Magazine

Destiny fulfilled

Belle Fine-Cohen has suffered setbacks, but she remained undefeated and determined to move here.

Belle Fine-Cohen
Photo by: Abigail Klein Lichman
In 1947, David Ben-Gurion sat four-year-old Belle Plonchak on his lap at a fund-raiser at the Workmen’s Circle in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Little Belle had brought along her jar of pennies, and her father challenged the crowd to match the coins with dollars. Thus $150,000 was handed to Ben-Gurion to buy ammunition for the coming War of Independence.

And here is the gist of what the future Israeli prime minister told Belle in Yiddish: “You probably don’t understand what I’m saying, but someday you will be raising a lot of money for Israel and you will make aliya.”

“I remembered it and I always knew I was supposed to go to Israel,” says Belle, though she was unable to fulfill that destiny for another 56 years. She was just 18 when her father died, and she therefore remained in New York to be near her mother.

“I was brought up living and breathing Israel. My father had served in the first British Jewish Brigade in Israel, and every week he and his friends met at the Workmen’s Circle in Brooklyn and talked about Israel.”

HAVING SPENT each Shabbat with her maternal grandparents in nearby Brighton Beach – most of her father’s family had been murdered in a pogrom prior to World War II – Belle also knew from early on that she wanted to work with the elderly. Gerontology wasn’t yet a recognized field when she went to college, but she got a master’s degree in counseling the aging, and certification as a gerontologist.

“I worked as the nutritionist at the first nutrition program for the elderly at the YM-YWHA in Brighton Beach, and I taught arts and crafts and oil painting to children and seniors,” she relates.

At the same time, she raised money for Israel in various synagogue and federation venues. She recalls helping her neighbors collect medical supplies to send overseas at the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Trained in Gestalt and bioenergetics, she’s interested in natural foods and alternative medicine, and took courses with humor-and-healing expert Bernie Siegel as well as Deepak Chopra, pioneer of the mind-body approach to medicine.

Today, Belle does pro-bono wellness counseling, and co-chairs the Jerusalem branch of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. She works with staff at this volunteer-based organization to develop programs and events geared to helping immigrants acclimate to Israel.

“We are a home away from home for the English-speaking community, helping keep new and old olim up-to-date on what is happening here and in America and Canada as Israelis.”

Her own adjustment has been remarkable, especially considering that she arrived at age 60 and chose to stay despite being widowed just a few years after her arrival. Her Hebrew is rudimentary and she has no relatives in Israel.

SHE HAS a son, David, from her brief marriage to John Stark at age 19. He lives in Florida. Her son Daniel, from her marriage to the late Joseph Fine, lives in Arizona. She’d met Fine when she was directing therapeutic recreation at a Brooklyn nursing home. He was in the personnel department. Months after their 1971 marriage they moved to Yonkers, New York, where Belle went to work for a Jewish Federation-run nursing home in the Bronx. “We wanted the kids to grow up in the suburbs,” she explains.

After she finished her master’s degree, she became director of a federal employment and training program in Connecticut. During her 20 years in that state, she founded a day-care program for elderly people with developmental disabilities, and a pilot community living program for medically fragile adults. Her husband died in 1991, followed by her mother, and Belle left Connecticut for Florida in 1995.

Three years later, she began working for an agency that served people with mental retardation. One of the clients assaulted her and she suffered a serious head injury and six herniated disks. She was obliged to go on permanent disability and spent two years in rehabilitation.

“I had to have complete neuropsychological retraining,” she relates, “and I have learned to live with post-traumatic stress disorder.”

She was in a wheelchair for a while and then “graduated” to a walker and a cane.

Three weeks after 9/11, Belle came to Israel for the first time.

“As soon as I walked off plane I knew I was supposed to be here,” she says.

While shopping in the Jewish Quarter, her traveling companion urged her to descend the steps to the Western Wall.

“I thought there was no way I could do that,” she recalls, but her friend insisted. “It took me an hour and half to walk down the steps, but they had closed the Kotel because of a bomb scare, so we had to walk right back up.”

Rather than feeling defeated, the experience led her to two important decisions: She threw away the walker and cane, and she started planning her aliya.

UPON HER return to Florida, she took out a trial subscription to the Jewish Cupid matchmaking website.

That is how she met Maurice Cohen, the younger brother of Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy executed by Syria in 1965.

“He came from a Middle East male chauvinistic background and I came from an American liberated female background, and there was a mutual attraction. He wanted a woman who was independent and I wanted to come to Israel.”

Maurice proposed on the phone after a seven-month long-distance correspondence, so they were already engaged when he flew to Florida on April 1, 2003, to meet his future bride and her sons. They also went to Brazil and New York to meet his sons. Two months later, Belle stored her belongings and moved to Ramat Gan.

“I came on a trial basis to see whether we really liked each other,” she says. Until Maurice died in December 2006, his wife accompanied him on frequent speaking engagements about his brother’s story, and helped him write his personal memoir, which was never published due to his untimely death. Despite the Cohen family’s efforts, Eli Cohen’s body remains in Syria. His last surviving brother now runs the website elicohen.org.

Belle returned to the US “to do some bonding with my children,” but after two years she’d had enough of the Diaspora. “I couldn’t stand it there. It wasn’t home.”

In March 2009, she returned to Israel – but this time to Jerusalem, where her husband’s attorney and his wife took her under their wing. She lived near them in Givat Shaul for a year and then rented an apartment in Old Katamon.

“It was time for me to get out on my own and spread my wings,” she says.

Even without relatives nearby, “you’re never really alone,” Belle observes. “Israel is like one big family. One time I fell in the shuk and five people came running over to help. It’s the camaraderie that I love about Israelis, although they drive me crazy with their rudeness.” She laughs. “You develop a thick skin and ignore it.”


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