South Carolina and Israel: What’s the connection?

You arrive in Charleston, alone, anxious, unsure – and suddenly an angel in the guise of Leah Chase appears to lead you to serenity.

Leah Chase (center) stands with her family at her 77th birthday party in South Carolina’s Shoham Forest in May (photo credit: Courtesy)
Leah Chase (center) stands with her family at her 77th birthday party in South Carolina’s Shoham Forest in May
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Why would a bunch of youngish Israelis who barely know each other join forces to arrange a birthday party for a visiting Charleston woman at least double their age? Although Charleston, South Carolina, might be one of the most-visited tourist cities in the US, somehow, it is not on the must-see lists of Israeli tourists. Most Israelis only know Charleston from Margaret Mitchel’s classic book/movie, Gone With the Wind, set in the mid-1800s.
Yet today that modern port city is a vibrant star attraction, far-removed from the appalling days of the American Civil War. Which might be one of the reasons why an unusual number of young Israelis have been attracted to study at The College of Charleston, many of them on full bursaries.
But there is another reason... imagine you’re a young, 20-year-old Israeli. You’ve won a scholarship to study at the college based on your educational achievement, but also on your talent at tennis or basketball.
You arrive in Charleston, alone, anxious, unsure – and suddenly an angel in the guise of Leah Chase appears to lead you to serenity.
We first met Leah some 35 years ago on an El Al flight to Tel Aviv. She was escorting the body of a deceased, childless Charleston resident whose will declared her wish to be buried in Jerusalem. With no one else to carry out her last wishes, Leah stepped in (as she had done a year before for the husband of the deceased).
That’s the kind of thing Leah did and does.
So it was not surprising that each time she discovered that a new Israeli student had arrived at the university, she did what angels do: No Israeli student ever spent Friday nights alone at the students’ residence.
“First thing after arriving in Charleston, I was invited to a Friday night dinner at the Chase residence. I immediately fell in love. I was welcomed by the whole family, including their four children, and knew that this was a place for me to be, to call home, for my three years on a basketball scholarship at the College,” says Roi Shedletzky, today chief of sales for Israel for a major Italian furniture manufacturer.
No Israeli ever was without a home to go to for Passover, Rosh Hashana or any other significant Jewish holiday. No Israeli who needed a shoulder to cry on, a support system, a guardian angel, a friend, a kind adviser, went unheeded. Leah and Philip Chase, with four of their own kids still at home, opened their hearts and home and “adopted” student after student. Friday night dinners were always “open house” for the students and sometimes their current boy- or girlfriends.
“From the first day of my four years of studies in the US, Leah and Philip opened their home to me,” said Liora Levin. “I stayed in their house for a few days straight after landing in the US from Israel until I settled down. I immediately felt the warmth as they welcomed me. Even though I was a total stranger they made me feel completely at home. The Chases turned Charleston into a home away from home.... That comfort in knowing that there is a nice Shabbat dinner to go to and always a place to spend the hagim. When other students went home to their families for a weekend or a holiday, we had our ‘adoptive’ parents right there in Charleston.”
Fast forward a few decades and Philip has died, the Chase’s own children have all grown up and married; the nest is empty.
The adopted students returned to Israel, all of them to successful careers, all married and with their own children.
But the story continues; Leah visits Israel at least once (sometimes twice) every year, and never omits to keep contact with her adopted kids when she is here. This year’s was special.
She was here in May, a visit that coincided with her 77th birthday. Nina, formerly from Iceland (the former Jónína Guðrún Arnardóttir), a convert and now married to Kobi Ohayon, was a Chase adoptee going back more than 23 years ago. It was only natural that when Nina and Kobi decided to get married there in Charleston, Leah and Philip, the “adopted parents” held the wedding at their home.
“This did so much for us, we had a ‘home’ for holidays and celebrations and even for hosting our families that came to visit from Israel and Iceland, at the legendary Chase home,” said Nina.
Nina and Kobi rounded up as many as possible of the other Chase-Charleston children (with their own children) and arranged a picnic birthday lunch for Leah in the Shoham forest. Ronen and Yifat, Nina and Kobi, Sagi and Dana, Liora (her husband Yoav could not attend that day), Roi and Vered. Also absent were Gil and Michal and their children, presently residing in Geneva. They had visited Leah in Charleston, with their three children, just a few months earlier.
Sagi Cohen: “Before my first arrival Ronen [who was already captain of the College’s men’s tennis team] put me in touch with Leah and I informed her of my arrival. Leah came to pick me up from the airport. I remember it like yesterday – coming to the US to a town that I didn’t know and don’t know anyone.... The first thing I saw after landing was Leah with open arms. She immediately gave me a hug and was very warm and welcoming (that’s typical Leah)... it’s hard to describe them in a few words. Leah and Philip are just two wonderful people who very much complement one other... Leah, the ‘energy boom,’ very loving and patient, and Philip the calm, funny person. One wonders why people open their home, invite strangers, drive you back and forth and in general give so much of themselves without expecting anything in return. I know that they are big fans of Israel, but I believe it is not just that... it is who they are, just simply warm, generous special people who want to share and give back.”
The picnic was a blast. “Warm generous special people” perfectly sums up Leah and the late Philip. What a privilege to know her.
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