Veterans: By the seat of her pants

Encouraged by her daughter, Naomi Katz moved here and ever since, has focused on helping others.

Naomi Katz 521 (photo credit: ABIGAIL KLEIN LEICHMAN)
Naomi Katz 521
If the British hadn’t had a change of heart, Naomi Cahan Katz might have been born in Israel.
Instead, she made her entrance in Pennsylvania in 1925. Seven years earlier, her father had returned there from Palestine, to which he had run away to serve in the Zion Mule Corps – the first modern Jewish fighting force, led by Joseph Trumpeldor.
“The British were supposed to give each demobbed soldier 10 dunams [two and a half acres] of land near Netanya, but instead they decided the soldiers had to return to their port of embarkation, figuring that they probably wouldn’t return,” said Katz. Her father found his way to Philadelphia, got married and raised three children – all the while hoping to get back to Israel.
“We sort of laughed at my father’s dream to come back,” Katz recalled. Her parents did eventually make aliya, but not until 1968.
Naomi Cahan worked her way through art school at Temple University by posing as a model for the dean. She completed undergraduate and masters degrees in fine arts, special education and psychology while simultaneously starting a family and teaching.
She and Stan Katz met at a picnic and got married in 1946.
Sivia was born in 1948, Avi in 1949, Judy in 1951, David in 1954 and Shuli in 1963. Avi, Judy and Shuli live in Israel; Sivia is in Philadelphia and David in Massachusetts.
Stan, a municipal accountant, shared the housekeeping and child-rearing responsibilities and the kids were raised to be independent. Perhaps that’s why Sivia ended up in Israel in 1969, encouraging her parents to make their first visit here a year later.
“We fell in love with the place,” Katz recalls. “We were 47 already, so I guess it was a midlife crisis. We just decided this was where we wanted to be.”
In August 1972, they landed in Israel with Shuli for good. Sivia, Judy and Avi were already in Israel and David stayed behind, attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a full scholarship. After a short stay at the Mevaseret Zion absorption center, Stan accepted a job as the accountant for a factory being set up at Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar.
They arrived just before the Yom Kippur War. Katz remembers miserable nights in the bomb shelter and watching planes explode in the air. Soldiers used to come to the kibbutz for some R&R after fighting in the Golan, and Katz remembers that one of them commented, “This is a beautiful kibbutz. Do you know how close you came to losing it?” Despite this unpleasant introduction to life in Israel, they were not discouraged and stayed at the kibbutz for a decade. Naomi taught English and then art before opening a mental health clinic in nearby Hatzor Haglilit.
Shuli finished the army, married the officer who commanded her unit and went on to university, while Judy moved to Kibbutz Gezer, where she and her husband have raised three children. The Katzes were ready to move on, and though the Cahans were living in Netanya, they felt pulled to Jerusalem and found an apartment in the Ramot Eshkol neighborhood.
Stan worked at Save the Children’s Jerusalem office and Naomi had no trouble finding a job as a school psychologist.
“The 1980s was a time when many Russian and Ethiopian immigrants were coming and many children needed diagnosis and placement,” she explained.
At one point Katz worked with a young Ethiopian man who appeared to be mute and retarded. Through techniques of non-verbal communication that she had developed in Hatzor Haglilit, she managed to piece together his tragic story. As he and his family had made their way from Gondar to Sudan to get to Israel, his father and brothers were taken away by the police and never seen again. Bandits killed his mother and raped his sister, and he was left with just his grandfather, who died after they arrived in Israel. A relative told Katz that the young man had been kidnapped at age five and was found wandering naked with a high fever a week later.
Katz diagnosed his problem as post-traumatic stress syndrome and recommended rehabilitation and education rather than admission to a home for the mentally disabled.
Katz helped the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee survey Israel’s facilities for immigrant children, and she began traveling to the US, selling artwork by Russian and Ethiopian immigrants to raise money for them and for ASTA, an organization aiding Russian teachers living in Israel.
Encouraged by ASTA founder Rimma Eksler, Katz took groups to St. Petersburg, Russia, for cultural tours guided in English by an unemployed local architect. Between 1992 and 2005, her groups took in the sights and sounds at museums, galleries, concerts, opera and ballet. “I’ve always just done things by the seat of my pants,” says Katz, who knows only a small amount of Russian.
In 1995, a friend from Philadelphia told Katz she wanted to use an inheritance to found an audio book library for the visually impaired and asked if there was such a thing in Israel. There was a Hebrew one but not an English one, so Katz started the AACI-Cohen Library for Visually Impaired and Homebound with 30 books in a small space at the office of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI).
Today she works at the library every morning, now in more spacious headquarters that house thousands of books on tape, CD and MP3 as well as large-print books.
The library has 200 members and mails books to patrons anywhere from Eilat to Nahariya. Katz once shipped boxes of surplus books to Ethiopia when the government library there requested material. Her friend’s family still supports the library, which remains one of a kind in Israel.
Katz worked with her daughter, Sivia, a ketuba (marriage contract) artist in Philadelphia, to set up a Jewish Federation-funded mobile ophthalmic and optometric clinic in Arad, where she also established a Russian-language library.
Ironically, this late-life librarian and watercolor painter, who moved to the capital’s German Colony neighborhood six months ago, recently developed glaucoma and macular degeneration. Katz said she enjoys reading large-print books on her Kindle.
Stan Katz died six years ago, but during his lifetime the couple had the opportunity to travel across Europe, America, Egypt and Turkey through Servas, an organization whose members economize by staying at each other’s homes.
“We never had money,” she said. “We had dreams. We only wanted to live to be of service and to help people.
We’ve been lucky to be able to live our lives that way.”
Katz stays busy with her work, her painting and other pursuits, including an illustrated autobiography she is writing for her 12 grandchildren, the youngest of whom just began her IDF service.
Though she is unhappy about the social and religious divisions in Israel – she belongs to a Reform congregation and feels it is marginalized – Katz considers herself fully at home in Israel. “My ancestors died for it and my father almost died for it, and I’m very lucky to be here,” she said.