Appreciation: Shalom Maagan and the passing of an era

In a era where many young people are self-centered, money-oriented and searching to find meaning in life, my Uncle Shalom was a powerful reminder of the ideals, values and grit that built this country.

Shalom Maagan 311 (photo credit: Zvi Volk)
Shalom Maagan 311
(photo credit: Zvi Volk)
My uncle, Shalom Maagan (Marcovich), a founder of Kibbutz Lavi, its longtime landscaper, and until his passing, its oldest member, passed away on Shabbat, March 26, at 93. A gentle soul, with little care for worldly possessions or the accumulation of wealth, he and my Aunt Edith had just celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary a few days before.
His death marks the passing of an era.
My Uncle Shalom was among the last surviving members of that hardy group of kibbutznik Zionists who played such a dramatic role in building the State of Israel.
Born in 1917 in London, to an Orthodox but not extreme family, the youngest of nine children, he was a lifelong religious Zionist, and a founder of the British arm of Bnei Akiva, founded in Jerusalem in 1929.
The movement was founded as a response to the fact that in Europe, much of the adult Jewish population subsisted in poverty and worked in nonproductive labor, at a time when the industrial revolution was in full stride. In England, in those days, Bnei Akiva strove to emphasize the value of productivity to the Jewish people, to establish a self-sustaining nation in “our land,” operating on the physical and spiritual level, as one in a Torah environment.
The goals of Bnei Akiva informed his entire life.
Shalom and his wife Edith met in 1937, at the Young Sinai clubhouse in London, another religious Zionist group. Shalom, then 18 and a veteran counselor, had been sent to give a class on the weekly Torah reading to three new girls who had just joined the local branch, Edie, then 15, among them. At the end of the evening, Shalom told a friend, “That little one will be my wife some day.”
SHALOM MAAGAN studied at the Etz Chaim Yeshiva whose mashgiah ruhani (spiritual leader) from 1926- 1950 was the famed Rabbi Elyah Lopian (1876-1970), a giant of the Mussar (ethical discipline) movement.
Shalom considered him to be his greatest teacher, as my brother, Prof. Jonathan D. Sarna reminded me. He went on to study for the rabbinate at Jews College, now known as the London School of Jewish Studies, and an affiliate of the University of London, together with my late father, Prof. Nahum M. Sarna.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from University College, London, but dropped out prior to receiving ordination, reasoning “I thought it wasn’t a time for studying,” as he remembered later.
During the Blitz of London by the German Luftwaffe, from 1940-1941, Shalom ran an institution for Jewish children who were evacuated from London to the south of England.
“As a theology student, I was released from military service,” he said in an interview with Haaretz many years later.
Five years after they first met, Shalom and Edie were married in the Great Synagogue of London in 1941, with the nightly Blitz still operating in full force. The wedding guests were forced to eat quickly to have time to get to the bomb shelters before the nightly reign of terror.
Everyone walked around carrying a gas mask. The beautiful synagogue they were married in, built in 1790, was destroyed by the Nazis shortly afterward.
Immediately after the end of World War II, in June 1945, Shalom left his young wife and son to go to Bergen-Belsen as the commander of a rescue unit to help survivors. Conditions were so dangerous still, and there was so much typhus in the camp, that before leaving, he gave his wife a get al tnai (conditional divorce), arranged by Rabbi Yehezkel Abramsky (1886-1976), head of the Beit Din of London, lest he not return and his remains go unidentified.
He didn’t want his wife to be left an aguna, unable to remarry.
During the time of his service in Bergen-Belsen, he worked very quietly but successfully to “smuggle” Jews into Palestine for the Bricha organization, in a variety of quasilegal ways, a story that has never been told. Shortly after the establishment of the State of Israel, he and my Aunt Edie decided in 1949 to realize the Bnei Akiva dream of working the land, and they settled in the North, near Tiberias, founding Kibbutz Lavi along with other immigrants from the UK, German- Jewish children who came to England with the Kindertransport and a few émigrés from Canada and the US. For a time, they lived in tents and with no running water.
Shalom began working in the kibbutz in carpentry, building the first permanent housing with his own hands. My uncle then became principal of Hodayot, a nearby boarding school that took in Jewish children from Bombay, India. However, after a few years, he returned to working on the kibbutz, preferring to work the land, his great love. He became the gardener of Lavi, a position he maintained until he retired at 86.
He almost single-handedly turned Lavi into the beautiful oasis of lush and well-manicured gardens that it is today.
DURING THE 1970s, when I lived in Israel, I often enjoyed Shalom and Edie’s gracious hospitality, as well as on my many trips to Israel since.
From an early age, Uncle Shalom showed an interest in art and became a painter and sculptor. He continued to paint and sculpt until just a few months before his death.
Sharp to the end, he became an avid computer user in recent years, regularly e-mailing his extended family, downloading pictures of great paintings from Picasa, studying the Bible, reading novels and keeping up with the news.
Asked in 2008 what he wished for, he responded, that “there will be peace and we’ll be like all the nations,” adding, “I’ll accept whatever the government decides.” He is survived by his wife, two children, Moshe and Shula, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
In a era where many young people are self-centered, money-oriented and searching to find meaning in life, my Uncle Shalom was a powerful reminder of the ideals, values, grit, sweat and determination that created and built the State of Israel.
May his memory be for a blessing.
The writer has contributed on Jewish topics to several newspapers and is the author of six books, more than 120 published articles and holds four patents. He blogs at DavidBar-