Editor’s Note: This is the fifth installment of a multipart series on the life and times of the author’s mother-in-law, whose experiences reflect the coming of age of the immigrant generation’s American-born children. The fourth part, “Home Away from Home: The Bronx Y,” appeared as the front-page essay in the April 28 issue; part six will appear in June.
These days, an American student group spending a month in Israel is rarely a noteworthy event. Birthright trips and yeshiva and seminary study have become commonplace, as have tourist buses on Israeli roads during the summer filled with young American Jews learning about Israel and enjoying the sites.
But it wasn’t always like that. Nearly seven decades ago, as Israel was recovering from its War of Independence, the first such group was put together by NYU professor Dr. Abraham I. Katsh. Some participants knew some Hebrew, many did not, and they were scheduled to tour Israel for six weeks and return to America as unofficial “ambassadors” for the new state. Co-sponsored by the State Department and Federal Office of Education, the group’s official title was the American Israel Student and Professorial Workshop.
Katsh had envisioned the program in late 1947, but the outbreak of war postponed the first summer workshop until 1949. Hundreds applied, all were interviewed, and a final group of 63 young men and women were given the privilege of paying the princely sum of $450 to join the first organized American student trip to Israel. One of them was my mother-in-law, who was then known as Bernice Cohen.
When she left for Israel, Bernice was an unmarried woman of 26, living at home with parents and grandparents, completing her MPA (Masters in Public Administration) at NYU, and directing the teenage division at the Bronx YMHA.
A diminutive green-eyed bundle of energy, Bernice walked the line between being naturally outspoken and independent and respecting the authority of her traditional Jewish parents. Her personality must have appealed to Katsh and his co-interviewer, NYU professor John C. Payne, or possibly it was her slight knowledge of Hebrew from afternoon Hebrew high school.
Whatever the reason, she found herself part of the group, mostly in their twenties, almost all Jewish, the youngest a 19-year-old male student and the oldest a Brooklyn College professor and his wife.
Requesting a leave of absence from work, Bernice told her astounded family that in mid-July she would be joining the upcoming Israel Workshop. Despite her father’s protests, she insisted on paying for it from her savings.
“We were told to get our own passports and informed by the State Department that this was not the safest place to visit, but that the Israeli government would supply ‘safety measures,’ ” she recalled.
Katsh appointed her “trip historian” and she therefore kept a diary of her experiences. Many of these reminiscences are based on it.
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Today when travelers get on a plane, their biggest dilemma is what movie to watch or meal to choose. Back then, the 36-hour flight to Israel was an experience in itself.
“We left from Idlewild [later JFK] Airport on a rainy night in a converted B52 four-propeller bomber belonging to Trans Caribbean Airways,” said Bernice. “The voyage was planned via the Azores and a southern route so off we flew to Bermuda.”
But inclement weather forced a change in the route and hours later the group found itself in Canada, then Greenland, and finally Iceland for a seven-hour layover with ice cream. From there it was on to Ireland and Rome.
“It was a marvelous excursion,” said Bernice, who remembered in detail the group’s time in Rome, marked by a kosher dinner in the Ghetto. “They took us to the shul where we met the rabbi; the gates were still bound with barbed wire from the war.”
From there the plane took off at night, flying low over Tel Aviv where the group could see the shoreline. “It was a spellbinding moment and we just all prayed we would touch down safely.”
Today’s young travelers rarely meet Israeli statesmen and functionaries. This, though, was the first group of its kind and, as such, of great interest to both American and Israeli officials.
At a humid Lydda airport they were met by American Ambassador James G. McDonald (“very handsome and a gentleman,” according to Bernice), and Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, the first of many Israeli dignitaries who would address them during their stay.
Journalists covering their arrival took photos as they disembarked and moved toward their waiting bus. Leaving the hot tarmac they met a curly-haired young man their age, an aide to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.
The aide, who became friendly with the group, would accompany them at every opportunity. “Wherever we went, Shimon was always there with his clipboard, taking notes and joking with us,” Bernice recounted.
The contingent was bused to Beit Berl, a newly built Labor Party educational establishment north of Kfar Saba that would serve as home base.
“We were given a cautionary welcome and directed never to go beyond a certain area behind Beit Berl because that was the outskirts of the border with Kalkilya, where they grew delicious watermelons but would not be friendly to new Jewish arrivals.”
Bernice related how “the wise guys tested the waters or tried to,” unaware or not caring about the potential danger, but luckily for them, the older Litvak watchman Eliezer (“we spoke Yiddish together”) always caught them before they got too far. Another person assisting the group was a Berlin-born watchman named Reuven Bar Levav (“he wanted to marry an American”).
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How does one turn a group of American students in their twenties into knowledgeable lovers of Israel? What meaningful sites should they visit? Which Israeli statesmen and educators should they meet? When does one also find time for lessons in Hebrew language, history, and culture? Abe Katsh, the man who conceived, coordinated, and accompanied the program, faced these challenges to put together the study tour of a lifetime for this first group.
To fit all this into six weeks was indeed a tall order. Together with the American embassy and the Israeli government, Katch developed a system where the group would first travel through a part of the country and then spend a block of days at Beit Berl having classes and meeting anyone – politicians, academics, laymen – who wished to visit. And visit they did, sometimes more than once.
Bernice recalled: “Ben-Gurion dropped in on us a few times and he often brought his American-born wife, Paula.” Viewing the group as potential immigrants or as future spokespeople for Israel, the dynamic prime minister gave them first hand accounts of the new country’s situation and needs.
Enthusiastically addressing the group in a crisp blue shirt and (despite the heat) long pants, he told them of his plans to bring more than a million new immigrants to Israel in the coming years. More than any other visitor – except possibly Shimon and his clipboard – Ben-Gurion featured prominently in Bernice’s snapshot collection.
Later they would also meet Histadrut leader Pinchas Lavon, tour the Foreign Ministry with Moshe Sharett, and spend time with Hebrew University president Selig Brodetsky, Israeli ambassador to the United States Eliyahu Eilat, international legal expert Norman Bentwich, and Supreme Court justice and rabbinical scholar Simcha Assaf.
As the group was composed of young people from various backgrounds, Katsh insisted that it be geared to the traditional. Although Beit Berl would never be known as a bastion of religious practice, its kitchen was as yet unused and thus the group – which rotated in KP duty – kept it strictly kosher. Shabbat was publicly observed and along with the requisite bathing suit and good hiking shoes, everyone in the group had their “Shabbat outfit” – white shirts for the men and appropriate attire for the women.
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Many of the entries in Bernice’s diary are brief: “Kfar Haroeh after Rav Kook”; “Mt. Gilboa – David’s lamentations”; “Mizrachi – Mitzpor Lavi”; “Tiberias night life – Kinneret – Arak, Liquor licorice! Wow!” “Safed – shul – Lecha Dodi.”
Some of the entries, especially so soon after the War of Independence, capture the special experiences of this first student group in Israel: “Rechovoth – supposed to see Chaim Weizmann”; “Kibbutz Yavneh Yeshiva, displaced evacuees from Kfar Darom – tefillin hanging outside dining hall”; “Lunch at Nir Am – brought our own water – Gaza in background.”
The group’s most memorable events took place in different locales throughout the country – the Herzl parade in Tel Aviv, Tisha B’Av kinot (lamentations) in Beersheba, and a wedding in the Jerusalem hills. A week after their arrival the group attended a military parade in Tel Aviv marking the anniversary of Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl’s death.
Watching the parade from a second-floor balcony with three girlfriends from the group, all former U.S. Army nurses, Bernice took numerous pictures of the marchers: youth groups, soldiers, military nurses, and armored vehicles passing below.
She described her feelings: “What pride! Imagine, Jewish tanks!”
Another emotional moment occurred after the group reached Beersheba. From her diary: “Wells, ruins, walk thru city. Rippling sand – an ugly beauty. Erev Tisha B’Av. Armed guards everywhere. Everything closed…. Put up in the soldiers club, straw mattresses on ground, our own blankets, no pillow, no water.”
Bernice’s diary entry describes the gripping moment when they were each given a candle and sat on the ground in the dark to recite kinot: “The wilderness of Beer Sheba – darkness – revelation of God to Abraham – the Negev.”
Toward the end of their stay, the group reached the spiritual high point of the trip: the divided Holy City. “On the top of the mountains of Judea is Jerusalem, unimaginable beauty!”
Before entering the city they stopped at several of the settlements in the Jerusalem corridor, settled by former Palmach soldiers, including one where a wedding was taking place. “Imagine 70 people suddenly falling in on a wedding,” Bernice wrote. “Unforgettable.”
The group’s official guide was Israel’s foremost geographer, Prof. Ze’ev Vilnai. “We were considered the crème de la crème,” Bernice told me years later, “and treated as such. Not in terms of physical conditions but in terms of who we met and how they addressed us.”
Young people love adventure and this group was no exception. Bernice’s diary includes entries that might appear in any group’s diary today: descriptions of nighttime excursions in Jerusalem on the back of a motorcycle, meeting young Israeli men, drinking coffee and more at local night spots while on tour, and dancing long into the night.
Other entries are clearly from a distant era: coming across barricaded, fortified areas in Jerusalem where prisoner exchanges took place; viewing a destroyed Ramat Rachel and a far-away Bethlehem; and going up on a rooftop to see the Mount of Olives and the captured Old City of Jerusalem while being watched by Jordanian Legionnaires on rooftops across the way, who aimed their rifles straight at them.
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All too quickly the trip came to an end. Many from the group went home with empty suitcases, having left their clothes for newly arrived Jewish refugees from various lands. Warned that American customs agents would not allow them to bring in most items available in Israel (“not even lulavim!”), Bernice bought a keffiyeh in the Arab market in Beersheba as a memento.
There was one more item she brought back: “The only thing I did get through customs was a bag of Jerusalem dirt, hidden between a towel, to eventually be used for my beloved parents, grandparents, and others who were alive at the time.”
During its eighteen-year existence, the American Student and Professorial Workshop brought over 1,000 young people to Israel, introducing them to life in the Jewish state. Bernice stayed in touch with some of the individuals who had been in her group or whom she had met in Israel, and continued to follow what happened to a few of the others.
Watchman Reuven Bar-Levav indeed married an American and became a psychiatrist in Michigan. David Ben-Gurion and Paula eventually retired to Sde Boker in the Negev. The group’s young friend, Shimon with the clipboard, later became the country’s defense minister, prime minister, and president – Shimon Peres.
“It was indeed the trip of a lifetime,” Bernice summed up, “a historic new concept in study and exposure to a new world.”
One girl from the group remained in Israel, and Bernice was certain that she, too, would finish school, pack her bags, and return to settle there as well.
“But then I asked myself, was it a summer romance or was it for real? The test would be what would happen in between.”
What happened in between was Arthur Schwartz, a young, handsome war veteran who was a graduate student at the Columbia School of Social Work and came to the Bronx Y where Bernice worked in order to complete his required practical hours. But that is a story unto itself, to be told next month.
This installment of the Bernice Chronicles is dedicated in honor of Bernice’s grandson Chaim Yedidiya Schwartz, whose birthday is Lag B’Omer, 18 Iyar, which this year coincided with May 14.