In the 1980s hit “Jack and Diane,” John Cougar Mellencamp ruminates about his subjects who grow from youth to adulthood, “Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.”
Jac and Diane Friedgut may share the names of Mellencamp’s fictitious lovers, but they’ve aggressively defied that fatalistic sentiment, proving that well into their 80s, life can still be a thrill.
Longtime residents of the southeastern Jerusalem neighborhood of East Talpiot and bastions of the Masorti Movement’s flagship synagogue, Moreshet Avraham, Jac, 86, and Diane, 83, bring to mind the recurring segments in Billy Crystal’s When Harry Met Sally of veteran couples lovingly talking about how they met. Always quick with a well-placed pun or a kind word, they help finish each other’s sentences and playfully needle each other over divergent memories of events. Like when they talk about how they met.
“I was in college in Brooklyn,” says Diane, originally from Fall River, Massachusetts. “I was at the Pratt Institute for Design and head of the small Student Zionist Organization on campus. Jack, who was in graduate school in Princeton, was also in the organization and was the featured speaker at a conference I attended one weekend in Far Rockaway, New York.
“The friend I went with left early, and she had the money for the two of us to go back to Brooklyn. So I was at a conference with nobody I knew. This interesting man with a strong South African accent spoke on Friday night, so I decided to approach him to see if he would lend me $8.”
Luckily, Jac, originally from Johannesburg before his family relocated to Columbus, Ohio, sprung for the train fare, and Diane was able to get back to school.
“What I found out many years later was that for six months, he drove every Saturday night from Princeton to Brooklyn on the pretense of getting his money back, but I never had the money.”
“I had to keep coming back,” chuckled Jac, who has since lost most of his South African accent.
The courting couple got married in 1959 when Diane was still a junior at Pratt and Jac was freshly ensconced in the world of finance at First National City Bank in Manhattan (better known as CitiBank).
For the next decade or so, as they raised five children and moved from Staten Island to the Westchester community of New Rochelle, Jac developed into an expert on the precarious New York City financial situation. When asked by the chairman of CitiBank to provide a briefing, he boldly stated that the city was on the verge of bankruptcy.
“The mayor of New York at the time, Abe Beame, unsuccessfully demanded that I be fired for saying something like that publicly, but I was proven to be right,” said Jac, alluding to the city’s severe 1975 financial crisis.
“Jac was basically the whistleblower on New York’s financial situation, before that term was even invented,” said Diane, adding that he is mentioned prominently in Mayor, the autobiography of Beame’s successor Ed Koch. When Jac became president of New Rochelle’s Conservative synagogue Beth El in 1979, Koch attended the installation.
SO HOW did a growing family, established in the Jewish community and with a high-profile government insider, wind up in Israel? It goes back to 1967 and the aftermath of the Six Day War. And a little before that.
“When I first proposed to Diane, I said I would like to marry you on the condition that we one day live in Israel,” said Jac.
“No, you’re getting the story backward,” interjected Diane. “When we first started dating, he said he would eventually like to live in Israel, and I told them if that’s the case, there was no reason for us to go out anymore... but we did keep going out.
“After the war in 1967, Jac wanted to come to Israel, like a lot of people at that time, to help out. Due to expertise he had in shipping containerization, he was able to take a nine-month leave for a position at the Israel Ports Authority.”
With young kids in tow, the couple spent those months in Ramat Hasharon, and found Israel not quite the Land of Milk and Honey they were expecting.
“It wasn’t an easy year. Ramat Hasharon was a rural village back then, and people weren’t used to foreigners,” recalled Diane. “We went back to New York at the end with no thoughts of returning.”
But return they did, many times over the years on various visits and vacations. On one journey, they innocently inquired of a real estate agent how much it would cost to buy an apartment in East Talpiot, where they were staying.
“We told her that we really weren’t serious about buying and were not planning on making aliyah, but the agent said, ‘Where are you? Don’t move. I’ll be there in five minutes,’” said Diane.
“She took us to this apartment and we were blown away by the architecture and the view of the Judean Hills.”
Soon after returning to New York, Jac and Diane decided to take the plunge and told their family they were moving to Israel.
“A lot of it doesn’t make any sense. I often think back to that day and how we made that decision,” said Diane, adding that they’re still living in the same apartment today.
Diane worked in both sales and tourism, and 25 years ago became the Israel liaison of the US-based Women’s League for Conservative Judaism. Jac continued his financial career, first with Koor Industries and then the Industry and Trade Ministry.
ONE DAY after their aliyah in 1983, Jac was walking on a Shabbat morning with one of his daughters near the commercial center in East Talpiot, a few blocks from their home.
“I ran into a group of people, one of whom I was introduced to as Rabbi Benjy Siegel, who told me about a Masorti congregation, Moreshet Avraham, which was meeting nearby in the community center.”
The Friedguts immediately joined, and within two years Jac was voted in as president. His first matter of business was to raise the funds to build a permanent home for the congregation and, together with rabbis Reuven Hammer and Jim Lebeau, succeed in finding donors abroad and in Israel. In the early 1990s, Moreshet Avraham moved into its home, which Jac and Diane consider one of the greatest accomplishments of their life in Israel.
“When we first came here, I wouldn’t have objected to joining an Orthodox shul, but when I saw the nasty behavior of the ultra-Orthodox, particularly those in government, I realized how important it was to have an alternative,” said Jac.
“For me, the whole idea that it was open and inclusive was most important,” added Diane. “In addition to providing for spiritual needs, it became an extended family for many congregants.”
No less impressive an achievement than Jac’s role in bolstering Moreshet Avraham is Diane’s management of the 24-year-old Women’s Study Days through the Women’s League, which brings together hundreds of women four times a year for a day of Jewish study.
“Since corona, we moved to Zoom, so we now have women from over 10 different countries joining us as well,” she proudly said.
In between their endeavors on behalf of their community, Jac and Diane have found the time to enjoy and nurture their 16 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Although two of their five children have settled in North America, they think that their upbringing in Israel instilled a deep sense of Jewish identity that forever connects them with the Jewish homeland.
“I think that us being here made Israel the center of their lives. Every one of our kids is Jewish in a different way, but all have a strong Jewish identity,” said Diane.
Are they happy they made the impulsive decision to buy their apartment in 1982 and move to Israel the next year? And is Israel still the same place as it was when they made aliyah?
“Oh, that’s a big question,” laughed Diane, waxing somewhat nostalgic. “When we came here, things were more homogeneous in a way. The neighborhood was smaller; we seemed to know everybody. I think that when we arrived, there was still some of that remaining euphoria from the Six Day War. The whole idea that our 13-year-old girl could get on a bus at night and go downtown and come back at midnight just blew our minds away.
“Some of that is not quite the same today. But we have the strength of feeling part of the Jewish people.”
For Jac, it’s also been a mixed bag, which is much closer to full than empty.
“I personally didn’t find Israel that great a place to work in, but as a place to live and to bring up children, it’s the best place in the world.”
This story about Jac and Diane still has some more chapters to be written. The thrill is certainly not gone. ■ The Friedguts: Jac, 86 and Diane, 83From New Rochelle, NY to Jerusalem, 1983