Veterans: The right move

Social work "brought me into empathy with people going through crises and traumas," says Asher Cailingold.

Asher Cailingold, 82 370 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Asher Cailingold, 82 370
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
The name Cailingold resonates in the modern history of the Jews and their struggle for a state of their own. Esther Cailingold was a young woman from Britain who came to Eretz Yisrael in 1948 to work as an English teacher. She joined the Hagana and was killed in the battle for Jerusalem during the War of Independence.
Her younger brother, Asher, was 18 at the time. He, too, was about to leave home but after the devastating loss of his sister he felt he could not leave his parents.
“In any case, I was soon in British Army uniform doing my national service,” says the 82-year-old Cailingold, who today lives with his wife, Edna, in a retirement home in Jerusalem.
They immigrated together in 1957, a young couple with an eight-month-old baby, going straight to Kibbutz Lavi. Edna (née Lunzer) from Manchester and Asher from London met and fell in love in Jerusalem in 1950, when they both came to study at the Machon Lemadrichei Hutz (Institute for Jewish Youth leaders from Abroad).
“We were both active in B’nei Akiva, and after the year of study one had to work for the movement for two years,” says Cailingold.
He was one of the first B’nei Akiva general secretaries back in the Fifties in England until he and Edna decided they wanted to move to Israel to live.
“We never studied for degrees or anything like that at the time,” he says. “We were sure that this would be our life – pioneers in the new state.”
Kibbutz life proved not to be right for them. Edna was stuck in the kitchen, Asher was out in the vineyards all day and they barely saw each other. They were also unhappy that the baby, Avi, was in the children’s home all day although he was allowed to sleep at home.
“The kibbutz turned me into a feminist,” says Asher. He did not like to see Edna doing menial jobs all day in the kibbutz kitchen.
They had made a pact that if one of them was not comfortable with kibbutz life, the other could not be forced to stay. Fortunately they were in agreement that it was not for them.
“Asher is a ‘macher’ type,” says Edna with a smile. The implication is that being a member of a kibbutz and being a “macher” just didn’t go together.
Within no time he found a job as the director of the first community center in Israel, in Haifa. The job also enabled him to take his first degree in social work at Hebrew University and later a master’s at Bar-Ilan.
“The work at the community center exposed me to Israelis of all ages and social backgrounds,” he says. “It was a very rewarding and interesting experience and we stayed 12 years.”
In that time he went to study in Ohio for a while under a Fulbright scholarship.
Edna stayed in Haifa and taught English.
Later they went together as emissaries to Philadelphia and afterwards for a short stint in Britain.
Social work became his life’s work and he attributes this in some ways to the impact Esther’s death had on him.
“It brought me into empathy with people going through crises and traumas,” he says.
It also filtered down to other family members. Their oldest son, Avi, was a social worker, Esti their daughter also, and even their oldest granddaughter followed into that profession. Another son, Eli, worked in the security services for years and is now studying to become a guide taking groups to Poland, and their youngest, Moshe, is headmaster of the Regional High School in Sde Eliyahu.
Asher ran the social work department of the Jewish Agency for several years and later was in charge of the aliya division, retiring in 1995. Tragedy came early in his life with the death of a beloved sister about whom he wrote a biography, An Unlikely Heroine, in 2000. He felt that he could not tackle the painful subject any earlier in his life.
Once he decided to write his book he was given access to material in the Israeli army archives which until then had been classified.
He and Edna also suffered a painful loss with the death of Avi at the age of 41.
Nowadays Cailingold spends much of his spare time volunteering at Yad Vashem showing visiting VIPs around, something he began doing about 15 years ago. He has escorted military delegations, presidents and diplomats and notes that many end the visit in tears and appear shaken to the core.
He recalls a visit by an American air force general together with Elyezer Shkedi, who was at the time head of the Israel Air Force and himself the son of Holocaust survivors.
“The American was in full dress uniform, covered in medals and gold braid, while Shkedi was in shirt and trousers. People kept coming up to him and hugging him,” recalls Cailingold.
“Are all Jews related to each other?” asked the general.
“What you are going to see will give you the answer,” replied Cailingold.