Marlene Jacobs is among the happiest of olim. Despite the fact that she can neither read nor write, has a pronounced speech impediment and doesn’t understand how money works, she spends her days surprising people with what she can do.
“She can beat everyone at Rummikub,” her sister-in-law Evelyn Jacobs said proudly. “She’s very sociable and outgoing. She has a great sense of direction, an amazing memory, and it’s as if she can read your mind. She intuits what people need.
“She’s capable, willing, and she feels empowered when she has an opportunity to be helpful. She doesn’t want to sit around doing nothing. She’s not robotic. She has a brilliant mind, [albeit one] that is limited by speech and language. She understands everything and she uses whatever tools she’s got,” Evelyn elaborated.
Marlene was born in Johannesburg in 1955, the youngest of three. From the age of eight, she lived in a residential facility in Johannesburg under the auspices of the Selwyn Segal Society for the Jewish Handicapped.
Marcie Plen first met Marlene while volunteering at the Selwyn Segal Center in the 1960s, and remembers young Marlene well. “Selwyn Segal started a farm and put her in that environment because she was more capable than many other residents. They made jams and preserves and packed goods for shops. She lived on the farm for a long time.”
While raising her own family, Plen stopped volunteering at Selwyn Segal and lost touch with Marlene – until one day in 2007, shortly after the Plens made aliyah. “I went to shul and saw her there,” Plen shared.
Providentially, 9,000 km. from Johannesburg, and more than 50 years after they first met, Plen is now Marlene’s next-door neighbor.
While Marlene continued to live and work on the Selwyn Segal farm and her parents lived in a small town nearby, her brother Arthur and Evelyn relocated to Toronto. After their father died, Evelyn and Arthur brought Marlene and her mother to Toronto. There, Marlene found her place as a beloved employee of a local grocery store and bakery.
But it was only in Israel where Marlene Jacobs truly began to shine.
ONCE THEY settled in, after their own somewhat spontaneous aliyah, Arthur and Evelyn again brought Marlene and her mother close to them, this time to Ramat Beit Shemesh. Evelyn reported that although Marlene “was delighted to come to Israel, she had a rocky start.”
All that changed when she met Yehudis and Alvin Schamroth. “The day Yehudis met Marlene was the day Marlene’s life took a turn for greatness,” Evelyn claimed.
A turn for greatness
Yehudis recalled their initial meeting. “We met in 2001. We had both just made aliyah. I was looking for someone to help Alvin out a bit when I left the country for work.
“Marlene is very helpful; she can do simple household tasks such as dishes, folding laundry, ironing, dusting and cleaning bathrooms very well and with little direction.
“She eventually started helping me regularly to prepare for Shabbat. She is like having a second pair of hands! We work well together and go from task-to-task, making my life so much easier,” Schamroth explained.
“We spend lots of time together because she enjoys going with me on my various charitable activities. She helps with everything I have done over the years, from cooking and delivering meals to new mothers or sick individuals, to shopping and delivering food to lone soldiers, to serving refreshments at the Pina Chama Center for soldiers in Gush Etzion.
“Marlene has many talents. She makes blankets for new babies in the community. She makes popcorn for six houses of lone soldiers every week as a Shabbat treat, and she makes chocolate candies that she gives to families when they make a bar or bat mitzvah.
“To me, the amazing thing about her is that, despite her disabilities, she gets herself up, eats and gets dressed and out the door every day with a purpose and a plan for the day!” Schamroth shared.
Alvin and Yehudis aren’t the only Schamroths that are part of Marlene’s life. Their niece Aliza Schamroth first met Marlene 19 years ago.
“Marlene and I are very close,” Aliza reported. “We speak on the phone at least twice a day and I help her with transportation at least once a week. In the past, when I ran a daycare, she helped me feed the children. She makes chocolates and popcorn in my home every week. Marlene sometimes comes over for Shabbat meals; she loves having a good barbecue with us and her beer Shandy [beer mixed with citrusy lemon-lime soda].
“Marlene is determined to do things. She likes her independence. She is high functioning and has an intuitive sixth sense. She is part of whatever is going on,” Aliza elaborated.
ONE OF Marlene’s favorite tasks is helping set up at the kiddush at Menorat Hama’or, the local synagogue attended by South African olim. To those who question if she is up to the task, Marlene asserts herself by reminding others, “I know my job!”
In order to be closer to the synagogue, Marlene often spends Shabbat at the home of Ruthie Finn.
“We met Marlene in Ramat Beit Shemesh many years ago and have been friends since then. She is really like part of our family and even our wider family all know her and love her!” Finn commented.
“Marlene is a caring person who genuinely loves others and loves to be part of the community. She has a wonderful, supportive family and close friends. These allow her to be as independent as possible and to contribute to those around her, through work and hobbies that she has, like making chocolate and crocheting blankets.
“Marlene never forgets a birthday and will be the first to call to see if you’re feeling better or how your exam went. She has a unique laugh and loves to, as she says, joke with you!
“It’s a privilege to know her!” Finn enthused.
Chana Staiman, another close friend, shared, “We see Marlene every week. She comes over for coffee and breakfast every Shabbat morning, and joins us sometimes for Shabbat meals. On other special occasions, we go out socially, for a meal or a show.
“Well before we came on the scene, Arthur and Evelyn and friends had created an environment of acceptance and made sure to uncover her talents. They encouraged her to use them and become a productive member of the community.
“Many people naturally shy away from people who seem different, but Marlene is a wonderful, sensitive, generous, talented woman who is always showing appreciation to those around her,” Staiman elaborated.
“Many people naturally shy away from people who seem different, but Marlene is a wonderful, sensitive, generous, talented woman who is always showing appreciation to those around her.”Chana Staiman
The secret to Marlene’s successful aliyah, according to Evelyn, has been “the love and acceptance of everyone around her who make her feel like such a worthwhile person. No one makes her feel like she’s a charity case. They genuinely love and include her and feel that she’s part of their life. She feels she has so many friends.
“She likes to bring a lot of simcha to other people. She’s very happy here. Out of anyone I know, she’s made the best aliyah. She’s so grateful to be here. That brings nachas to the Creator of the world. She’s living a dream, surrounded by amazing people.
“I don’t think she feels disabled in any way,” Evelyn concluded. ■
MARLENE JACOBS, 67FROM Toronto to Ramat Beit Shemesh, 2000