My introduction to Hadassah took place behind barbed wires, surrounded by the British Army in Palestine. A delegation from Hadassah was visiting Palestine in 1947 and they came to look at the survivors who were ensconced in the Atlit detention Camp.

We were recently released from the Cyprus camp and brought to Atlit as part of the British project of fooling the world that they were allowing immigration to the Holy Land. I was one of some 250 North American volunteers who had served in WWII and then recruited as crewmen for Aliya Bet. We volunteers actually brought over 50 percent of the survivors to Palestine, only to be caught and sent to the Cyprus barbed wire-enclosed camps. (Calling the vessels “ships” is quite an exaggeration, as they were barely seaworthy).

The Royal British Navy was out in force and captured us. Our ship, the Hatikva, was captured and we were deported to Cyprus together with the genuine survivors. Over 50,000 persons were actually caught and deported to Cyprus.

Only when the State of Israel was declared did the British allow the vast majority to come to Palestine. Even at that juncture the British kept over 10,000 Jews in Cyprus until January l949, claiming that these were all potential soldiers and they were upholding the embargo (while the Arabs poured into the country with weapons and manpower).

So here in Atlit, we were surprised to see a group of nicely dressed women standing outside the barbed wire. My fellow shipmate shouted out “Shalom” to the women. It turns out that they were members of Hadassah, including its president, Judith Epstein.

She noticed someone she knew on our side of the fence and called out to Harold Katz, “What are you doing behind barbed wire, Harold?” Katz responded, “Mrs. Epstein, what are you doing on that side?” Upon my return to the US after my release, I was a novelty and spoke on behalf of UJA and others. A classmate of mine, Annabelle Bienenfeld, now a Jerusalemite, was active in Hadassah and she corralled me into speaking to her group.

That was my introduction to Zionism.

Years later, as executive director of AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel), I found myself meeting Rose Halperin, Charlotte Jacobson and other top Hadassah women. AACI was in need of money as it was not connected to any group abroad or political group in Israel.

The women of Hadassah were ready to go to bat for us at the Jewish Agency and so we received a small budget. As we became friendlier, Hadassah and AACI partnered in forming a mortgage fund for new immigrants.

Quite a number of North Americans fell in the War of Independence. The first one, Bill Bernstein – a graduate of King’s Point Maritime Academy, was actually killed by the British attack on the illegal ship Exodus. I mentioned to the Hadassah women the need for a memorial plaque forest in the names of the victims. They immediately responded and funds were provided for a memorial in the Jerusalem Forest.

There, an annual memorial takes place, with many names of North American victims of war and terror, the number having been unfortunately added to since the initial inauguration.

Through all the years of Israel’s existence, Hadassah has been walking step for step in helping to build the country and recognize its achievements.

The writer is an American-born Israeli author and publisher. He was a founding member of AACI and the founder of Gefen Publishing.

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