If you have had the good fortune to meet Elizabeth Shwiff professionally, it might have been because you needed her expert accounting or tax advice at Shwiff, Levy & Polo, the full-service CPA firm she founded almost 35 years ago. You might have met her at a Hebrew Free Loan event in 1999, when she joined our Board of Directors, or at our first Business Circle Luncheon 20 years later, which she helped to sponsor as a charter member of the Business Circle.
In any case, there is a good chance you would never have known how many other lives she has lived in her time. Elizabeth was born in a Jewish refugee camp (Admont) in Austria to a Jewish mother who had escaped from Ukraine and a Russian father whose land-owning parents had been killed by the Bolsheviks. Despite the hardships of life in post-war Europe, she remembers a happy childhood in the camp, with bread, warm milk, and the love of her parents to nourish her,
The family immigrated to the U.S. when she was six, settling in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Her mother found work as a janitor at the Lutheran school there, where Elizabeth and her twin brother received free tuition and what Elizabeth recalls as a good, well-rounded education. Eventually she went on study English/Russian linguistics, getting her BA at Indiana University and MA at UCLA.
Once she finished school, unusual and extraordinary opportunities started to come Elizabeth’s way. Her first job in the early 1970s was with the U.S. State Department as an Information Officer posted to the USSR. At the age of 27, Elizabeth found herself part of a group of almost 50 people, organizing cultural exchange exhibits in packed exhibit halls throughout Armenia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
After her time in the USSR, Elizabeth spent a few years back in California, teaching linguistics at UCLA and English at Los Angeles High School and a junior high school in Santa Monica. But then, in the late 70s, after the Soviet Union lifted its ban on Jewish emigration, Elizabeth ended up back in Austria. She worked for the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS) and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, using her communication skills in Russian, German, and Yiddish to interview Soviet Jews who wanted to immigrate to the U.S.
Elizabeth found herself wanting to build a stateside career path, after all these adventures, and she appreciated the respect that the world gives to CPAs. So, she went back to school for a master’s in accounting and taxation, and landed in San Francisco working for Wohlfeiler & Beck, CPAs, an accounting firm founded by two Viennese Jews who fled Vienna in 1939. It wasn’t that many more years until her hard work, dedication, and natural leadership skills led to the founding of Hoffman, Shwiff & Co, which grew to become Shwiff, Levy, & Polo, LLP.
Elizabeth still hasn’t forgotten the pride she felt at achieving self-sufficiency, and she still owns the 1985 Volkswagen Vanagon she purchased after becoming a CPA. She still finds her work as fulfilling as ever and is inspired by the same motivation she had at the beginning: to give her clients peace of mind. She was gratified to be included in a recent San Francisco Business Times list of top 100 women-owned businesses in the Bay Area. Eventually Elizabeth and her partners plan to transition Shwiff, Levy & Polo to the company’s staff to “keep it in the family.”
Being active in the Jewish community — her extended Jewish family — has always been important to Elizabeth. She used to teach English and cultural assimilation skills to Jews who had immigrated from the former Soviet Union, and she served on Hebrew Free Loan’s Board of Directors for 13 years. Our Business Circle was started during her tenure, and she is proud to continue as a member of the Business Circle just as she has been since its founding in 2016.
“Hebrew Free Loan’s Business Circle is the perfect forum for me to give back to the Jewish community that gave me a hand up through so many stages of my life. Helping people get interest-free loans and helping entrepreneurs succeed makes me feel integrated with the Jewish community.”
Elizabeth never forgets, too, that she would not have met her husband Howard if not for her community involvement. Howard is a former Hebrew Free Loan board member as well, and he served as the agency’s Treasurer for nine years. He was also President of the American Technion Society. The two met at a gala put on by the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation to raise money for emigrating Soviet Jews, and went on to work side by side in their business, their personal life, and as active volunteers and leaders in the Jewish community.
If you missed our 2021 interview with Elizabeth on our Food for Thought series, you can watch it here.