Editor’s Note: This is the tenth 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 ninth part, “The Schwartzes of Teaneck,” appeared as the front-page essay in the Sept. 8 issue; part 11 will appear in November.
Sunday June 11, 1967 was an unseasonably warm day in New York City. It was even warmer in Israel, where it was the first quiet day after nearly a week of warfare.
The Six-Day War had just ended with decisive Israeli victories on all fronts. Jews in Israel and abroad were euphoric. The Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall were back in Jewish hands; so were the tombs of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. Israel now stretched from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, from the Golan Heights to the Suez Canal.
It was a war that would change the country’s destiny. It would also change the destiny of Joshua Schwartz of Teaneck, New Jersey.
At 7 o’clock that evening of June 11, the United Jewish Appeal held a special benefit gala at Madison Square Garden dubbed “Stars for Israel.” The hall was filled to overflowing with adults while the upper balconies were packed with Jewish teenagers who had come with their schools.
Big-name celebrities including Ed Sullivan, Alan King, Eydie Gorme, Steve Lawrence, Leslie Uggams, and Jan Peerce entertained the crowd, and Mayor John Lindsay and Senators Jacob Javits and Robert Kennedy called on America to support Israel.
The highlight of the evening was a short and last-minute talk, partly in Hebrew, by former Israeli foreign minister (and future prime minister) Golda Meir.
Speaking of the sacrifices made by the young nation, and the great strides it had taken in just nineteen years of existence, she turned directly to the youngsters in the audience with a simple plea: “Come to Israel. Israel needs you.”
One of the teenagers in the balcony was Joshua Schwartz, a freshman at Yeshiva University High School for Boys in Manhattan who was electrified by her words.
“It was at that moment that I knew where I was going to make my future,” he said when he recounted the story of that evening almost half a century later.
“She said ‘come.’ And I knew I was going.”
For years Joshua had heard his mother (my future mother-in-law), Bernice, speak about her own trip to Israel in 1949 with the first American student group to tour the country. And he had spent hours pouring over the 1962 Life World Library volume on Israel by Robert St. John that his parents kept in their library.
There were, however, a few things holding him back from pursuing his dream, mainly the fact that he was just fourteen and had a few more years of high school still ahead of him.
“I didn’t talk about it,” said Joshua, “but I had made my mind up and nothing would change it.”
Bernice had never lost her own love for Israel, so it was hardly a surprise that she and Joshua’s father, Arthur, agreed to his request to go to Israel for the summer after his high school graduation, and found him a Jewish Agency-sponsored work program on a kibbutz.
And so it was that in late June 1970, Joshua found himself on an El Al plane filled with other young American Jews on the same Jewish Agency kibbutz program.
Before the trip, Bernice had given Joshua her diary from her 1949 student study tour.
“How would I know that one day a beloved son would make the trip to Eretz Yisrael,” she added at the end.
* * * * *
Joshua had never been to Israel but the family had relatives there, including his paternal grandfather Hyman’s sister Esther, who had immigrated to Israel from Europe with her husband, Reuven Ben-Aharon.
His parents had informed the Ben-Aharons that Joshua, their great-nephew, would be volunteering at Kibbutz Be’erot Yitzchak, a relatively short distance from their home in Tel Aviv.
But Joshua never ended up at Be’erot Yitzchak. He recalled: “We landed at night. The airport was dark and we got off the plane and onto the buses going to the various kibbutzim. Like most of the religious volunteers, I was slated for Be’erot Yitzchak, a religious kibbutz, but before we left the representative of Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in the Beit She’an Valley up north got on the bus and said he needed volunteers.”
The Jewish Agency had not divided up the religious volunteers evenly. There were only four people on the Sde Eliyahu bus, possibly because of the security situation in the Beit She’an Valley: Palestinians were still shooting Katyusha rockets from Jordan at the kibbutzim in the area.
The Sde Eliyahu representative, who no doubt feared going back to his kibbutz nearly empty handed – volunteers, after all, were part of the work force – made no mention of that, instead stressing that Sde Eliyahu would be a “real” pioneering experience. So Joshua changed buses.
The trip up north passed through Nahal Iron (Wadi Ara) with its many large Arab villages. Upon reaching Sde Eliyahu, the American volunteers were sent to their sleeping quarters in the 1940s-style barracks of the original kibbutz, which were more like primitive shacks than barracks.
Only in the light of morning did the volunteers realize the kibbutz was actually quite nice-looking by Israeli standards circa 1970. (As for the barracks, they were knocked down at the end of the summer and from then on volunteers had better housing.)
Joshua worked in the vineyard. It was far from a picnic, though. “We got up at about 3:15 in the morning and had to be in the lunchroom at 3:45 to go out to the fields. Because of the heat, we worked through the morning with a break for breakfast and then quit at noon for lunch. I picked grapes. To determine if they were ripe, you tasted one to see if it was sweet and spat it out. Unfortunately for them, I liked sour grapes and they quickly sent me to the chicken coops.”
There were no other volunteers in the coops; Joshua worked with kibbutzniks, basically doing whatever they did – and actually enjoying it.
Meanwhile, Joshua’s family in Israel and in America had no idea where he was. Thinking he would be at nearby Be’erot Yitzchak, his Aunt Esther had expected to see him three afternoons a week. Sde Eliyahu, though, was three hours away by bus, and it was weeks after he arrived in Israel that he made his first visit to her home.
An aerogramme Joshua had sent his parents after his arrival at Sde Eliyahu seemingly took forever to reach the U.S., and Bernice and Arthur first learned of the kibbutz switch two weeks after Joshua left New York – and only after using their connections at the Jewish Agency office in New York, whose bureaucrats had not bothered to inform them of their son’s new whereabouts.
* * * * *
Joshua described his summer on the kibbutz as “a trip to remember,” chicken coops and all.
“The coops were messy,” he said. “When I returned to the U.S., my shoes were caked in chicken droppings and tied to the outside of my suitcase for obvious reasons. The customs official took me aside and asked where I had been. ‘In Israel on a kibbutz,’ I answered.
“ ‘What did you do there?’ he asked, to which I answered that I had worked in the chicken coop.
“He took my shoes and told me to have a seat. Twenty minutes later, he returned with the shoes, cleaned and polished courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”
His six weeks on the kibbutz had dispelled even the slightest doubt Joshua might have had about living in Israel. Filled with enthusiasm, he told his parents he wanted to leave Yeshiva University at the end of his freshman year to become a kibbutznik or, if that wouldn’t work, to immediately continue his B.A. studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
His parents weren’t prepared to hear that. Bernice recalled how Arthur took Joshua down to his basement office for a talk “and told him ‘you have to finish what you began.’ ”
The result was a contract between the two, with Joshua promising to finish his B.A. at YU “and after he had his degree we wouldn’t stand in his way if he wanted to make aliyah.”
As the next summer drew nearer, Joshua decided to spend another six weeks at Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, this time not with a group but as an individual volunteer.
“I contacted my old boss in the chicken coop to see if I could come back to work there,” said Joshua. “He passed on the request to my kibbutz ‘father’ Shauli, who was also the kibbutz ‘manager’ at the time, and they invited me back for the summer.”
* * * * *
Another year passed and Joshua had finished half his college studies. With his parents’ approval, he enrolled in the “junior year abroad” program at Hebrew University. The kibbutz was his home away from home before and after his studies and during vacations and holidays. This time he was sent to the fields to work in the date palm groves, an experience that abruptly ended when he fell off a ladder while holding a 50-lb. cluster of dates and breaking his collarbone. The crooked collarbone, not really set at the hospital in Afula, would remain a permanent souvenir of his kibbutz climbing experiences.
Gradually Joshua came to realize that, earlier expectations to the contrary, kibbutz life was not for him. During the 1972-73 academic year at Hebrew University he lived at the Bnei Akiva maon (hostel) in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, having registered too late for the university dormitory. He left Israel at the end of August 1973 to complete his senior year at YU.
Six weeks later, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on Yom Kippur.
“I had just come back to the U.S. from Israel before the war, and not being there was very hard for me. I worried about my family and friends, especially about those on the kibbutz, and tried to make contact with everyone I could.”
The kibbutz never came under fire as Jordan played a very limited role in the war. Unfortunately, though, not all of the kibbutzniks or volunteers who served in the IDF survived the fighting.
Before long, Joshua’s senior year at YU was over and it was time to pack. He was awarded the Abraham Mazar Scholarship for graduate studies in Jewish history at Hebrew University.
Bernice described how hard it was for her and Arthur to face the fact that their eldest son would be moving 6,000 miles away.
“He kept his part of the contract and so we kept ours. An application to Harvard sat on the mantelpiece in our house and we hoped he would at least fill it out and send it. But he said ‘Harvard has nothing to offer me,’ and off he went to Jerusalem.”
Notwithstanding her deep love for Israel, Bernice was not happy about her son’s move.
“What mother would be? I didn’t want my son so far away from us. But I had been to Israel in 1949 and thought at the time that I might want to move there. So how could we stand in his way?”
In the late summer of 1974, an emotional Arthur and a tearful Bernice once again took their son to the airport for a flight to Israel, knowing that this time it likely would be for good.
It was the beginning of a new chapter in their lives, to be told in the concluding two installments of this series.
This installment of The Bernice Chronicles is dedicated to the memory of Bernice’s father, Samuel Cohen (Shalom Chaim ben Reuven Leib and Chaya Yenta), whose yahrzeit is 7 Cheshvan (Oct. 27 this year).