Veterans: The little Dutch girl

Chana Loecher, 65 Port Jervis, New York, to Jerusalem, 1982

By ABIGAIL KLEIN
May 27, 2010 13:24
Chana Loecher at the ALYN bike ride

old lady 311. (photo credit: courtesy)

 
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Chana Loecher sits behind the wheel in a midtown Jerusalem traffic jam, smiling. “So many cars!” she marvels. “So many Jews! Who could have imagined this 60 years ago?”

And who could have imagined that this Dutch woman, born Anneke Jak, would spend 25 years of Mondays driving elderly Jerusalemites to and from Melabev Community Clubs for Elder Care?

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Loecher was chosen as the Friends of Melabev’s honoree for its eighth annual “virtual dinner” on 1 Nisan (March 16). Her faithful pickup-and-return routine is only one of the volunteer jobs she has taken upon herself over 28 years here. And though she loves traversing the roads of her adopted homeland by car, she is just as happy swimming in its waters and biking its trails.

BACKGROUND

Loecher was born in the cellar of her family’s Netherlands home during a World War II bombing raid. Growing up as the seventh of 10 children living next to a military base in Soestdyk, she was an athletic and adventurous child. From a young age, she regularly carried 20 kilos of milk to customers from her parents’ dairy store. As a teen, she biked 40 kilometers to work each day as a swimming instructor, and played sports including water polo.

At 18, she took a motorcycle trip to Scotland and then worked for the Dutch attaché in Copenhagen. Later, she spent time in Scandinavia including Lapland, where she experienced the spectacle of the northern lights and worked for nine months picking cloudberries.

“I always wanted to see and experience,” she says. “You meet people, stay for a while, and then you go on.”

At 27, Anneke – now renamed Chana – met and married Jerry (Gershon) Loecher in New York and became a stepmother to his son and two daughters. Living in a rural setting near Port Jervis, the Loechers and Rabbi Nachum Laskin started the Hebrew Day School of Orange County in Middletown, NY, when their growing brood became of school age. Many of the children who attended the school are, like the Loechers, now living here.  

The family’s own journey to Israel began when Gershon’s son won a scholarship to the Weizmann Institute of Science and consequently decided to make aliya. Gershon and Chana came for a five-week visit with their five little ones and rented a place in Jerusalem’s Old City.

“They loved it and didn’t want to go back,” Loecher recalls. “I said to my husband, ‘We have to move anyway when the kids are ready for high school, so why not go “home” now?’ That was January 1982, and we came on aliya that August. We never regretted the move.”
Gershon’s mother also made the transatlantic move, years later, at the age of 90.

SETTLING IN

Together with 20 other English-speaking families, including two Dutch couples, the Loechers lived in the Mevaseret Zion absorption center for two years. “It was a fantastic adjustment to communal life,” says Loecher. They welcomed their sixth child there, and a seventh was born after they moved to an apartment in the brand-new neighborhood of Har Nof. They moved to their present house in Har Nof 24 years ago. When she was 44, Loecher gave birth to the couple’s eighth child.

The busy young mother did not hesitate when a friend asked if she had one hour a week to take people to and from Melabev (melabev.org), which had just started offering a socialization group for seniors with dementia. “I said, ‘Of course. I can put the kids in the back of the van.’ And that’s how it started.”

Loecher is devoted to a variety of volunteer activities and projects. Monday mornings, for the past 15 years, she has sorted donations at a second-hand clothing gemach in Har Nof. Twice a week, she leads therapeutic water aerobics for women. She recalls a few “clients” asking how they could compensate her; the answer was to recite a few chapters of Psalms.

For several years, Loecher also organized children’s swim-a-thons at the now-closed Beit Zayit pool to raise funds for needy brides through the Yad Trudy organization.

“The Almighty gives you gifts and capacities, and you can use them for the community at large,” says Loecher, who makes time on Fridays to visit with several elderly friends. “Sometimes people are afraid to commit themselves. They should not be. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Our time is not our own anyway, and we should make the best of it.”

GOING THE DISTANCE FOR OTHERS

A Jerusalem Post article of October 7, 1996, reports that a 52-year-old, Dutch-born Jerusalem grandmother was planning to swim the breadth of Lake Kinneret for charity. That grandmother was Chana Loecher.

Years earlier, she had worked with an autistic boy to make him feel comfortable in the water. When he was a teenager, his mother told Loecher about her dream of opening a group home for autistic young adults. So Loecher found sponsors and dove into an 11-kilometer fund-raising swim from Ein Gev to Tiberias. Aside from emerging seriously dehydrated after nearly five hours, she was successful in her quest – although many more years passed until the project materialized. Last summer, the Israeli Society for Autistic Children (Alut) opened its home in Gilo.

Loecher twice participated in Wheels of Love bike rides for Alyn Hospital. She is a regular in the annual Melabev “Don’t Forget Us” walk-a-thon, and now is preparing for the 400-meter run to benefit Shalva, the Har Nof-based association for children with disabilities where she performs water therapy. And she’s thinking about volunteering at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens as well.

Wherever she roams, Loecher takes along big bags to collect litter and recyclables.

“We have beautiful nature here, and I can’t stand to see it messed up,” she says. “On my last Melabev walk, I collected paper and another woman collected plastic bottles. We left the northern trail spick-and-span between Rosh Hanikra and Meron.”

FAMILY AND SPIRITUALITY

Four of the Loecher children are married with children of their own – one in Efrat, one in Kfar Adumim, one in Caesarea and one in Baltimore. There is a son in San Diego, a son and daughter in Jerusalem and a daughter finishing her military service in the search-and-rescue unit.

Before sunrise on the first day of every Jewish month, Loecher drives to the Western Wall. She observes with satisfaction that the roads leading to this sacred space are “the only place in the world where you find a traffic jam at five in the morning.”

But she revels in all of Israel. “I am so grateful to be here. In the smallest country in the region, we have everything. Wherever you come from, you can find something that reminds you of your previous residence. Traveling from Latrun to Ashdod reminds me of the green flat fields of Holland. ”

Loecher has taught her children and grandchildren to relish nature as she does.

“The most beautiful, amazing sunsets are in Jerusalem and when I see them I say, ‘God is painting.’ The other day my grandchild called and said, ‘Grandmom, look outside – God is painting.’ And I say, ‘It’s free! All good things in life are free.’”

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