On June 28, Gershon and Sheva Weissman will celebrate seven years since moving to Israel from Los Angeles.
But the story really begins 48 years ago, when Sharene Yachzel and Gary Johnson met in Jerusalem through a mutual friend from LA. Sharene was studying at the Hebrew University on the Junior Year Abroad Program from UCLA. Gary was a third-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College studying in Israel for one year, before finishing his studies in the United States.
“We fell in love with each other and fell in love with Israel, both at the same time,” says Gary, who now uses his Hebrew name, Gershon.
After their California wedding in September 1972, the Johnsons returned to Israel for another year and a half of study. Sharene got permission from UCLA to graduate in absentia by taking two years of her Judaic studies classes to complete her major at the Hebrew University. Gary took a leave of absence from Hebrew Union College to attend the Hartman Yeshiva founded by Rabbi Chaim Brovender, where for the first time he immersed himself in Torah and Talmudic studies in an Orthodox environment.
After much internal debate and discussion with one another, the couple decided to move to New York to continue their educational path. Sharene earned a master’s degree in Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Gary earned his Reform ordination and a master’s degree in Hebrew literature at HUC.
Gary’s first pulpit was in Brookline, Massachusetts. Sharene taught first grade at the Solomon Schechter Day School nearby. Their oldest child, Asher Zelig, now 41, was born during that time.
Gary then shifted into the Conservative movement after accepting a position as assistant rabbi to Harold Schulweis at Valley Beth Shalom, a prominent Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles. There, the couple welcomed daughters Rachel, now 39, and Aliza, now 36. All three children attended Jewish day schools, Jewish summer camps and Israel summer programs.
“To our great joy and immense nachas, each of our children fell in love with Israel and two of them – Asher and Aliza – actually made aliya and are raising their families here,” says Gershon.
When he moved to Israel in 2006, Asher changed his last name from Johnson to Weissman. Why Weissman? That was the family’s original name.
“When I was in college, one of my Hebrew teachers asked how a Johnson is Jewish,” Gershon relates. “I asked my father, but he was the 10th of 10 children and the whole story hadn’t found its way down to him. I found out the story through my dad’s oldest living sister.”
It turns out that Gershon’s paternal grandfather, Abraham Weissman, had served on the frontlines during the Russian Japanese War of 1905. A gentile Polish soldier by the name of Katajansky was killed next to him. Abraham took Katajansky’s identity papers, which enabled him to escape the army and return to his wife and six children in Russia. They soon made their way to New York via Ellis Island, where “Katajansky” was changed to “Johnson.” Abraham and Anna Johnson had four more children, the last of whom was Gershon’s father, Jack.
When their son reverted to the original family name, Gary and Sharene did, too. And while they were at it, they began using their Hebrew first names.
“So in 2006, exactly 100 years after my grandfather Abraham Weissman had changed his name to Katajansky, then a year later to Johnson, Gary and Sharene Johnson became Gershon and Sheva Weissman,” says Gershon.
It would be six more years until they retired to Israel. As Gershon puts it, “After almost 40 years in the wilderness, from 1973 to 2012, we finally made aliya to the Promised Land.”
They explain that the main reason they waited that long was because had they moved while their parents were alive, their parents would have been unable to visit them.
“But we’ve always been very Zionistic,” says Sheva. “We told our children that if they were successful here, we would follow them in our retirement. We wanted to be part of the Jewish history that’s being made in Israel. My father’s mother had three sisters and all their descendants have made Israel their home, so it’s also been a whole family ingathering for me. The prayers of our ancestors have been answered, and it’s beyond our wildest imagination.”
They’ve made good friends in the Katamon neighborhood, where they belong to three shuls – all Orthodox, as they’ve shifted in that direction. Gershon take classes at the Emek Learning Center, and Sheva at Matan Jerusalem.
Sheva is a docent at the Bible Lands Museum, and Gershon is a volunteer fundraiser for Emek Lone Soldiers and Emek Learning Center. They enjoy spending time with their six grandchildren in Israel, though they miss their three grandchildren in California.
Since making aliya, they have had to deal with mental and physical health issues within their family. “We find the health system here is wonderful, really top notch, and we have been treated with such kindness,” says Sheva. “If people in our age range are afraid to make aliya because of the medical system, they should know that although it’s a little different than in America – maybe not as fancy – it’s certainly excellent.”
The couple often hosts tourists through the Shabbat of a Lifetime and Momentum programs. “We ask for people from Los Angeles and we share our love of Israel with them,” says Sheva. “It’s important for people who come from abroad to see that you can really live here.”
“When we host these guests, we ask them to tell us how their expectations of visiting Israel differed from their actual experience,” adds Gershon. “And they usually say that they thought they were coming to a high-risk country and yet when they travel and tour, they feel safe and secure and see happiness and blessing everywhere.”
The Weissmans love taking advantage of all the cultural activities Jerusalem has to offer, and they spend a lot of time walking through the city.
“We’ve never been happier in our lives,” says Gershon. “Being part of Jewish history is a dream come true. We are blessed way beyond our deserving and thank the Almighty every day.”
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