Israel’s war in 1948 won independence for more than just the nascent nation. For Ruth Stern, coming here signified her own emergence as an independent woman. “Until I landed in Haifa, there had always been someone to take care of me,” she says.
Once here, Ruth would find her calling taking care of others and guiding them to seek their own passions.
When Ruth Saretzky learned of a youth trip departing for Palestine to learn about Zionism in 1946, she was determined to go despite the “roar of protest in South Africa,” she recalls. “We were the pre-guinea pigs of Masa.”
A group of 24 congregated in Durban to embark on a boat voyage that would take them, via Mombasa, Kenya, to Egypt, through the Suez Canal, to Port Said and from there, by train, to Palestine. “It was chaos, people with chickens, hot dusty, crowded – and like living in a film, so unreal and wonderful,” she remembers vividly. Her youth group was hosted by Ayanot, an agricultural school near Ness Ziona, where they learned Hebrew and a love of the land.
She did not take the experience too seriously at first, rather thinking of it as a “jolly good adventure.” A trip to the Negev, however, would change that perspective dramatically. Around a campfire, 25 young people were dancing. One young man, Uri, grabbed her and they danced through the night. The two would spend the next two weeks together on Kibbutz Revivim, as well as the next year that she spent in Israel. Back in South Africa, they kept up a correspondence until Ruth received a letter from the secretary of her kibbutz that Uri had been killed in an ambush. She knew at that moment she had to return.
“With Uri’s death, I had to dedicate my life to justify that sacrifice,” she says. “That spirit has remained with me even in times of great stress.”
When war erupted in 1948, an “electric current” went through South Africa. Hundreds of South African soldiers volunteered to fight for the new Israeli state. She begged the Zionist Federation to send her as a volunteer, but was turned away because she had no nursing experience. After pleading with her parents, she left with 19 young men who were “like me – full of ideology but not very sensible,” she chuckles. After a long journey across Europe, the Hagana met them and brought her to Sheba Hospital at Tel Hashomer, where she quickly learned nursing and set to taking care of fighters.
“When I came as Mahal [foreign volunteers], I had no plans of returning,” she says.
With soldiers continually needing care, she worked tirelessly with rapid on-the-job training.A SECOND LOVE
One day, after a particularly long and arduous night shift, a messenger came with an envelope for Ruth containing a note with a promotion to lieutenant. The hospital was crowded, so she quickly pinned the insignia on and got back to work. During her rounds, she noticed a man reading in English who was not seriously wounded, so she went over to investigate. “He flustered me,” she reminisces, “for the first time since Uri.” His name was Teddy Ben-Amar (né Bloomenfeld), a “dashing desert rat” who had opened the way to Eilat.
That evening, he came in to see her and talk despite her insistence that he was not allowed in the nurses’ room. Even after his discharge from the hospital, Teddy did not go far from Tel Hashomer.
After the war’s close, in June 1949, the pair transferred to Haifa so Teddy could study at the Technion and Ruth worked at a military hospital. They were married within two months.SETTLING IN
She quickly became immersed in her mothering their two sons, and the family eventually moved to Netanya. There she started teaching English at a high school and taking classes to improve her Hebrew. They soon moved to Ashkelon, where Teddy became the town engineer and she taught English in the Afridar neighborhood.
“This is when we became part of Ashkelon,” she says. She found her life’s calling in educating youth, saying, “I have taught them, and they me.” Eventually, she began teaching English at the Hebrew University High School. Over the years, she did radio courses on the Voice of Israel, teaching children across the country through songs.LOSS AND LOVE FOUND AGAIN
After losing Teddy in 1973 on a maneuver before the Yom Kippur War, Ruth focused on raising her boys and fulfillment through teaching. She moved to Jerusalem in 1974, where she still resides. Always a lover of language and learning, she decided to get a bachelor’s and then a master’s in English from Hebrew University. But her passionate relationship to teaching and her students would bring her more than classroom joy.
“The father of one of my pupils came to a PTA meeting at Hebrew University High School and didn’t go away,” she says of meeting Gideon Stern. Ruth and Gideon were married in 1978.ACTIVITIES
Though Stern is retired from her official teaching position, she keeps as active as ever. She is an avid writer, and has published autobiographic works as well as a volume of poetry.
ADVICE FOR NEW OLIM
Stern’s years have endowed her with insight and strong opinions about
the State of Israel. She encourages everyone around her not to see
Israel only through the news media, but to “see Israel as you see it –
find your own Israel.” She also advises newcomers to maintain a
Zionistic essence of history and right.
“Remember,” she says, “it is a privilege to be able to take part in
building after 2,000 years of exile. Don’t expect it to be prepared for
you! Come here with obligations as well as rights, to give of
yourselves. Israel is ours by right, not because we need security or
“It’s here I am at home, and I belong.”