The thrill of calamity

Myrna and Jim Bennett: From San Francisco to Haifa, 1967.

Myrna and Jim Bennett (photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
Myrna and Jim Bennett
(photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
As was the case for many uncommitted Jews, 1967 was the year that Myrna and Jim Bennett woke up to the fact that they were Jewish and that the Jewish state was in danger of being destroyed.
“We became obsessed with Israel,” they say. “The build-up, the threats, the debates in the United Nations – we could think of nothing else. We were so desperately worried that it was the end of Israel.”
A young couple from San Francisco – he was a volunteer in Vista, the anti-poverty program that president Lyndon Johnson started, and she was a teacher – they decided to drop everything and volunteer to come out and help Israel. The war was over, but in mid-July, they boarded an El Al plane full of volunteers and found themselves here.
“We didn’t know what we were coming to,” says Myrna.
Forty-six years later, they are still here, Orthodox Jews who have made significant contributions to the country. Jim is still involved in some of the projects from his real estate business, although he says it’s tailing off, while Myrna works one afternoon a week in a used book store near their Haifa home.
“The grandchildren are often with me, so it’s nice to hear some adult English conversation occasionally,” she says.
The Bennetts have known each other since high school, though they later went to study at separate universities. She did a BA in American history at Berkeley and then a teaching diploma; he studied international relations at California State University.
They would bump into each other at Friday night parties and dated occasionally, but it wasn’t until they met up again six years later in New York that they realized they wanted to spend their lives together. They married in 1966 and went to live in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Jim had been working for the Anti-Defamation League doing research into anti-Semitism.
“The draft was leaning on my neck,” he says, “so I was looking for options with deferment, and that’s when I joined Vista.”
When the Six Day War broke out, they returned to San Francisco and went to the Jewish Agency there.
They were accepted and a few weeks later found themselves on a kibbutz, picking apples and discovering a love of the Land of Israel for the first time.
At the end of the year, they planned to travel to Europe, but first enrolled for four months at the WUJS program in Arad.
“The whole program was created to keep volunteers in the country,” they say. “There was a good ulpan there, and everyone found a job afterward.”
Jim was offered a job as a social worker in Sderot, but opted for a job at Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology instead, as assistant to the spokesman.
They moved to Haifa and soon moved into the house where they still live. In the Yom Kippur War, Jim served on the Golan Heights, having done some basic training the year before. Their three sons came into the world – Asher in 1968, Danny in 1970 and Naftali in 1972.
In 1974, Jim was asked to go to Montreal for two years to open an office for the Technion there. The family was still totally secular.
“We didn’t know what Judaism meant,” says Myrna.
In Montreal, they sent the children to Jewish day schools and began to meet observant Jews. Myrna belonged to a carpool, and the mothers would take turns bringing the children home once a week and keeping them there until the evening.
“They were all observant, so I began to buy kosher food and used disposable plates,” she recalls. “It was the first time we had been exposed to this way of life.”
They began to be invited for Shabbat meals, and they loved the singing of the Grace after Meals and the Shabbat atmosphere. The rabbi’s wife decided to help them become more observant, giving advice and lending dishes.
At one point, Asher came home from first grade and asked his father why he didn’t make kiddush on Friday night. Jim bought a book, and together they began to find out what being observant really meant. The encouragement from the community made the job easier.
“It’s a pity there was no such outreach when we first came to Arad,” says Myrna. “I was too scared to go to synagogue and had no idea about Shabbat. I truly believe that all those young people who came as volunteers had this spark of Jewishness in them and wanted some connection.”
When they returned to Haifa, they were still not fully observant, but they decided to send the boys to religious schools. The area where they lived had many religious families in it, and soon Myrna was studying in a women’s group and making observant friends.
“People went out of their way to bring us in,” she recalls.
Before long they were an Orthodox family, mostly thanks to Myrna, although Jim went along with everything. When his real-estate business expanded, he wouldn’t take on anyone in his office if they had to work on Shabbat. Myrna kept herself busy with her activities for AACI and was assistant director of the northern branch for 15 years.
The boys grew and prospered, married and had families.
Asher is a businessman who works in electrifying cars, Danny is an accountant for Zim, and Naftali – well, Naftali Bennett needs no introduction from me.
Needless to say, they are immensely proud of all their sons.