A widowed mother fights on

Struck by tragedy, Ellen Amzallag found comfort in community and by helping others.

'Its still challenging,’ Amzallag says of losing her husband. ‘But we were in an amazing community and people were just incredible.’ (photo credit: ABIGAIL KLEIN LEICHMAN)
'Its still challenging,’ Amzallag says of losing her husband. ‘But we were in an amazing community and people were just incredible.’
In 1970, 10-year-old Ellen Berkman came on her first trip to Israel with her parents. She recalls writing to her fourth-grade classmates at Hillel Academy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that “everyone in Israel is friendly, including the birds, because they eat breadcrumbs from my palm.”
Her father rented a car on that trip and often stopped for hitchhiking soldiers. When Ellen complained about having to share the backseat, he explained that he was setting an example. “One day you may be here, and I want others to pick you or your children up if you need a lift.”
Her father had always subtly encouraged her to make aliya. “My [paternal] grandmother was born in Safed and left as a child; my father felt Israel was where we belonged,” she recalls as she celebrates her 30th year in Israel.
“It had been clear from age 10 that this was where I wanted to be,” she says, noting that her father is buried in Israel.
During the 14 years between her first trip and her aliya, Ellen was back in Israel twice with the Zionist youth group Masada, once as a participant and once as a counselor. Before starting university, an aliya emissary advised her to gear her studies to a field in which she could find work in Israel; she majored in industrial engineering at Georgia Tech.
After graduation, she worked for one year at Calgon in Pittsburgh, and wrote letters to Israeli companies looking for employment.
“Most people answered,” she recalls. In fact, she even got a job offer from Iscar Metals in Tefen. “My mother convinced me that as a single young person, I would be happier in Jerusalem, so I turned the offer down and arrived without a job,” she says.
Wedding in Pittsburgh
Her mother’s advice turned out to be a blessing, as she took up residence at Ulpan Etzion and soon found not only a job, but also a husband.
The employment part was a result of no small amount of chutzpah. She simply walked into various companies and asked if they were hiring. “One of them was Intel, and my father didn’t tell me that Intel personnel had sent me rejection letters – which was good, because I ended up working there.”
The marriage part didn’t take as much effort. In ulpan, she met Samy Amzallag, who had recently made aliya from Paris with an architecture degree from École des Beaux Arts.
“He invited me out to Café Bagina in Baka, but he brought along his roommate! So the next time he invited me out I wore the same clothes, because I thought he would bring his roommate again – but he didn’t.”
On that occasion, the couple walked around Old City and Yemin Moshe. “I knew pretty quickly that he was the one. My birthday was a couple of weeks later, and he bought me a book called Footsteps in Jerusalem inscribed with the words, ‘We’ll get to know Jerusalem together,’ and we did.”
She and Samy spoke to one another in French, a language she’d learned in high school. When Ellen moved to an apartment in Givat Hamivtar, Samy took her laundry back to Ulpan Etzion every week, since there was a washing machine there. So when he took the bold step of buying her a washer, it was tantamount to a marriage proposal.
“We never got officially engaged,” Ellen recalls with a laugh. “Although his father came to visit from Morocco a bit later and said I must have an engagement ring, which I got on that trip.
The Amzallags were married on September 1, 1985 in Pittsburgh. Samy’s parents and sisters, cousins and aunts all flew over for the wedding.
Challenging and fun
The newlyweds moved into an apartment in Jerusalem’s northern neighborhood of Ramat Eshkol, and loved everything about their life together. She worked at Intel in Jerusalem, and Samy worked for architect Yaakov Rechter in Tel Aviv.
Even the bureaucratic procedures that most people find annoying at best, such as getting a driver’s license and signing up for healthcare, she experienced as “challenging and fun.”
However, after two-and-a-half years the couple took a break from Israel to make some money. First they traveled in Europe for four months, then lived in Chicago for four years. Their firstborn, Michael, was born there in 1989.
“When we came back, the housing prices had tripled, so we bought in a shikun [public housing unit] in Baka.
Coming back with a child was difficult. I didn’t have a job, although Samy got a job with [the architect] Moshe Safdie immediately. In 1992, I started working at Excalibur Systems, a small hi-tech avionics company, where I still work today as director of quality assurance.”
Three more children followed – Rafael in 1996, and twins Yonatan and Leah on June 25, 1998, the very day of their mother’s aliya anniversary.
Tragically, the following May, Samy was killed in a car accident. Familiar with the rulings of Rabbi Moshe David Tendler and Rabbi Dr. Avraham Steinberg at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Ellen donated Samy’s organs “to keep him alive somehow.”
Then she had to consider how best to manage with four young children. “It’s still challenging,” she admits.
“But we were in an amazing community and people were just incredible. Daily meals were brought over for months. The religious Scouts came daily to bathe and feed the kids. I remember neighbors giving us their apartments so my in-laws and Samy’s sisters could stay there.”
She says she takes comfort from Psalm 120: “I have called out to the Lord in my distress, and He answered me.”
Don’t think twice
Since 2005, Amzallag and her children have lived in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Arnona.
She works half-time and keeps busy with daily swims and workouts, a book club in Gush Etzion and a writing class led by Sherri Mandell, mother of terror victim Koby Mandell and author of The Blessing of a Broken Heart.
In addition, she volunteers as a phone counselor with Beit Natan, a support organization for religious women with breast cancer. “I get very strengthened through this work, because the women have so much emuna [religious faith]; you can feel it over the phone,” she says.
“I also help widows who need emotional support. I think I’ve always been that kind of person, giving off vibes of being very strong even though I don’t always feel that way.”
Her newest passion is a one-day-a-week job at the Jerusalem Municipality, helping parents determine the right educational setting for their special-needs children.
Amzallag’s Hebrew is fluent at this point. “At Intel, they were patient with me. I didn’t want to speak English, and asked everyone to speak Hebrew with me and I really did pick it up,” she says, though at home the primary language is English.
Her advice to anyone considering aliya: “Don’t think twice; just do it. We’re living in a time when we have a Jewish country we can live in, and this is where you need to raise your kids so they’ll stay Jewish.”