When homeland becomes home: Israel through the eyes of senior immigrants

In April 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits senior citizens living at a retirement home in Jerusalem, showing them a picture of David Ben-Gurion's announcement of Israeli independence at Tel Aviv's Independence Hall on May 14, 1948. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90.
In April 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits senior citizens living at a retirement home in Jerusalem, showing them a picture of David Ben-Gurion's announcement of Israeli independence at Tel Aviv's Independence Hall on May 14, 1948. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90.

By Deborah Fineblum Schabb/

Like other Jews his age, Gerry Wine remembers the day Israel was born—May 14, 1948—and the United Nations vote the previous November that opened the door to a Jewish state. He was 8 years old.

“These were magical moments for all of us, very, very exciting times,” Wine says. “Even us kids were celebrating.”

Growing up, Wine recalls wearing blue and white to religious school to honor the nascent state, dropping coins for tzedakah into the blue tin box in the kitchen. But he didn’t truly begin to appreciate the miracle of Israel until he was married and a young father, and a non-Jewish friend told him after the Six-Day War in 1967, “You guys really know how to whup ’em.”

“That offhand comment of his planted a seed, a sense of pride in our people and the amazing things we were doing there,” says Wine.

Even so, Wine never dreamed that the infant nation his family was cheering back in 1948 would become his home more than six decades later.

The official reason Wine and his wife Sandy made aliyah in 2012 from Sharon, Mass., was the son and his family already living in Modi’in, midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

“They certainly were the big green light,” says Sandy Wine, 74. “But what I did not expect was to fall in love with Israel. If you’d told me 10 years ago I would be living here and loving it, I would have thought you were crazy. Now all I want to know is why doesn’t everyone live here?”

Like the Wines, many seniors who now live in Israel can recall the moment the U.N. passed the resolution to partition the land in 1947, allowing for the formation of the State of Israel and David Ben-Gurion’s declaration the following May.

As a 19-year-old living in Hartford, Conn., Hannah Libman recalls sweating each U.N. vote.

“I sat near the radio and counted them as they came in,” she says. “I can still feel it, it was so huge, the joy of it, but also the fear that we would not get the votes we needed.”

Understanding that the Holocaust preceded Israel’s establishment, Libman valued the moment all the more. She was born in Germany in 1936, and her family escaped before Hitler’s net closed on the rest of her relatives.

“We didn’t know the details until later, but we knew what was happening over there was terrible, that my grandparents were missing and my father’s Polish family was also missing,” Libman says. “To us, we knew Israel would be a place where Jews could be safe.”

Like the Wines, Libman and her husband Alfred were pulled to Israel by family—a daughter, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. With Hannah now 86 and Alfred nearly 90, the Libmans arrived last summer from West Hartford, Conn., and are now living in Jerusalem senior housing.

“We’d been living near our son in New York and visiting [Israel] a couple times a year,” says Hannah. “But one day we woke up and chose Israel. Now we say every day, ‘Isn’t this wonderful?’We’re on this lovely vacation with a new life and new friends—and our grands and great-grands are determined not to let us get bored.”

Chaya (Claire) Subar, formerly of Rochester, N.Y., has since 2007 also counted herself a resident of Jerusalem, along with her husband David. Having narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Nazis and spent the war years being cared for by Polish farmers, Subar reunited with her mother by 1948 and was living in a community of Holocaust survivors in Stuttgart, Germany.

“I remember seeing a picture of a short guy with bushy eyebrows and bushy hair,” says Subar, who is now in her mid-70s. “And I knew that he had something to do with a new country for Jewish people. Everyone we knew was so happy.”

Indeed, Holocaust survivors had a deep appreciation for the newly established Jewish state.

“I know how happy I was,” says Hungarian-born Edith Sykora, 85, who survived Auschwitz and spent nearly a half-century in the U.S. before making aliyah nine years ago to Ra’anana with her now-deceased husband Joel.

“It really is wonderful being here with my children and grandchildren,” she says. “It’s fantastic what they did here in not even 70 years.”

As a girl growing up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Eva Rabotnicoff Dimensteinas also understood that somewhere far away, there was now “a place where Jewish people could be safe.” Now 73 and, as of last July, an Israeli citizen with her husband Leon (they live in Ma’ale Adumim), she feels the blessing all the more keenly. 

“We love it here,” she says. “This country is a very good place for our grandchildren to grow up.”

Former New Jersey residents Carl and Anita Jacobs, who left for Jerusalem four years ago, are both the same age as the State of Israel—67.

“Everywhere we go there are these neon signs that say ‘67’ and… I know we’re 67, but now they are constantly reminding us,” Anita says with a laugh.

In perhaps the ultimate introduction to the Jewish state, Anita had the chance to spend time with former prime minister Golda Meir, who stayed at the family’s New Jersey home during a fundraising tour in the 1950s.

“She was very much like my bubbe, very gentle—and taller than you’d think,” says Anita.

Even as a child, Anita came to understand the importance of Israel. 

“I knew even then that this land is my heritage, and I really wanted to be a part of it,” she says.

As a teenager, Jacobs would help finance her very first trip to Israel in 1965 with her babysitting earnings. Years later, she would become the New York area director of the Jewish National Fund, traveling regularly to Israel for both business and pleasure. Though “jobs and kids and elderly parents” would keep Anita and Carl in the U.S. for many years, they are now (mostly) retired and free to live their Israel dream, which includes regular army base volunteer stints through the IDF’s Sar-El program.

Since moving to Israel and seeing the Jewish state from inside, these seniors have developed their own takes on the situation here. The first reaction for most is an ineffable sense of pride.

“Intelligence and ingenuity, these are our people’s gift to the world,” says Sandy Wine. “And Israel is where it’s headquartered. Just read ‘Start-Up Nation’ if you’re not convinced.”

For many, that pride is personified in their grandchildren’s accomplishments.

“When I see my grandchildren serving in the IDF, I am filled with pride,” says New York native Barbara Greenberg, 70, who has lived in Ra’anana for 16 years near her kids and grandkids.

Much of the satisfaction of living in Israel is, for Sandy Wine, seeing her grandchildren growing up in the Jewish homeland. 

“Their friends are more like close cousins,” she says. “There are no play dates you have to drive to, since the kids walk, bike, and bus happily to friends. It’s strange that the world sees this place as less safe when the kids have so much more freedom here. They’re empowered, this is their country, their home, and they feel that.”

“Living here at our age is the frosting on the cake of our lives,” says Hannah Libman, who was scurrying around her apartment preparing lunch for four granddaughters. “We had a wonderful life in America, but now I feel like I came home.”

As to what the future holds for their adopted homeland, most of the seniors spoke with are cautiously optimistic. Carl Jacobs is concerned by the recent surge in anti-Semitic attacks around the world and the ongoing negative media coverage of Israel.

“Plus so many Jewish kids in America are not prepared to refute it,” he says. “They just don’t know the real story of the Jewish people and the importance of Israel.”

Sixteen years into her life in Israel, Barbara Greenberg describes herself as “optimistic, because our greatest strength is our people, the mix of people from all over, and for the most part, everyone gets along. We understand the importance of having a Jewish state, especially since our homeland has become our home too.”

“Warts and all, Israel is the best news the Jewish people have had in a long time,” says Subar, who survived the Nazis. “Where else and when else in history have we had our own army to protect us?”

Sykora, her fellow Holocaust survivor, agrees.

“I’m sure there are certain things [about Israel] that are not for the best, too much politics,” she says with a sigh. “But still, it’s fantastic.”

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