The Human Spirit: When Robert meets Elaine Or – when love meets Zionism

Robert and Elaine Belmaker, and family. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Robert and Elaine Belmaker, and family.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
They fell in love at Harvard – Robert Belmaker, born in California and Elaine Zaembka from Missouri. He noticed the pretty and petite Radcliffe girl in the corridor outside the premed organic chemistry lab in their sophomore year and struck up a conversation.
It turned out that they were both volunteering in a Cambridge enrichment program for impoverished kids.
He asked her for a date. They courted to the Cambridge folk music greats – Joan Boaz, Tom Rush, Bob Dylan – who played Club 47.
He told her he thought it would be good to get married soon after graduation.
She was happy. He bought a modest ring and they began planning their modest Boston wedding over the Massachusetts winter of their senior year. The date would be June 16, 1967. The honeymoon was to be another shared dream: visiting Israel. Neither had ever been Amidst finals and last-minute preparations for their wedding, they listened obsessively to the radio.
On May 15, Israel’s Independence Day, Egyptian troops began moving toward Israel’s border. Three days later, Syrians were reported to be massing near the border along the Golan Heights. Egyptian president Abdul Nasser expelled the UN emergency buffer force, and on May 22, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.
On June 5, the Six Day War began.
“It’s hard to convey how nerve-racking it was listening to the news,” says Robert. “It sounded like doomsday.”
They were relieved and joyous when Israel somehow emerged victorious. At their wedding, Robert broke a glass and pledged: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem….”
Their eyes filled with tears.
The American embargo on flights caused a short delay in their honeymoon.
When they spotted a Jewish Agency advertisement for volunteers, they signed up for a two-month stint and got seats on one of the first flights out.
The clerk in charge of the program heard they were both already accepted to Duke University School of Medicine, and dispatched them to the Hadassah hospital on Mount Scopus. The medical facility there had been closed for 19 years.
From antiquity, Mount Scopus has been a key base from which to attack Jerusalem.
General Titus and the 12th Roman Legion used it as a base. It was from Mount Scopus that Titus boasted of his conquest, preserved in Roman-minted coins “Judaea Capta.” The Crusaders used Mount Scopus as a base in 1099.
Two decades before the Belmakers’ visit, during Israel’s War of Independence, a medical convoy bringing staff, patients and supplies over the narrow road to the hospital on Mount Scopus was ambushed.
On April 13, 1948, 78 doctors, nurses, students, patients, faculty members, Hagana escorts and one British soldier were killed. Continued Arab shelling and sniping afterwards made any normal activity on Mount Scopus impossible.
David Ben-Gurion wanted to hold the hill at all costs, but a front line of sick patients couldn’t hold.
An agreement was negotiated whereby the United Nations would assume control of Mount Scopus. Some 84 Jewish police would guard the installations of Hadassah and the Hebrew University and 40 Arab guards would protect Arab property. The institutions were evacuated on July 6 and 7, 1948.
At the beginning of the Six Day War, Israel feared for the welfare of the skeleton force of soldiers on Mount Scopus and the strategically important ridge itself, which could easily fall to the Jordanians.
The tough battle on Ammunition Hill was aimed at protecting Mount Scopus.
When Robert and Elaine arrived at Mount Scopus, they found walls and windows destroyed by the Jordanian army bombardment. Moving graffiti had been scrawled by an Israeli guard, “If the day comes and this building is filled again with patients, let them remember those who watched over this place during difficult years.”
The Ivy League newlyweds figuratively rolled up their sleeves (in the hot Israeli summer, no one was wearing long sleeves). They became experts at the Israeli art of floor washing, called sponja.
“The place was filthy and stank,” said Robert. “There hadn’t been garbage pickup or working toilets for a long time. We swept, tore through spider webs and we gathered debris. We couldn’t help looking at the documents scattered on the floor: unfilled prescriptions and articles from 1947. We rescued memorabilia from the trash.”
“The work was dirty, but while we worked we fell in love with Israel,” says Elaine Belmaker. “Both of us knew by the end of our stint that we wanted to come back to become doctors in Israel.”
And so it was. Robert (now called Hayim) and Elaine (now Elana) finished their medical degrees in America, and spent most of their careers as pioneering physicians in Israel’s south.
Elana was the Negev’s regional physician, making sure well-baby clinics were running in development towns and Beduin encampments. She confronted tough restaurant owners about refrigeration and hygiene, bureaucrats about air quality. Hayim, a psychiatrist, introduced this field to the many Russian immigrant doctors who moved to Beersheba.
They also brought up six Israeli children.
Now is anniversary season for the Belmaker family. They’ve bought roundtrip tickets – first for their 50th Harvard class reunion and then their 50th wedding anniversary, in Jerusalem, with their large family and friends.
And there’s also the Jubilee Celebration of the Reunification of Jerusalem.
“Whenever we go to Mount Scopus it always has a nostalgic tug on our hearts,” says Hayim. “It wasn’t your typical honeymoon, but one that changed our lives forever.”
■ The writer serves as the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.