Veterans: A tip of the hat

Living nearby in a cozy rented flat, Raphael dons one of his hats and strolls to Beit Gil Hazahav twice a week.

Benny Raphael (photo credit: ABIGAIL KLEIN LEICHMAN)
Benny Raphael
If you walk down LaGuardia Street in Tel Aviv with Benny Raphael, be prepared to stop and exchange greetings with virtually every passerby.
The gregarious South African native is well-regarded not only for his sunny disposition, but also for his collection of hats and his contributions to life in the area – especially for the residents of Beit Gil Hazahav (Golden Age House), which was the first assisted independent living facility in Israel, and has become Raphael’s home away from home in recent years.
Living nearby in a cozy rented flat, Raphael dons one of his hats and strolls to Beit Gil Hazahav twice a week to take part in the Golden Dance Club, managed by Ida Ben-Ami, a Ukrainian immigrant who originally came to Israel to join the Israeli Opera’s chorus. The club is open to the public and was the subject of a documentary about the benefits of dance for the elderly.
“Ida discovered me. She says I should have been on Broadway,” Raphael says with a laugh.
He first fell in love with Israeli folk dancing in 1950s Port Elizabeth. “The Jewish community was a close-knit community of some 4,000 souls,” he relates. “Our parents – mainly from Eastern Europe – instilled in us the values of Yiddishkeit; in fact, there was a Yiddish culture group that performed in Yiddish, and my late father was a member.”
Raphael was active in the Zionist youth group Betar, along with sisters Debby and Menucha (“Nookie”).
Nookie lives in Johannesburg today. Debby was one of the first South African women to serve in the Nahal Unit of the IDF, in the 1950s. Debby, her daughter and grandchildren are Benny’s closest family in Israel. He usually joins them for Friday night dinner, and accompanies his great-nieces and great-nephews to concerts and theater.
First experience in Israel In 1959, at age 20, Raphael spent a year in Israel on a Jewish Agency program for youth leaders from South Africa and South America. They learned Hebrew, Israeli geography, Jewish history and Israeli folk dancing, toured the country and worked on an agricultural settlement. When he returned, he volunteered for the Jewish National Fund, took a boot and shoe manufacturing course at Port Elizabeth Technical College, and began a career in the shoe industry.
The 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, and the Yom Kippur War the following year, triggered Raphael’s desire to make aliya. He spent his first six months volunteering at Kibbutz Be’eri on the border of Gaza, serving as the liaison between foreign volunteers and the kibbutz central committee. In February 1975, he came to Tel Aviv and stayed a few months in a Tel Aviv hostel for young immigrants run by the South African Zionist Federation.
Through a friend from his Betar days, he got a job as a sales representative for the venerable Israeli shoe manufacturer Hamegaper. He worked there for 19 years, traveling around central Israel and also manning the company’s booth at shoe fairs in New York, Boston and Atlanta. In 1984, he took a year off and lived in New York, then came back and picked up where he left off.
But in 1994, Hamegaper went out of business. Raphael traveled around the US for five months, stopped back in Israel long enough to give away his clothes and his treasured Israeli record collection, and went back to the States where he lived on and off for 11 years on a tourist visa.
What kept him there so long? He points to a photograph of himself with Ed Griffin, a widower and World War II veteran who took Raphael on as his driver, personal secretary and traveling companion. They spent summers in Griffin’s hometown of Canton, Ohio, and winters in Florida, with frequent jaunts to Europe, cruises and nights at the opera.
“He was not Jewish, but he was a real American hero and a special human being,” Raphael says.
He returned to Israel in 2007 and stayed for a short time with a relative in Yehud. Remarkably, he then found an apartment in the same former hostel in which he’d lived 50 years before. In October 2013, Raphael moved to his present flat in the nearby Yad Eliyahu neighborhood.
Embracing change One of the many handwritten adages he has tacked onto his walls reads: “Word of wisdom: It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but those who are able to adapt to change.”
Putting that aphorism into practice, he took a course to become certified as a homecare aide, and has worked with a succession of elderly clients in his neighborhood. He reaches them by bicycle, another way of keeping fit.
Once a week, he converses in English with a 95-yearold retired Polish doctor. He also leads an English speaking and singing club at Beit Gil Hazahav Tel Aviv on Sunday mornings, often using articles from The Jerusalem Post as conversation starters.
“I have a natural compassion, respect and admiration for older people. My father used to visit elderly relatives in hospitals, and I suppose I inherited that from him.”
When Beit Gil Hazahav residents go to the theater or opera, Raphael is invited along as a guest escort.
During last December’s storm, when his apartment temporarily lost heat, the residence gave him a room and full board for the night, gratis. “What you give is what you get back,” says this dedicated volunteer.
He also loves being a volunteer tour guide. He has taken many visiting friends around Israel, and stops to offer suggestions and directions when he comes across tourists looking at maps with a puzzled expression.
On Friday afternoons, Raphael enjoys singing at a jazz café on his block. He puts on shows at retirement homes accompanied by an accordionist friend, and has acted as an extra in several Israeli films. “Three months ago I got my first speaking part, in a Beit Hatfutsot documentary on Jewish communities in the Diaspora, and I may be an extra in Natalie Portman’s A Tale of Love and Darkness.”
Meanwhile, he’s studying to be a proctor through the Open University. “I’ve never planned anything in my life,” he says. “I take whatever comes along.”
Indeed, among his other inspirational notes is this: “Live life passionately, laugh out loud, love unconditionally.”
A longtime friend sent him a card for his 75th birthday in January, addressing it to “Benny: Our Peter Pan with a sense of rhythm.”
Reflecting on that apt description never fails to elicit Raphael’s signature dazzling smile, as he chooses one of his many hats and sets out on another adventure in his adopted home of Tel Aviv.