Much has been written about the recent passing of Jonathan Danilowitz. His passing has left a huge hole in my heart, and those of his family and many friends. I want to share what I know about Jonathan, how special he was, and the difference he made in people’s lives.
It was 1984. I was the editor of the local Jewish newspaper, The Charleston (SC) Jewish Journal. Jakob Rosenthal, born in Vienna, author and a former reporter for the Palestine Post, now lived in Charleston. He wrote a monthly column for my newspaper. We became friends, and as the health of Rosenthal and his wife declined, I was appointed executor of their estate. I was responsible for accompanying their bodies, three months apart, to be buried in Rehovot among the Malamed family.
On the first trip, El Al upgraded me to first class where I was treated with great compassion by the flight attendant. It was Jonathan Danilowitz. We talked. We talked a lot during that long flight. He made sure I was comfortable and well-fed. We found we were both runners. When we landed, I recognized his voice, that unmistakable South African accent was the one who welcomed the passengers to Israel. That recording ran for many years.
From that day on, every flight I made on El Al, Jonathan managed to be on the crew. One time, he taped a piece of paper to the seat assigned to me. “Reserved for Leah Chase.” Passengers boarding all looked at me as if I were a celebrity. It was a joke. Another time, he and the crew served a birthday cake and sang “Happy Birthday” to me. It wasn’t even my birthday. Another joke.
Our friendship continued as years went by. I returned to Israel every year for international Jewish media conferences and business conferences, at least once, sometimes as many as four times a year. We often ran together on Tel Aviv’s promenade. We went to Tel Aviv’s trendiest restaurants. He flew to Charleston to visit with me and my husband, Philip, several times. Once, Philip and I shared his apartment on Ben-Gurion Boulevard. He ran with me in the 10k Cooper River Bridge runs.
During the ’80s and ’90s, when I wrote and produced commercials at WCSC-TV, the local CBS affiliate, he was interviewed on the air by our senior news anchor, because Jonathan had come the farthest to participate in the race. I ran with him when he captained the El Al running team in Atlanta for that year’s WARR (World Airways Road Race). We both accumulated and treasured our multiple race T-shirts.
Danilowitz's fight for gay rights
AT THE BEGINNING of his lawsuit against El Al to acquire spousal rights for his partner, he shared his indignation at not having equal rights, and his subsequent efforts to force his employer to give the one free ticket per year to every couple. There was a groundswell of public support for the efforts he was taking on behalf of LGBTQ+ community.
After six years, the High Court of Justice ruled in his favor, and he had won equal rights for the partners and spouses of all El Al employees. He called me from an El Al destination in the Far East to share the excitement when the news of his win reached him. What he won was a major anti-discrimination policy that opened closed doors in every field of endeavor.
Through the years, we walked together in many Tel Aviv Pride Parades. We wore Pride T-shirts and carried posters on poles in the first Pride Parade held in Jerusalem, when a young girl was stabbed by an ultra-Orthodox man. She was no more than 10 feet in front of us. A bloodied sanitary pad was thrown at us; Jonathan jumped in front to protect me. A policeman on horseback blocked further assaults.
Jonathan invited me to many other events honoring Pride Week when I happened to be in Israel at the same time. I particularly remember an exciting reception on the rooftop of Gan Ha’ir, given by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. Gan Ha’ir was bathed in the multi-colored lights of the Gay Pride movement. The music was loud. We were interviewed along with Huldai on Israel Television that night.
Another memorable time was at a beautiful reception in Herzliya Petuah given by then US ambassador Dan Shapiro. I was always proud to be with him. We once went to hear a government leader speak to a largely English-speaking audience. Jonathan had translated his speech from Hebrew to English and wanted to see if he presented it properly.
He was often called to translate speeches from Hebrew to English for Knesset and government members when they traveled abroad to represent Israel. Throughout all these years, including during the lawsuit, he continued working as a senior flight attendant for El Al, and often wrote travel pieces for the in-flight magazine.
By his example, Jonathan taught me about fairness, human rights, gay rights, Jewish vegetarians and respect for animals, truth and honesty. He was my support when I needed him during the most difficult time of my life. This gentle man, this tall, handsome proud South African/Israeli, is proof that one man can make a difference. Jonathan Danilowitz has left a legacy of a life well lived. He changed the world with his activism. And he did it, from the time of his diagnosis to the end, his way.
May his memory be a blessing for all who knew and loved him.