Barbara Silverman was a young mother when a roomful of Chicago doctors told her she had just six weeks to live Now a great-grandmother, she recalls that long-ago episode as she sits in her Jerusalem apartment. She has outlived many of the physicians in that room and beaten cancer four additional times. She not only survived, but thrived. Always a doer, her latelife project, called A Package from Home, is still going strong after 13 years.

She started this initiative in response to the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. Enlisting the help of neighbors and family, Silverman began assembling care packages for soldiers. Word quickly spread. Soon the IDF was picking up the boxes to distribute, and checks started coming from well-wishers all over the world. A fund-raising concert for A Package from Home, featuring the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, was set to take place on January 17.

During Operation Pillar of Defense, donations totaling $66,000 enabled her weekly volunteer crew to fill 2,000 packages in three days. Each bag (targeted to lone soldiers, indigent and wounded soldiers) contains a bath towel, socks, a Tshirt, boxer shorts, toiletries, snacks – and, in colder months, warm winter clothing – accompanied by four letters of appreciation written by American Jewish children. More than 125,000 packages have gone out to date.

Third time’s a charm Chicago-born Barbara Bloom caught the Zionist bug during college from Batsheva Vilinsky Ayalon, the shliha (emissary) who led the local chapter of the Intercollegiate Zionist Federation of America. Nobody else from the group moved to Israel – which was not surprising, considering the austere conditions under which the brand-new state was struggling.

“My plan was to make aliya, but that wasn’t my parents’ plan,” she says.

Though they were Zionists, they would not let their daughter go to a place where she might starve or be killed. But finally, tired of her unhappy pouting, they suggested she spend her savings on a group trip in the summer of 1951. Perhaps the experience would cure her Zionist fever, they thought.

The Jewish Agency put the young adults in tents on Kibbutz Matzuva on the Lebanese border. “Even now, I remember the first day after working in the fields with the cucumbers,” Silverman says.

Running water was available only at certain times of day, a situation that instilled in her a lifelong feeling of wonder when water flows from a tap. “Every time I turn on the water faucet, I think about it,” she says more than six decades later.

She returned to Chicago 13 kilograms lighter due to a parasitic infection. Her parents felt sure she would never go back to Israel. But her convictions remained strong. “They called it ‘Barbara’s obsession.’ You see, once I understood why Jews have to be here rather than there, it was very clear to me.”

After graduating from Roosevelt University, she took a job in 1955 as assistant director of the Histadrut office in Miami. One year later, her boss called in some favors and got her a cabin on the brand-new Tapuz tanker sailing to Israel from New Orleans. During a month at sea, she did her share of work in the galley, learning some Hebrew before disembarking in Acre. She hoped her $500 in savings would tide her over until she got a job.

That money ran out after a year of what she calls “every bad experience anyone could have.” She even sold much of her clothing to survive a little longer on very little food. “You could get an enormous salted beigeleh for seven grush,” she recalls. “If you go hungry a few times, it’s a very good life lesson because it gives you an appreciation for a lot of things.”

Reluctantly, she went back to Chicago and got a job as assistant director at the Roosevelt University alumni office. She was introduced to a co-worker’s brother, attorney Marvin Silverman, and they married in 1957. Though he knew little about Israel, his new wife was a patient teacher. They and their three children took annual trips to Israel.

In 1976, unable to wait a moment longer, Barbara made aliya with their two daughters to a rented apartment in Jerusalem, expecting Marvin to follow once their son finished high school. But they went back after a year when it became clear that Marvin wasn’t ready.

Finally, in 1983, the Silvermans arrived permanently in Jerusalem with their younger daughter.

Today, one daughter lives in Rimonim and the other in Beit Shemesh. The Silvermans’ son remained in Chicago but works for a firm in Herzliya, so he is in Israel often. His son is serving in the IDF.

Now grandparents of 12 and greatgrandparents as well, the Silvermans express much satisfaction with their lives. At one time, Marvin was national president of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel.

Five-time survivor Barbara Silverman’s story is all the more remarkable for overcoming five bouts with cancer. She is featured in Anita Jacobs’s book, Portraits in Passion: Vision and Values of American-Israeli Women.

A pretty lavender beret covers the scars on Silverman’s head from brain surgery, which she talks about freely. Grateful to God for her resilience, she says she learned to take full advantage of every day.

Even before her first diagnosis, she and Marvin got involved with the nascent movement to save Soviet Jews. “A friend and I put together a kit telling people exactly how to get the information out, and we started sending it to synagogues all over – even Hawaii – and got a good response. I have no way to judge how well it worked out, but it gave us the sense it was possible to do something if we worked together.”

She had taught until her first pregnancy, and stayed involved in education through parental leadership roles at her children’s day school. She ran an interior decorating business in Chicago in the years before returning to Israel in 1983.

“When I came here, I thought to do the same thing but it wasn’t worthwhile with the tax structure, so Marvin suggested I do it for charity, and that’s what I did. People would make the check out to their favorite charity. That was very satisfying to me.”

When the intifada broke out, she began preparing and delivering Shabbat meals to soldiers at checkpoints. “Marvin said, ‘Barbara, you cannot feed the whole army.’ And that made me wonder how I could.”

She explains that her father had always told her if she planned well and saved enough money – and prayed hard enough – she could do anything “within reason.”

“If my mother and father thought I could do anything, then I could. That has helped me in every single thing,” says Silverman, who acknowledges her gratitude to like-minded folks she’s met in Israel.

“I am surrounded by people who want do something to help. I’ve met very few jerks here,” she jokes. “The things that have fallen on me have made my life very interesting. I am so blessed. Every day when I get up, it’s easy to say ‘thank you.’ I’m the luckiest Jew alive.”

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