What are you guys planning to serve for lunch?" Can you believe it? That was the first question asked when we went on our first fundraising campaign in Haifa. We had no land to build on, we hadn't raised a dime and people wanted to know what they would have for lunch," recalls Walter Robinson, the founding chairman of Beth Protea, a retirement home in Herzliya primarily for the South African community in Israel.
Dublin-born Robinson was quick off the mark. "Well, if you don't cough-up and start contributing, there will be no Beth Protea to serve lunch," he replied.
Seven years later, in July 1992, lunch was served to the first residents of Beth Protea.
During Hanukka in December, residents, staff, volunteers and guests of Beth Protea in Herzliya gathered for a candle-lighting ceremony. One by one, people associated with the retirement home came forward to light a candle. "We are not only recalling the past of those who came forward on behalf of their people over 2,000 years ago, but shedding light on those who in recent times rose to meet the needs of their community," said current chairman, Dr. Harry Chweidan, as he lit the first candle.
South Africans in Israel have every reason to be proud. For a community that was the first to establish an immigrant organization (Telfed), pioneered the concepts of the Absorption Center and acquired property to rent to their new immigrants at below market rentals as well as initiating housing projects from Ashkelon in the 1950s to Kochav Yair in the 1980s, it was only natural that they gave serious thought to their aging community.
At the dawn of the 1980s, a group of former South Africans were toying with the idea, mainly to cater for parents left behind in South Africa. The concept found little traction until Robinson - who was well known and respected for his communal work back in his adopted South Africa - made aliya from Cape Town in 1981. The ad hoc group roped him in and within a few months of his aliya, he was chairman of a steering committee. "We quickly changed the focus - not a retirement home for prospective immigrants but for the community in Israel. People who had quite literally rolled up their sleeves and helped build this country,"he says.
Attending a Telfed executive meeting "sometime in 1982" where the matter of a retirement home was on the agenda, "I noticed this fellow, younger than me, asking a lot of very sensible questions. I knew immediately that I wanted him in the team."
And so began the partnership between Walter Robinson and Joel Katz that would steer the Beth Protea project through its formative years. Katz would become chairman of the Management Board of Beth Protea at the time of the official opening in 1992. Guest of honor was the (Irish-born) President of Israel Chaim Herzog who expressed: "One is never surprised at the admirable level of volunteering and performance on the part of South Africans in Israel. You have done it again by establishing Beth Protea, a golden retirement home for those in their golden years."
Paying tribute to the volunteers over the years, Katz spoke of the "lonely few" who grew to become "the magnificent many." This 1992 observation holds even more so today, as "volunteers from all walks of life continue to give freely of their time, energy, expertise and, of course, their money to upholding Beth Protea as a glowing example of retirement living and private initiative," says chairman Chweidan.
Sensitive to the initial apprehension that the project would become elitist and only available to the wealthy, the founders were determined that applicants would not be turned away if they could not afford the deposit or monthly levy. "In accordance with our mission statement, Beth Protea financially assists today between 40-45% of its residents," says Robinson.
How does this work? Beth Protea is a non-profit association, owned and managed by the South African community that it serves. It is headed by a board of trustees, with volunteer committees for management, finance, building, medical matters and admissions. The separate Keren Beth Protea is responsible for fundraising and granting subsidies to residents who may require assistance "anywhere between 10% and 100%. All applications for assistance are handled confidentially so nobody is any the wiser as to who is being helped," says Isaac Bloch, Chairman of Keren Beth Protea. "This program ensures that the admission policy is not built solely on an applicant's financial ability. This is what distinguishes a community project such as Beth Protea from commercial, profit-motivated senior citizen facilities."
The total assistance given by Keren Beth Protea over the past 14 years, according to Bloch, is approximately $12 million.
Some have argued that with approximately 180 residents, the service to the South African community is limited. Beth Protea Director Lynn Lochoff argues otherwise. "While it is true that we would love to be bigger, and we have just opened a new section this December - a 12-bed unit for assisted living, our services in other important respects are reaching the entire South African community. Our advisory and counseling center, Beth Protea Plus, provides information on all aspects of elderly care to the community."
Beth Protea Plus is a free advisory and counseling service, reaching out nationwide and abroad. The primary aim is to assist and advise senior citizens and their families on a range of issues including pensions, citizens' rights, daily help at home, shopping, hospitalization and dealing with government and local departments.
"Even before the center was opened, English-speaking senior citizens and their families were calling us to ask questions on a variety of problems," says Lochoff. "Our response was to establish the first nationwide center for elderly care information in Israel."
Since opening in March 1996, the center, according to Lochoff, receives hundreds of calls each month from immigrants from South Africa, the US, Canada, Australasia and Europe. "Enquiries touch on subjects such as loneliness and depression, pensions, health insurance and citizens' rights. Advice is sought on retirement homes, day-care centers, home care, shopping, hospitalization and dealing with governmental and local authorities. We have found that one of the most important tasks of our center is to make people aware of their rights as senior citizens, so that they can take full advantage of the services available to them."
Not only individuals, but also developers of future retirement homes have been tapping into Beth Protea's experience and expertise. It was only natural that Beth Protea moved into the consultancy and management business, establishing, first, Beth Protea Consultancy and thereafter, Beth Protea Management. A beneficiary of these services has been Protea Village in Tel Monde, which is entitled to use the name 'Protea' - South Africa's national flower - in terms of an agreement with Beth Protea Management, who managed the village for the first five years of its operation. "The income derived from these ventures," explains Bloch, "has helped support many of our residents at Beth Protea."
Beth Protea's reputation is reflected in its apparently long waiting list. While it offers much the same amenities as other retirement homes, Beth Protea prides itself "on our exceptional staff. There is a special warmth and intimacy in the way we go about our work. Also, we offer an English-speaking environment," says director Lochoff.
"More than anything, it's the residents who make this place special," says Chweidan. "They are a microcosm of the history of modern Israel. They have given to the State of Israel and now we, the younger generation, are giving back to them."
Julia Slonim from Johannesburg arrived with fellow Beth Protea resident Freda Raphael on the first Mahon LeMadrihei Hutz L'Aretz overseas youth leadership program in 1946. Although she came with only a year's visa from the British Mandate, "I never had any intention of going back," she says.
Following the declaration of independence in 1948, she made her way with her husband from Haifa to Tel Aviv to join in the festive mood that had gripped the city. "We were on Moghrabi Square on Allenby Street dancing and shouting. Later we went to the fashionable Caf Pilz overlooking the sea. People were dancing on the tables and lifting their partners into the air," she recalls.
Reality set in when on the drive back to Haifa, Arab snipers shot at their taxi. Israel was suddenly at war and many of Beth Protea's residents, like Slonim, were to be in the thick of it.
On June 6, 1948, Beth Protea resident Maurice Ostroff and fellow 'Mahalniks' from South Africa - all volunteers responding to the call to fight in Israel's War of Independence -- were flying into Israel in a Pan African Airways Corporation Dakota. Not sure of his position, the pilot radioed that he was coming in on an emergency landing. Of all the places to land, he brought the plane down at the last remaining British-controlled enclave of Haifa. "The British officer on duty was baffled by the arrival of these 'tourists' and asked Ostroff, "Whatever makes you want to come to Palestine at this time? Are you crazy?"
"Just passing through," replied Ostroff.
"We are pulling out of here," the officer shouted, "but it won't be more than two weeks before the bloody Jews will be yelling at us to come back." While the British officer soon left never to return, Ostroff would serve out the war as a signaler, commanding a radar station near the Weizmann Institute. Nearly six decades later, Ostroff still has his antennae out, locking horns with Israel's enemies. From his third-floor apartment in Beth Protea he daily monitors the world media's coverage of Israel, responding to unfair bias by writing to newspapers, TV networks and political leaders around the world.
When Beth Protea opened its doors in 1992, one of its first residents was Rona Baram, a law student and trained nurse who arrived in Palestine from South Africa in the mid-1940s. A member of the Habonim youth movement, she joined Kibbutz Kfar Blum in the Upper Galilee. During 1948, "settlements in our area were like fortresses, surrounded by trenches and barbed wire," says Baram. "The Arabs ran a water canal across the only approach road to our kibbutz, cutting us off entirely from the outside world. Post, food and medicine were dropped from a single-engine plane that flew in low. Aside from having to deliver babies and care for the sick and wounded, it was a cold winter and we didn't have enough food or fuel." Baram recalls the letter from her parents in Durban with the memorable line: 'We hope you've dug yourself in, Rona, and have enough ammo to last out the siege.' Baram would go on to establish the first Tipat Halav child-care clinic in Kiryat Shmona.
The late Sam Solomon was another first resident of Beth Protea. He had little interest in Israel or Zionism, but "I did have an interest in girls," he once noted. In the late 1930s he was a young man living in Bloemfontein. "I asked a pretty girl out on a date, but she told me she would only go out with me if I first joined her in attending a meeting at the Zionist Hall where an important Zionist leader from Palestine was talking. I was not keen, thinking it would be a waste of time, but I did fancy the girl so off we went. At the meeting I was so taken up with what I heard about the pioneering way of life in the Yishuv that three weeks later I was on a plane to Palestine."
"Whatever happened to the girl?" asked this writer in an interview some years ago.
"No idea," replied Solomon, whose first job on arriving in Palestine was building the road from Tel Aviv to Haifa.
If building roads was what Southern Africans were called upon to do in the 1930s, then caring for the aged is the way forward today.
The new age
While most people at a retirement home feel they have earned the right to take it easy, Maurice Ostroff is revving up to launch into a new career. Retired from business, he is now looking to climb back into the competitive world of hi-tech.
He was recently granted a patent to secure authentication for credit card and other online internet transactions. The need for such protection comes as no surprise. "The press has recently been flooded with hair-raising stories from all over the world about massive fraud over the internet," says Ostroff.
Passwords are no longer safe, he explains, "as crooks can easily download a key-logging program onto a person's computer that silently copies the user's keystrokes without his knowledge."
Ostroff maintains that his patent will prevent this as well as other types of on-line fraud. His patent attorney, Edward Langer, explains that "patents are not granted until it is established that the prototype is indeed unique." Ostroff himself may well fit into this category, as do other residents at Beth Protea.
Dispensing medicine to customers all his professional life, former pharmacist Harold Braude has discovered at Beth Protea that the best medicine for himself is his art. "It is not just a hobby or pastime, I have really gone into it with a passion," he says. In addition to exhibitions of his paintings and sculptures, his work is frequently seen as backdrops to local theatrical productions.
Beth Protea's location next to a Herzliya high school has also had a mutually beneficial spin-off for the "youngsters as well as us oldsters," as one resident jokingly put it. "We have no shortage of residents who volunteer to assist Israeli students struggling with their English," explains Chani Hurwitz, Cutural Director at Beth Protea. "What's more, our 'teachers' love it."
From a quick look at Beth Protea's notice board, it is evident that there is no time to loaf. Bridge at 4:00 p.m., a music recital at 8:00 p.m. and for the literati, brushing up your Shakespeare later on in the week.
For enquiries to Beth Protea Plus, call Ziona: 09-9595228.