Seniors | Starting over: Living the dream in the Holy Land

Like many 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.”

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

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits residents of a Jerusalem retirement home. photo/jns-gpo-flash90-amos ben gershom

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

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.

Wine and his wife, Sandy, primarily made aliyah in 2012 from Sharon, Massachusetts, to be near their 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 she thinks it’s crazy not to live there.

Many seniors who made aliyah still 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 now-famous declaration the following May.

Hannah Libman remembers sweating each U.N. vote as a 19-year-old in Hartford, Connecticut. 

“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.”

Knowing 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,” she says. “We knew Israel would be a place where Jews could be safe.”

Edith Sykora

Like the Wines, Libman and her husband, Alfred, were pulled to Israel by family — a daughter, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. They arrived last summer from West Hartford, Connecticut, and are 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, 86. “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” — plus her children and great-grandchildren “are determined not to let us get bored.”

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

Barbara Greenberg

“I remember seeing a picture of a short guy with bushy eyebrows and bushy hair,” says Chaya, 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 husband, now deceased.

“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 “a place where Jewish people could be safe.” Now 73 and, as of last July, an Israeli citizen with husband Leon, 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 left for Jerusalem four years ago. In perhaps the ultimate introduction to the Jewish state, Anita, 67, had the chance to spend time with Golda Meir, the former prime minister, who stayed with her family during a fundraising tour in the 1950s.

“She was very much like my bubbe, very gentle — and taller than you’d think,” Anita recalls. “I knew even then that this land is my heritage, and I really wanted to be a part of it.”

Anita helped finance her 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 the couple in the U.S. for many years, they now are free to live their Israel dream, which includes regular army base volunteer stints through the Israel Defense Forces’ Sar-El program.

Living in the Holy Land changes one’s perspective on the situation here, many agree. A common first reaction 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 immigrants, 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.

Sandy Wine derives pleasure from 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.”