Belle Fine-Cohen 370.
(photo credit: Abigail Klein Lichman)
In 1947, David Ben-Gurion sat four-year-old Belle Plonchak on his lap at a
fund-raiser at the Workmen’s Circle in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Little Belle had
brought along her jar of pennies, and her father challenged the crowd to match
the coins with dollars. Thus $150,000 was handed to Ben-Gurion to buy ammunition
for the coming War of Independence.
And here is the gist of what the
future Israeli prime minister told Belle in Yiddish: “You probably don’t
understand what I’m saying, but someday you will be raising a lot of money for
Israel and you will make aliya.”
“I remembered it and I always knew I was
supposed to go to Israel,” says Belle, though she was unable to fulfill that
destiny for another 56 years. She was just 18 when her father died, and she
therefore remained in New York to be near her mother.
“I was brought up
living and breathing Israel. My father had served in the first British Jewish
Brigade in Israel, and every week he and his friends met at the Workmen’s Circle
in Brooklyn and talked about Israel.”
HAVING SPENT each Shabbat with her
maternal grandparents in nearby Brighton Beach – most of her father’s family had
been murdered in a pogrom prior to World War II – Belle also knew from early on
that she wanted to work with the elderly. Gerontology wasn’t yet a recognized
field when she went to college, but she got a master’s degree in counseling the
aging, and certification as a gerontologist.
“I worked as the
nutritionist at the first nutrition program for the elderly at the YM-YWHA in
Brighton Beach, and I taught arts and crafts and oil painting to children and
seniors,” she relates.
At the same time, she raised money for Israel in
various synagogue and federation venues. She recalls helping her neighbors
collect medical supplies to send overseas at the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur
Trained in Gestalt and bioenergetics, she’s interested in natural
foods and alternative medicine, and took courses with humor-and-healing expert
Bernie Siegel as well as Deepak Chopra, pioneer of the mind-body approach to
Today, Belle does pro-bono wellness counseling, and co-chairs
the Jerusalem branch of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel.
She works with staff at this volunteer-based organization to develop programs
and events geared to helping immigrants acclimate to Israel.
“We are a
home away from home for the English-speaking community, helping keep new and old
olim up-to-date on what is happening here and in America and Canada as
Her own adjustment has been remarkable, especially considering
that she arrived at age 60 and chose to stay despite being widowed just a few
years after her arrival. Her Hebrew is rudimentary and she has no
relatives in Israel.
SHE HAS a son, David, from her brief marriage to
John Stark at age 19. He lives in Florida. Her son Daniel, from her marriage to
the late Joseph Fine, lives in Arizona. She’d met Fine when she was
directing therapeutic recreation at a Brooklyn nursing home. He was in the
personnel department. Months after their 1971 marriage they moved to Yonkers,
New York, where Belle went to work for a Jewish Federation-run nursing home in
the Bronx. “We wanted the kids to grow up in the suburbs,” she
After she finished her master’s degree, she became director of
a federal employment and training program in Connecticut. During her 20
years in that state, she founded a day-care program for elderly people with
developmental disabilities, and a pilot community living program for medically
fragile adults. Her husband died in 1991, followed by her mother, and Belle left
Connecticut for Florida in 1995.
Three years later, she began working for
an agency that served people with mental retardation. One of the clients
assaulted her and she suffered a serious head injury and six herniated disks.
She was obliged to go on permanent disability and spent two years in
“I had to have complete neuropsychological retraining,”
she relates, “and I have learned to live with post-traumatic stress
She was in a wheelchair for a while and then “graduated” to a
walker and a cane.
Three weeks after 9/11, Belle came to Israel for the
“As soon as I walked off plane I knew I was supposed to be
here,” she says.
While shopping in the Jewish Quarter, her traveling
companion urged her to descend the steps to the Western Wall.
there was no way I could do that,” she recalls, but her friend insisted. “It
took me an hour and half to walk down the steps, but they had closed the Kotel
because of a bomb scare, so we had to walk right back up.”
feeling defeated, the experience led her to two important decisions: She threw
away the walker and cane, and she started planning her aliya.
return to Florida, she took out a trial subscription to the Jewish Cupid
That is how she met Maurice Cohen, the younger
brother of Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy executed by Syria in 1965.
from a Middle East male chauvinistic background and I came from an American
liberated female background, and there was a mutual attraction. He wanted a
woman who was independent and I wanted to come to Israel.”
proposed on the phone after a seven-month long-distance correspondence, so they
were already engaged when he flew to Florida on April 1, 2003, to meet his
future bride and her sons. They also went to Brazil and New York to meet his
sons. Two months later, Belle stored her belongings and moved to Ramat
“I came on a trial basis to see whether we really liked each other,”
she says. Until Maurice died in December 2006, his wife accompanied him on
frequent speaking engagements about his brother’s story, and helped him write
his personal memoir, which was never published due to his untimely death.
Despite the Cohen family’s efforts, Eli Cohen’s body remains in Syria. His last
surviving brother now runs the website elicohen.org.
Belle returned to
the US “to do some bonding with my children,” but after two years she’d had
enough of the Diaspora. “I couldn’t stand it there. It wasn’t home.”
March 2009, she returned to Israel – but this time to Jerusalem, where her
husband’s attorney and his wife took her under their wing. She lived near them
in Givat Shaul for a year and then rented an apartment in Old
“It was time for me to get out on my own and spread my wings,”
Even without relatives nearby, “you’re never really alone,”
Belle observes. “Israel is like one big family. One time I fell in the
shuk and five people came running over to help. It’s the camaraderie that I love
about Israelis, although they drive me crazy with their rudeness.” She laughs.
“You develop a thick skin and ignore it.”