An iconic Israeli film clip has Arik Einstein and Uri Zohar frantically nailing up and hauling down different plaques on trees as rich Americans arrive to check out their philanthropy. According to Merle Guttmann, co-founder and first chair of ESRA (English Speakers Residents Association), Kibbutz Gal-Ed did just that in the early Sixties.
Guttmann, together with her husband, Gert, and two small daughters, was plonked on the kibbutz in 1963, to study Hebrew. Ulpan took up the morning; in the afternoon the new immigrants worked.
“But I didn’t know how to wash floors!” she recalls; this was not a skill acquired by young Jewish women in then-Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa.
“Everyone can do sponja,” sighed the exasperated kibbutznik in charge. “Wrap the cloth around the stick and move.”
So Guttmann learned Hebrew, and how to iron and do dishes and pick fruit, but her architect husband was not as enthralled. He applied for an MA in the United States and was accepted; his wife objected.
“Gert never wanted to come to Israel,” she explains. “But he promised to give it a year. I didn’t want to leave after a few months, and he agreed to see the year through.”
What a difference a few months made. Even though he’d never been in a mikveh (ritual bath) – the only time he visited one turned out to be on women’s day, so he couldn’t go inside – Gert won a competition to design the largest mikveh in Bnei Brak.
That was the beginning of a wonderful private practice, and Gert, who died in 2018 at 84, soon became a great Zionist.
The beginnings of ESRA
Merle, in the meantime, with her BA in Social Anthropology and French, did secretarial work (including typing love letters of one married former general in an important public position), became a research assistant, and had a third daughter, “conceived in the trenches during the Six Day War.” The family moved into a beautiful house designed by Gert in the agricultural settlement of Kfar Shmaryahu, Merle did an MA in Social Work at Bar-Ilan University, and became spokesperson for Maccabi Health Fund. During her studies, the Yom Kippur War broke out, and together with friend and fellow immigrant Adele Rubin, she began visiting bereaved families as a volunteer with the Defense Ministry.
As she moved gently through life, her beautiful blue eyes twinkling in joy or reflecting great empathy, Merle put to pieces the pastiche that grew into a legend. Her experience at the Defense Ministry led to working in grief counseling; her work bringing out a newsletter for Maccabi Health Fund gave her the tools to start a newsletter of her own.
During the 1970s, Merle spent time in Bulawayo, where her brother had recently died. She found a Southern Africa in turmoil, with many Zimbabweans and South Africans wanting to leave.
“I had settled well in Israel and I wanted to do something to help others. The immigrants who were coming were so positive and unspoilt – I wanted to contribute to their easier aliyah, and to their remaining in Israel.”Merle Guttmann
“I had settled well in Israel,” she recalls, “and I wanted to do something to help others. The immigrants who were coming were so positive and unspoilt – I wanted to contribute to their easier aliyah, and to their remaining in Israel.”
By this time friend Rubin was working for the Herzliya Municipality; she introduced Merle to the director for immigrants, who told her that English-speaking residents were all rich and educated, and needed no help. So Merle convened a meeting with the AACI, SAZF (Telfed), the British Olim Society and others, and together they set up a parlor meeting with the mayor of Herzliya in Yad Lebanim.
With WhatsApp and Facebook and the Internet still the stuff of crazy imagination, people went home and wrote to all their friends: “Come and join us to talk about living in Israel.” A questionnaire was prepared for the evening: What do you want? / What are you prepared to do?
“We were expecting 25 participants,” Merle recalls, of the meeting held on April 5, 1979, but 250 old-timers and newcomers turned up, brimming with enthusiasm and questions.”
How can a phone line be expedited in the days of a seven-year wait? Where is Marmite sold? Are there other olim who’d like to form a jazz ensemble? What about a newsletter, somebody suggested. Everyone wanted more.
Within six weeks the first ESRA Magazine – then a two-page, hand-typed and copied flyer – was being dropped by volunteers into hundreds of postboxes. Focus groups had been set up: consumerism, cultural, jazz, social, Easy Hebrew conversation, poetry, play readings, and volunteer tutoring. Tours and hikes were planned; writers had a home for Only-In-Israel stories.
ESRA had two goals: to help immigrants integrate with fun activities and social connections, and also to provide a framework for volunteering.
“Many of the olim were great philanthropists and did wonderful work back home,” explains Merle, today the life president of ESRA. “We set up ways they could teach English, and all sorts of options where they could help here too.”
As Israel’s needs changed, ESRA evolved into a powerful force for good. Ten years after the initial meeting, a million Russians started pouring into the country. ESRA started after-school enrichment programs, welfare aid, right-track centers for youth, computer centers, social clubs for the handicapped, sewing centers, a center for family peace, retraining courses, and much more.
When the Ethiopians arrived, they too were welcomed into these programs, and more were established, like the Ethiopian embroidery project, which provides employment and occupation to women.
These community projects soon expanded to include any disadvantaged Israeli, and municipalities, hospitals, universities, government ministries, schools, Jewish Agency Absorption Centers, caravan sites for immigrants, NGOs and Foundations started partnership programs with ESRA. Suddenly the organization needed funds, and gala concerts, walkathons, raffles and huge ESRA Days were set up to raise money. Donors were approached. Over $7 million were raised for the 77 community projects, many of them a first for Israel.
Today there are 2,000 active volunteers and at least 17,000 people in regular contact making ESRA Israel’s largest English-speaking community network, with second-hand shops, country-wide education and welfare projects, social and cultural activities for English speakers including hikes, English tutoring, book clubs, bridge and scrabble clubs, bereavement counseling, support groups, and of course, the flagship newsletter that has morphed into a plump, glossy magazine.
The “Students Build a Community” project, for example, which now operates in four cities, provides free housing for financially stressed students in disadvantaged areas. The students mentor local kids, changing lives as they get their own degrees.
Merle Guttmann, at nearly 85, has directly touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, as well as her three daughters, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild (with another on the way.) She has won a multitude of awards including the President of Israel’s Award for Volunteerism, and the prime minister and Israel National Council’s Shield for Developing Volunteerism in Israel.
Although she has mostly hung up her apron for now, giving her legendary cooking skills a rest, she still races around the tennis court regularly, and edits the ESRA Magazine.
Israel is a better place because Merle Guttmann hung right in there, scrubbing kibbutz dining room floors. ■