Veterans: The little Dutch girl

Chana Loecher, 65 Port Jervis, New York, to Jerusalem, 1982

old lady 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
old lady 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
Chana Loecher sits behind the wheel in a midtown Jerusalem traffic jam, smiling. “So many cars!” she marvels. “So many Jews! Who could have imagined this 60 years ago?”
And who could have imagined that this Dutch woman, born Anneke Jak, would spend 25 years of Mondays driving elderly Jerusalemites to and from Melabev Community Clubs for Elder Care?
Loecher was chosen as the Friends of Melabev’s honoree for its eighth annual “virtual dinner” on 1 Nisan (March 16). Her faithful pickup-and-return routine is only one of the volunteer jobs she has taken upon herself over 28 years here. And though she loves traversing the roads of her adopted homeland by car, she is just as happy swimming in its waters and biking its trails.
Loecher was born in the cellar of her family’s Netherlands home duringa World War II bombing raid. Growing up as the seventh of 10 childrenliving next to a military base in Soestdyk, she was an athletic andadventurous child. From a young age, she regularly carried 20 kilos ofmilk to customers from her parents’ dairy store. As a teen, she biked40 kilometers to work each day as a swimming instructor, and playedsports including water polo.
At 18, she took a motorcycle trip to Scotland and then worked for theDutch attaché in Copenhagen. Later, she spent time in Scandinaviaincluding Lapland, where she experienced the spectacle of the northernlights and worked for nine months picking cloudberries.
“I always wanted to see and experience,” she says. “You meet people, stay for a while, and then you go on.”
At 27, Anneke – now renamed Chana – met and married Jerry (Gershon)Loecher in New York and became a stepmother to his son and twodaughters. Living in a rural setting near Port Jervis, the Loechers andRabbi Nachum Laskin started the Hebrew Day School of Orange County inMiddletown, NY, when their growing brood became of school age. Many ofthe children who attended the school are, like the Loechers, now livinghere.  
The family’s own journey to Israel began when Gershon’s son won ascholarship to the Weizmann Institute of Science and consequentlydecided to make aliya. Gershon and Chana came for a five-week visitwith their five little ones and rented a place in Jerusalem’s Old City.
“They loved it and didn’t want to go back,” Loecher recalls. “I said tomy husband, ‘We have to move anyway when the kids are ready for highschool, so why not go “home” now?’ That was January 1982, and we cameon aliya that August. We never regretted the move.”
Gershon’s mother also made the transatlantic move, years later, at the age of 90.
Together with 20 other English-speaking families, including two Dutchcouples, the Loechers lived in the Mevaseret Zion absorption center fortwo years. “It was a fantastic adjustment to communal life,” saysLoecher. They welcomed their sixth child there, and a seventh was bornafter they moved to an apartment in the brand-new neighborhood of HarNof. They moved to their present house in Har Nof 24 years ago. Whenshe was 44, Loecher gave birth to the couple’s eighth child.
The busy young mother did not hesitate when a friend asked if she hadone hour a week to take people to and from Melabev (, whichhad just started offering a socialization group for seniors withdementia. “I said, ‘Of course. I can put the kids in the back of thevan.’ And that’s how it started.”
Loecher is devoted to a variety of volunteer activities and projects.Monday mornings, for the past 15 years, she has sorted donations at asecond-hand clothing gemach in Har Nof. Twice aweek, she leads therapeutic water aerobics for women. She recalls a few“clients” asking how they could compensate her; the answer was torecite a few chapters of Psalms.
For several years, Loecher also organized children’s swim-a-thons atthe now-closed Beit Zayit pool to raise funds for needy brides throughthe Yad Trudy organization.
“The Almighty gives you gifts and capacities, and you can use them forthe community at large,” says Loecher, who makes time on Fridays tovisit with several elderly friends. “Sometimes people are afraid tocommit themselves. They should not be. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’twork. Our time is not our own anyway, and we should make the best ofit.”
A Jerusalem Post article of October 7, 1996, reportsthat a 52-year-old, Dutch-born Jerusalem grandmother was planning toswim the breadth of Lake Kinneret for charity. That grandmother wasChana Loecher.
Years earlier, she had worked with an autistic boy to make him feelcomfortable in the water. When he was a teenager, his mother toldLoecher about her dream of opening a group home for autistic youngadults. So Loecher found sponsors and dove into an 11-kilometerfund-raising swim from Ein Gev to Tiberias. Aside from emergingseriously dehydrated after nearly five hours, she was successful in herquest – although many more years passed until the project materialized.Last summer, the Israeli Society for Autistic Children (Alut) openedits home in Gilo.
Loecher twice participated in Wheels of Love bike rides for AlynHospital. She is a regular in the annual Melabev “Don’t Forget Us”walk-a-thon, and now is preparing for the 400-meter run to benefitShalva, the Har Nof-based association for children with disabilitieswhere she performs water therapy. And she’s thinking about volunteeringat the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens as well.
Wherever she roams, Loecher takes along big bags to collect litter and recyclables.
“We have beautiful nature here, and I can’t stand to see it messed up,”she says. “On my last Melabev walk, I collected paper and another womancollected plastic bottles. We left the northern trail spick-and-spanbetween Rosh Hanikra and Meron.”
Four of the Loecher children are married with children of their own –one in Efrat, one in Kfar Adumim, one in Caesarea and one in Baltimore.There is a son in San Diego, a son and daughter in Jerusalem and adaughter finishing her military service in the search-and-rescue unit.
Before sunrise on the first day of every Jewish month, Loecher drivesto the Western Wall. She observes with satisfaction that the roadsleading to this sacred space are “the only place in the world where youfind a traffic jam at five in the morning.”
But she revels in all of Israel. “I am so grateful to be here. In thesmallest country in the region, we have everything. Wherever you comefrom, you can find something that reminds you of your previousresidence. Traveling from Latrun to Ashdod reminds me of the green flatfields of Holland. ”
Loecher has taught her children and grandchildren to relish nature as she does.
“The most beautiful, amazing sunsets are in Jerusalem and when I seethem I say, ‘God is painting.’ The other day my grandchild called andsaid, ‘Grandmom, look outside – God is painting.’ And I say, ‘It’sfree! All good things in life are free.’”