My Story: Island living

Hawaii Hadassah invited me to speak about my great-uncle David Ben-Gurion.

david ben-gurion 298 (photo credit: GPO)
david ben-gurion 298
(photo credit: GPO)
Last September I was invited by the Hawaii Chapter of Hadassah to speak about my great-uncle David Ben-Gurion at its semi-annual meeting. I felt so honored. I didn't know much about Hawaii. Not many people have the opportunity to travel so far. But the minute I landed in the Honolulu airport and was greeted by a local singer, his mellow voice coming out of the loudspeaker so warm and embracing, I felt I knew all there is to know about Hawaii. The essence of Hawaii is this welcoming attitude. A childhood friend of mine from the kibbutz who now lives in Hawaii came to pick me up from the airport. Before I had a chance to utter a word, my friend thrust a traditional necklace of fresh flowers around my neck. I was taken by surprise. Being Israelis and kibbutzniks we aren't used to exchanging cordial gestures. So I never expected her to be affectionate. And all of a sudden this fragrant necklace was on me. Is this my old friend, I wondered. This was to be a visit full of surprises: Zionist-wise, family-wise and personal-wise. At the beginning of my lecture, a few days later, I was adorned again with a necklace of fresh flowers. This time I bowed my head humbly and accepted the greeting. I felt anointed to the sisterhood. The woman who anointed me was chapter president Barbara Fischlowitz-Leong, an amazing woman, who hosted me during my visit and showed me the workings of the organization. The next day we were off to work. I accompanied the Hadassah women to the synagogue on the High Holy Days; I joined them in services and in study groups; I had a chance to meet the women who play a more active role, and became acquainted with their ambitious schedule. It reminded me of the kibbutz of my childhood, when everyone was involved, voluntarily, in cultural and communal activities. This kind of active participation has long since vanished from most kibbutzim. And yet elsewhere, it is thriving - as in Hawaii. Getting acquainted with the island and with the women had a similar effect on me - they enchanted me. I felt caressed by the sea and wind and cared for by these amazing women. I had the impression that in Hawaii there are two kinds of active volcanoes - those strange, pointed, lava formations soaring to the sky, and the women of Hadassah. I have never met such a concentration of powerful, dedicated women. The feminine energy in Hawaii is more evident than any place I have ever been to. After a short while I realized that no one was actually born in Hawaii. Everyone came from the mainland or beyond, so they had to lay new foundations for their Jewish togetherness; everything they did was done in Hawaii for the first time. They reminded me of the first pioneers who came to Eretz Yisrael, people who had no one to learn from: They had to figure out how to create an egalitarian Jewish society by themselves. One evening Barbara Fischlowitz-Leong was telling me a little about Hadassah, mentioning that the woman who founded Hadassah was Henrietta Szold. Hearing this I remained speechless. I knew Henrietta Szold was head of Youth Aliya; I did not know that she was the founder of Hadassah. I said, "Do you know that my father knew Henrietta quite well?" "How is that?" Barbara asked. In 1940 Henrietta Szold came to Kibbutz Beit Hashita and asked my father if he could be responsible for a group of teenagers she managed to save from occupied Czechoslovakia. He was 24 and she was almost 80, still energetic and strong-willed. My father said he had just gotten married and - but there was no saying no to Szold. This group was composed of boys and girls, 15 and 16, who had just left their parents, never to see them again. As sleeping quarters, they were given the new dining room that was still under construction, and my father slept on the cement floor beside them. He was their teacher and counselor; he was like a parent to them. He was totally committed to them. After two months or so, my father decided to take the "Czech youth," as they were called, to one of the most challenging places in Palestine: the Dead Sea salt mines. The conditions there were unbearable: hard work in 40º temperature, no running water. The teenagers were in a state of exhaustion. A letter was waiting for my father when he returned with the group to Beit Hashita. It was from Szold. She was very upset "by your behavior." He should have asked her permission to launch such a dangerous adventure. Father refused to apologize. He insisted he would have done it again. In 1982, 42 years later, one of my father's disciples, now deputy mayor of Jerusalem, sent him an invitation to his son's bar mitzva. The gathering place - the Dead Sea. Once the guests assembled, the excited father opened the celebration and said: "You must be wondering why did I bother to bring you here. What kind of a place is this to celebrate a bar mitzva? Well, this place is very meaningful to me. In 1940 this man here [he pointed at my father in front of all the guests] took us, delicate European youth, to work in the potassium factory that was here. The conditions were so harsh that we decided to kill him. But after we overcame the hardships, we knew that this is the place where we became Israelis. Here, in this barren, desolate desert I was born again as an Israeli and a Zionist. Everything I achieved from that point on, I owe to my teacher, Arye Ben-Gurion." In 1943 Szold called father again. His new assignment: to be on the team that was to absorb and care for the 800 Teheran children. I have the letter with the details. Afterward I wondered how Szold knew about my father. Well, I thought, could it be that David Ben-Gurion told her about his nephew? Ben-Gurion appreciated my father very much. He also admired Henrietta as the most outstanding Jewish woman of the 20th century. Szold and Ben-Gurion had known each other for many years. During the three years that Ben-Gurion lived in America (1915-1917), they were active in somewhat parallel issues. While Ben-Gurion established the Hehalutz movement in the US, Szold was investing her efforts in sustaining Hadassah and increasing its membership. Later they met at the Zionist congresses. I even have a picture of both of them, Ben-Gurion all smiles and Szold more reserved, on the occasion of her 60th birthday. What David and Arye Ben-Gurion and Henrietta Szold had in common was a tireless energetic spirit, an inner drive, a devotion to the Jewish people. So in Hawaii I felt the continuity and unity of action: My father was recruited by Szold, and her followers in Hawaii recruited me. At the end of my visit I felt empowered and inspired by the dedicated women I met. I have changed. Israel will not look the same to me. Hadassah had made a difference not just in the lives of my friends who have been treated in the medical center, but in the lives of innumerable Jews in Israel and abroad.