.
“I couldn’t believe she was trying to give me the money, when she just told me that she had been beaten and robbed many times,” Streimikes said.
He tried to talk her out of the donation.
“I was wrestling with the moral dilemma,” he recalled. “Can I take $800 from a homeless senior? An immigrant who doesn’t speak the language?”
But the woman was insistent that she didn’t need anything — only to fulfill her sister’s wish.
So Streimikes got an envelope and wrote “Israel” on it. The woman teared up. She had done what she had set out to do.
Streimikes walked her to the door and told her that she could come back anytime, that he would help her with whatever she needed.
Back in his office, he called the shelter whose name he had spotted on a piece of paper among the woman’s things. The case manager there knew her, and vouched for her story.
A week later, the woman came back to ask Streimikes why he had checked up on her.
“I tried to explain that we can help her, and she explained that she was fine, and would call if she needed anything,” he said. “But chances are, she said, we would hear from her only when she had more money to give.”
The money was sent to the Jewish Federation of Seattle. It will go to Yedid, an organization that helps immigrants in Kiryat Malachi, about 90 minutes south of Jerusalem, according to Amy Wasser-Simpson, the federation’s vice president for planning and community services.
Most of the gifts that come into the federation have been solicited by leadership from its donor base, Wasser-Simpson said. Some gifts come in by check, but more often by credit card “because people want the miles.”
Rarely do the donations come in crumpled bills, from people off the street who not only want to remain anonymous but to give with no strings attached.
In doing what she did, Wasser-Simpson said, the woman lived up to the highest degree of virtue, according to the Ladder of Giving invented by the Jewish scholar Maimonides.
“She doesn’t want any part of the flattery that comes with giving a gift,” Wasser-Simpson said. “She only wanted to honor her sister.”
Something to think about as we enter this season of shopping and spending, of wishing and wanting.
Relationships and promises are what make us who we are. And they’re worth more than money.
Nicole Brodeur’s column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
She’s home cooking.