Looking at Bertha Stern, it is hard to imagine that this soft-spoken, petite lady has been through two major upheavals in her life: fleeing Germany at the age of 20 to start a new life on her own in America and immigrating to Israel, again on her own, at the age of 88.
"I never look back," she says. "I am satisfied with everything I have and am determined to enjoy every moment."
Bertha grew up in a traditional Orthodox family in Fulda, Germany, where her father ran a butcher shop and her mother ran a kosher restaurant. She remembers a happy childhood, amidst a thriving Jewish community, until Hitler came to power in 1933.
Bertha was one of the last German-Jewish students to graduate from high school. Unable to study at university because of Hitler's anti-Jewish laws, she stayed home, learned how to sew and helped out in her father's store, which sometimes involved secret missions to obtain banned kosher meat from outlying villages.
While other members of the family believed the Nazi phenomenon would blow over, Bertha's parents prepared to leave Germany. In 1937, with the help of a brother already in the US, Bertha received her immigration papers. The ship Aquitania took her from Southampton to a new life in America. There she met Fred Stern, the man who would become her husband. In 1938, Bertha was joined by her parents and siblings and the entire family began life anew in New York.
Bertha and Fred married the same year and settled in Washington Heights. Fred found a job as a watchmaker and Bertha found work as a seamstress in a Manhattan garment factory.
When her three children were born, Bertha stayed home, but once they were older she went back to work, this time as head of inventory for a chain of department stores, a job she kept for 25 years.
Bertha and Fred first came to Israel in 1963 for their 25th wedding anniversary and loved it so much, they returned almost every year. They planned to retire in Israel and join their daughter Beatrice who had settled in Jerusalem, but Fred's declining health put their plans on hold. Fred was forced to enter a nursing home and Bertha moved into a small apartment in the same complex to be close to him.
When Fred passed away, Bertha decided she still wanted to make aliya, even though she was 88 and would be leaving behind her son, younger daughter and four grandchildren.
"I felt I could still enjoy life and I had to move on," she says.
Bertha arrived in Israel in September 2004 with only a few possessions, and knew exactly where she wanted to live.
"I had a close friend from kindergarten who was living in Beit Barth, a seniors' residence in Jerusalem, and I knew that was the place for me." Bertha was given a three-month trial period ("the home has strict religious rules and it's important that all the residents fit in") and, to her delight, was accepted.
"Beit Barth is a place made in heaven," she says smiling. "We have beautiful Shabbat services and a lovely community." Bertha chose to rent an apartment in the home and slipped into her new life with astonishing ease.
Bertha lives in a charming two-room apartment, comprising an elegant living room, small kitchen and bedroom. The walls are decorated with family photographs and colorful murals painted by her youngest daughter, Miriam.
Bertha is certainly not old fashioned. She has a cordless phone, answering machine, TV and video, all of which she operates herself.
"You've got to be with it," she laughs, noting that she writes down the instructions to every machine. The residence itself provides a computer corner on her floor (Bertha has also learned how to send and receive e-mails), a library with a piano she can practice on, a dining hall and activity rooms.
Bertha gets up at seven a.m., makes breakfast for herself, recites her prayers and gets ready for a busy day. She attends ulpan in the city two mornings a week and volunteers at the AACI library for another two mornings, which leaves one morning free for an exercise class at Beit Barth.
Lunch is the main meal in the residence and a chance to chat with others. In the afternoon, Bertha reads, watches TV or simply rests. In the evening she makes herself a light supper and then attends an activity in the residence - a concert, Bible class, Bingo or scrabble with friends.
Bertha has made good friends at Beit Barth and enjoys inviting them over in the afternoon for tea. At lunchtime, she sits at the same table with her friends and feels there is a lot of solidarity among the residents.
"We worry about each other and we look after each other," she explains. But Bertha's closest circle is her daughter Beatrice and her grandchildren. Her daughter Miriam is also currently residing in Jerusalem, on sabbatical with her husband, so Bertha gets to spend a lot of time with her family.
Bertha's faith and commitment to Orthodoxy has been the anchor of her life, she says.
"Religion," she continues, "is an integral part of my life and one of the reasons I chose to live in Jerusalem and in Beit Barth." She adds that she is proud of the fact that all her children have followed in her path.
"I was an American citizen and now I am an Israeli citizen and I care about Israel. But as soon as I speak, people know I come from Germany. I love elements of German culture, such as the music, but the most important thing for me is Jewish culture."
Bertha is very apologetic of the fact that she can't speak Hebrew.
"I want to feel more Israeli, but it's hard without the language. I understand Hebrew but have difficulty speaking," she admits. With a strong European presence at Beit Barth, Bertha has no trouble finding people with whom to converse in English or German.
Bertha leaves all her finances to her daughter, but she knows she is financially secure.
"I worked hard all my life and rose to a senior position, so I get a good pension from the US and it's enough to cover my costs."
Bertha recently celebrated her 90th birthday and ran the show herself: she invited her entire family to spend Shabbat at Kibbutz Hafetz Haim, she organized a pizza lunch for her colleagues at AACI and sponsored a Melave Malka for the residents of Beit Barth.
As for future plans, Bertha just wants to remain healthy and enjoy life. Indeed, she enjoys her life in Israel even more than in America: "It was" she says, "the best move I ever made!"
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