Arrivals: Teeing off in the Holy Land

Robert John Hickinbotham, 61, from Birmingham, via Cologne, to Ramat Gan, 2014.

Robert John Hickinbotham (photo credit: Courtesy)
Robert John Hickinbotham
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"When I first came to Israel, I wasn’t Jewish,” says Robert John Hickinbotham, who has been working as a golf professional since making aliya in May 2014.
Today an observant Jew and a proud member of the Conservative synagogue in Ramat Gan, he is married to Yehudit, a dental surgeon born in Israel to Holocaust survivors.
His journey from lapsed Church of England adherent to Judaism began in Germany, where he had been living since 1977.
“It was the year of the miners’ strike in England and as a golf professional I found there was very little work. People had no money or time for leisure activities,” he says. “I very much wanted to carry on with my golf and the only way seemed to be to leave England and get a golf job in Germany.”
Golf became his life’s work and passion at a very early age.
“In Birmingham, where I lived, there were a number of municipal courses, anyone could just go along, hire a set of clubs and go around until you’d had enough,” he recalls.
From the age of 10 he wanted to do something associated with golf. After school, he had a short spell in the building industry and another in a computer company, which he says gave him skills he uses to this day. Eventually he settled on golf as a career and has never looked back.
He started out as a golf teacher, living in Cologne where his sister lived and later moved to another golf club in Trier, an old city in southwest Germany near the Luxembourg border.
“I was a general ‘dogsbody’ in the golf club there,” he recalls with a smile.
Eventually he returned to Cologne and took up bridge, a serendipitous move, as he met his wife, Yehudit and they began their acquaintance by playing cards together.
Yehudit was born in Israel in 1947.
Her father, who witnessed the burning of synagogues on Kristallnacht by the Germans in 1938, lived in Israel for five years and reconnected with his sister who had moved to Argentina before the war and had no idea her brother had survived.
“My aunt saw how hard things were in Israel in 1952 and she persuaded my parents to move back to Germany,” says Yehudit. Her first husband died and she was left alone with a son and daughter.
She decided to take up first bridge, then golf and she and Robert became partners in every sense.
“He made me laugh again,” she says.
They began attending the Conservative synagogue in Cologne and leading a Jewish life.
“I was there more than the gabbaim,” laughs Hickinbotham.
“They didn’t even realize he was not Jewish at the time,” says Yehudit.
Robert studied Judaism and found the conversion process difficult, but says that moving to Israel made it easier.
He completed his conversion in January 2016 becoming a fully-fledged Jew after the required mikve dip. Then he was able to go back wholeheartedly to his first love – golf.
He now helps out at regular intervals and doesn’t want to commit to too much time on the golf course as he and Yehudit like to travel. He feels that anyone can learn to play the game at a level which will give a lot of joy, but you have to have the right attitude.
“It’s much more pleasant to play golf if you are not too competitive,” he says.
Golf certainly has many side benefits, like being out in the fresh air and walking distances.
“It doesn’t matter if you are not a powerful player,” says Hickinbotham. “You can compensate for it with more of a touch than blank aggressiveness. Oh and by the way, women are better golfers and more accurate with putting.”
Although semiretired, they say they are always busy and don’t know where the time goes. They devote quite a lot of their spare time to ILAN: the Israel Foundation for Handicapped Children, which they have been involved in for many years, since they lived in Germany.
“When our first grandchild was born we felt so lucky and relieved that he was healthy that we made a donation to ILAN and later we started a ‘Friends of ILAN’ organization in Cologne and raised funds there,” they say.
“Now that we are living in Israel we still do as much as we can, visiting the places run by ILAN,” they say. “We are so impressed by their dedication and achievements.”
Living in Israel has not been without its hardships for Hickinbotham, and wading through the bureaucracy has been particularly difficult for a gentle Englishman not used to our assertive ways.
In March this year, Robert and Yehudit tied the knot with their huppa and kiddushin at the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv with 65 guests from England and Germany.
It was a very happy occasion.