On a Pilgrimage to Israel, a Vietnam Vet Tells How He Adopted the Bahai Faith

Departures / Arrivals: A former military photographer says life in Alaska helped him heal after the Vietnam war; a young Israeli couple talks about their meet cute on a kibbutz.

Dek Fromer.
Tomer Appelbaum

Dek Fromer, 67, lives in Shanghai, flying to New York

Hello, can I ask about your travel plans?

I am going to visit my mother. I came to Israel because I’m a member of the Bahai community and wanted to visit [the Bahai center in] Haifa with a friend, and also the gardens outside Acre, where the prophet of the Bahai religion is buried.

What was it like in the temple?

In Haifa you check in at the World Bahai Center and get a tag offering access to different sites, some of which are not accessible to the public. This was the first time I went, though I’ve visited Israel four-five times. I travel a lot.

Because of work?

No, because my wife likes to travel. I used to like traveling, too, but I have diabetes, so I have a monitor and pump with me. The older I get, the more I have to plan things in advance.

Did you feel freer when you were younger?

After being in Vietnam in the 1960s, I went to Alaska. I wanted to experience life, so every two or three years I switched jobs. I was a port worker, I worked on the Alaska oil pipeline, I was part of a medical team, I was a postman, a policeman, a fisherman, I worked in a lab, I was an electrician, an anthropologist and I also collected a few degrees. I lived in Alaska for 20 years; Alaska is a place where the more you know, the more efficient you become. No one will just come and fix something for you. 

Don’t give a person a fish, give him a fishing rod.

Exactly.

Why Alaska?

It was a great place for healing after the war. Within 10 minutes I was in the midst of nature with the ravens, the eagles and the occasional bear. I kayaked, sailed, ice-camped and skied in the winter. I bought myself a rifle but couldn’t stand hunting. I haven’t carried a rifle since Vietnam.

What did you do in Vietnam?

I was a military photographer, which was a relatively good job. I was on the battlefield only a few times. I was stationed in the Central Highlands, in the DMZ, in Quan 3, between South and North Vietnam. But that was such a long time ago; I was a different person. I can’t change that, and denying it won’t help. Maybe when I grow up, I’ll understand what it all meant.

Does the Bahai faith help you understand?

It’s a combination of factors. After Vietnam I traveled a lot, and prayer wasn’t a logical choice for me. It’s not that I grew up religious. It took me 20 years to learn how to pray, and I still don’t know how.

How many times a day do adherents pray?

We have three different prayers. One is short and simple, one is a few sentences and there’s one longer one, of about 10 minutes. The prayer is recited between noon and sunset, and you choose which is appropriate for you.

Which is appropriate for you?

I used to recite the long one, but now I do the short one: “I bear witness, O my God, that Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee. I testify, at this moment, to my powerlessness and to Thy might, to my poverty and to Thy wealth. There is no other God but Thee, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting.” 

How did you become a member of the Bahai faith?

In Alaska I met two older people – they were the same age as I am today – who helped me. They were longtime Bahai adherents and were simply good people who taught me to be more loving and considerate. I was filled with anger and pain and emotions and sickness, and they ignored all that and found the spark that remained within me and fanned it into a flame. They are dead now, but I think about them a lot. They gave me everything, Bobby Schwartz and Howard Brown. I owe them my life.

Omri Aloni (left) and Leor Molcho.
Tomer Appelbaum

Leor Molcho, 22, and Omri Aloni, 26; live in Jerusalem, landing from Crete

Hello, can I ask where your suitcases are?

Omri: We went away for four days and we packed light.

Leor: In fact, we went for a weekend to mark his birthday. He turned 26 yesterday.

Mazal tov. Where do you know each other from?

Leor: We met at a party through a mutual friend, at one of those kibbutz parties that cost 50 shekels [$12] – they don’t have them anymore.

Omri: I came in the hope of meeting someone, and I asked a friend from the kibbutz to introduce me to her. We danced a lot, and Leor didn’t understand why I wasn’t asking her to go outside with me, but in the end we went outside and it all worked out from there.

Leor: That was the stage when we kissed. It took him a long time, which was weird.

Omri: Because I wanted to know that she was really interested, I didn’t want to force myself on her.

Leor: It took too long.

Omri: And all our friends were standing around to see what was happening.

So you’re kibbutzniks originally?

Leor: I’m from Kibbutz Dorot, now from Gedera, before that the United States and Lehavim [a Negev town] and Kibbutz Urim. We moved a lot because of my father’s jobs – he managed all kinds of Israeli companies abroad. Every time something else in a different place.

When did you move the first time?

Leor: The first time was when I was 5. I remember, because we flew exactly on my birthday and we were taken to see the cockpit.

Where did you live in the United States?

Leor: The first time we lived in New Jersey for seven years, then we came back to Israel. The second time was in California, when I was 15, and that was a real upgrade. We were there for three years and I finished high school there.

Sounds cool.

California is a friendly place, but to start a new school in the 10th grade is not necessarily fun; in Lehavim, I was in the Scouts and had plenty of friends. But I knew that I had to get through those three years and then come back for my army service.

What did you do in the army?

Leor: I was a simulator instructor on a naval submarine – a worthwhile job, I admit.

Omri: I was a jobnik [noncombatant], and during my service I raised my army profile because I wanted to do something meaningful.

And did you?

No. 

Cynical about the past. What about the future?

Omri: I’m a psychology and business administration student at the Hebrew University.

Leor: I’m waitressing and hope to get into med school next year. We’re living in Jerusalem because of his studies.

Didn’t you travel after the army?

Leor: He did a big trip, and I waited for him, because I was still in the army.

Omri: I started with friends in New Zealand, then to eastern Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Leor: And then I finished my service and flew with girlfriends to Thailand and went to meet him.

Weren’t you concerned that he went with friends?

Leor: At first, yes, I was concerned.

Omri: We were both afraid of the separation.

Leor: But I wasn’t afraid of some other girl.

Omri: I knew for sure I was staying with Leor.

Leor: We’ve been together for three-and-a-half years.

Omri: And I didn’t even think I would call her after that first kiss.

Leor: I actually expected you to call.

Omri: I remember your telling me no, but I called.

Leor: No.

Then what?

Leor: He sent a message, obviously.

What did he write?

Leor (checking cellphone): Uhh, I don’t have it, something simple.

Omri: “Hi it’s Omri from the party.” Embarrassing.