Of Reactors and Roses

Herschell Benyamin (1913-2010) and Shirley Rose Benyamin (1926-2010) - pioneers of environmental quality in Israel

Herschell Benyamin, who was born in London in 1913, died last week in Jerusalem, two months after losing his wife, Shirley Rose Benyamin. Herschell Benyamin came to Israel to fight in the Mahal (foreign volunteers ) brigade during the War of Independence. He used his artillery experience from the Second World War to assist the fledgling Artillery Corps.

He settled in Moshav Beit Yitzhak after the war with his first wife, Carol, and his daughter, Penny. In the 1950s, Benyamin became the first manager of the golf club in Caesarea.

After divorcing Carol, he became a tour guide for high-ranking guests of the government, impressing them with his broad knowledge and his love of nature. His fondness for the local flora and fauna led him to the Sha'ar Hagai kennel farms, where he met Shirley Rose, also a divorcee.

Shirley Miller was born in Vienna in 1926 to American parents who were studying medicine in the Austrian capital. Upon Hitler's rise to power they returned to the United States. Shirley studied at Vassar, afterward becoming a human rights activist in Los Angeles.

She had two sons, Peter and Jeremy, from her marriage to Norman Rose. The family immigrated to Israel in 1970, but the parents later divorced. Shirley married Herschell Benyamin and moved to a farmstead in Karkur to grow avocados and organic vegetables.

After the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, Shirley Benyamin "decided to do something to stop Israel from going down the nuclear power pathway," as environmentalist Alon Tal recounted in his book Pollution in a Promised Land.

In addition to her husband, she enlisted the late Dr. Dvora Ben-Shaul, a journalist and scientist. The group founded the Israel Agency for Nuclear Information, but in the post-Vanunu affair atmosphere, the Interior Ministry refused to register the non-profit. The group reconstituted itself with broader environmental goals as EcoNet and was approved.

The establishment was suspicious of the couple, but Shirley was undeterred. Funds she raised made it possible to examine the state of health of employees of the Dimona reactor, for which EcoNet won the Israel Prize in 1994.

EcoNet's news bulletin eventually reached 150,000 readers, including Knesset members and government decision makers. Donations she solicited also helped provide seed money for the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, Green Action and others.

The couple retired to Nofim, a protected-housing project in Jerusalem, living amid books of English poetry and far-left conversation blended with fine whiskey. After Shirley's death in October, Herschel also faded away.

A few days before his death, he was visited by a friend, Prof. Eliahu Richter from Hadassah Hospital. Dressed in work clothes and "already more there than here," as Richter says, Herschel stood in his splendid garden on the roof of the building, bent over to pick a rose and with a slight bow handed it to his guest.