Veterans: A rich passion for Israel

Larry Rich, 64 From Detroit, to Austria, to Kibbutz Deganya Alef, 1972

larry rich 311 (photo credit: Courtesy/Abigail Klein)
larry rich 311
(photo credit: Courtesy/Abigail Klein)
If you’re ever in Afula, stop at Ha’emek Medical Center to visit Larry Rich, director of development and international public relations. Over a cup of tea in his incense-infused office, Rich’s radio-announcer voice will spellbind you with tales of his motorcycle trek from the Alps to Haifa.
Raised in middle-class Detroit, Rich once heard a family friend telling of his work in King Solomon’s mines in Israel. “That image of romantic adventure stayed with me and sparked my curiosity about Israel,” so after two years at Wayne State University, he traveled by ship from New York to Naples and then on to Israel. He volunteered at Kibbutz Deganya Alef for a couple of months, and then came home to work in construction. It was 1966.
By the time he was 25, he was vice president of a national building corporation. Yet he was bored. “The business world didn’t offer the kind of challenges I needed, so I decided to take a break and travel the world.”
In 1971, Rich bought a 750 cc Honda motorcycle and shipped it to England, where he retrieved it. “One of my intentions was to find myself somewhere in the world, far from the US. I wanted to break myself financially and be away from family, friends and common language. I needed to find out how I would function with only my two hands and my head to depend on. And I did that.”
Eventually, he would put 25,000 miles on that Honda. In mid-1972, he was living in the Austrian Alps with some other young men, working in construction. “But now I wasn’t the executive. I was hauling cement to put gas in the bike and buy my next meal. I loved it. I was finding out what I was made of.”
Rich thought about passing through Israel to Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. But in October 1972, the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics altered his plans. “Something snapped in my head and I literally got on my motorcycle and rode through snowstorms through Italy and Greece to Israel.”
Months before, Rich had heard a forgotten voice in a dream saying, “You need to come to this place,” and he saw an unrecognizable symbol on his sleeping bag. Then, not long before Munich, he had the sensation of being hit with a brick when he realized that the “symbol” in his dream was the map of Israel. “Something deep inside me made it perfectly clear I had to go back.”
Rich and his Honda disembarked at Haifa Port after a three-day journey from Greece. “I had $25 and I was told I couldn’t come in without motorcycle insurance, which cost $20. So I rode into Israel with $5 in my pocket. I was 26 years old, and I was never happier in my life.”
Naturally, his destination was Deganya. “I wasn’t interested in living as a capitalist; I wanted to be a team member, not a captain.”
In the kibbutz’s volunteer camp, Rich met his future wife, Yoka, a Christian volunteer from Holland. “When she learned of my serious intentions to stay, she decided to stay with me,” Rich said. They wed in 1974, after Yoka’s conversion. “We were the first couple in Deganya Alef’s history to come from the outside, marry and stay there.”
When the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, Rich watched IAF planes flying over Deganya’s orchards toward the Golan Heights. He helped the old-timers build a bazooka position at the front gates in case the Syrians broke through.
Rich wanted to donate his valuable motorcycle to benefit families of fallen soldiers. Kibbutz officials placed a call to Nina Katzir, the president’s wife, who ran a soldiers’ welfare fund. She invited Rich and his girlfriend to the presidential home in Rehovot. “I just had to meet you, Larry, but I have no intention of taking the bike,” he remembers Katzir telling him in fluent English when they arrived. “I can’t take your one possession from you.”
Rich wouldn’t take no for an answer. Katzir not only acquiesced, but also prevailed upon the couple to stay for four days. She lent them clothing, placed an overseas call to Rich’s mother, to whom he had not spoken in a year.
At Deganya, Rich worked with bananas and chickens, eventually heading up security, the steel shop and the volunteer office. “Our plan in 1975 was that I’d volunteer for the army and then we’d start a family. Two weeks before my induction, we found out Yoka was pregnant.”
Zemira was three months old when her father finished a year of active duty in the Armored Corps. Today she is the mother of three, living in Afula. Zemira was followed by Tehila, a leading model and face of the Golf clothing chain. Son Boaz recently finished his military service and is traveling to South America.
Rich became a tank commander and served 16 years in the reserves, twice in Lebanon.
The family left the kibbutz in 1988. Rich found a job as production manager in Afula at the Hogla diaper company, and the family settled nearby. He and Yoka still live in Afula. Now divorced, they remain close friends, as are Yoka and Rich’s current partner, Donna.
In 1997, Rich suffered a heart attack. “When I woke up in cardiac intensive care at Ha’emek Medical Center, I saw Arab and Jewish physicians workingtogether to save me. I had been in the country 25 years, but I stillhad stereotypes in my mind about Arabs. I never made theacademic/professional connection.”
The experience literally changed his life. Within two years, he hadleft industry and created an office of development to market thehospital to foreign donors. “It’s safe to say I’ve been successful inputting Ha’emek on the map.”
Rich’s book, Voices from Armageddon, was publishedin 2005. This compilation of “human interest coexistence stories thatblow people away, no pun intended,” is drawn from scenarios he’switnessed at the hospital between patients and staff members ofdifferent ethnicities.
“There is nothing I am more passionate about in life than speakingabout this hospital and my country,” said Rich, who lectures all acrossthe US on behalf of Ha’emek and was registered in 2007 by the ForeignMinistry as an official speaker to represent Israel abroad.
“My favorite part of Israel is its fascinating mix of people,” saidRich. “What frustrates me the most is intolerance, the lack of abilityto reach out to those who are different.”