Phil Bloom was on the first plane of volunteers from South Africa that landed in Israel before the 1967 Six-Day War. They arrived on June 4, a day before the war broke out, and were immediately dispatched to Kibbutz Ma’ayan Baruch, in the north of the country. They were assigned to work in the fields, replacing members of the cooperative community who had been called up for military duty.
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At the time, Bloom was in the middle of his second year of psychology studies at the University of Cape Town. He was active in Habonim, a Zionist youth movement affiliated with Israel’s Labor Party. While growing up in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), he recounts, he had dreamed of living in Israel one day. But it took four months of volunteering on a kibbutz to make that dream a reality.
“Once I was able to overcome the hurdle of Hebrew, I had the conviction to stay,” he says.
Bloom did not return to South Africa to complete his studies. Instead, he transferred to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he earned his degrees. After raising a family in Jerusalem, where he practiced psychology for many years, he now lives in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon. Asked if he has any regrets about his decision to leave everything behind at the age of 22 and throw in his lot with the struggling Jewish state, Bloom responds: “Only that I didn’t do it earlier.”
Miri Gold, originally from Detroit, did not spend the Six-Day War in Israel, but she was there a year before, as a high school senior. She returned two years later, doing her junior year of the University of Michigan at Hebrew University. Her experiences on those formative trips explain her decision to return for the long haul several years later, as a founding members of Kibbutz Gezer, in central Israel.
Looking back with somewhat jaded eyes, she recalls an excitement during those period that was almost contagious. “All the schmaltz got to me as well,” she says.
Gold moved to Israel together with a group of friends from Habonim, who were offered accommodations on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights. “We were all liberal Jews, left of center in our political views, and we did not want to live in territory captured during the war,” she recalls, “so we turned down the offer.”
Victory for religious pluralism
Gold made history decades later when, after being ordained as a Reform rabbi, she took the state to court for not paying her a salary, as it did Orthodox rabbis. In a landmark ruling celebrated by advocates of Jewish pluralism in Israel and abroad, the Supreme Court forced the state to pay not only her salary but also those of additional non-Orthodox rabbis employed around the country outside of major cities.
Bloom and Gold were part of an unprecedented wave of immigrants from English-speaking countries, largely young Jewish women and men in their 20s, who moved to Israel after the Six-Day War, swept up in the euphoria that followed the country’s lightning victory. Some came with definite plans to settle in Israel, but many arrived as kibbutz volunteers and simply stayed on. Some grew up in Zionist homes, but many others only discovered their connection to Israel when the young Jewish state was threatened with destruction.
Today, they are in their late 60s and early 70s, more often than not grandparents, who have since learned all too well that war can also be a sobering experience.
An elite group
According to Prof. Chaim Waxman, an Israeli-based sociologist with a special interest in American immigrants in Israel, 1969, 1970 and 1971 were record years for immigration from the United States. In this three-year period, nearly 20,000 American Jews moved to Israel. The yearly average was 6,500, compared to an average of 2,000 to 3,000 U.S. immigrants in a typical year.
“It was an elite group that came then,” says Waxman, who explored the post-1967 immigration wave in his book “American Aliya: Portrait of an Innovative Migration Movement.”
“Most of them were highly educated, the majority were not Orthodox and most were left-leaning supporters of the Democratic Party.”
Many of these new immigrants, he notes, who made significant economic and professional sacrifices to move to Israel, were inspired by the idealism that prevailed in the 1960s.
“They wanted to be pioneers and saw an opportunity to create a whole new society in Israel,” says Waxman, who is the chairman of the department of behavioral sciences at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem. “They felt they had more opportunities to effect change in Israel than they did in the United States.”
More than any other event in Israeli history, he says, the Six-Day War had a profound impact on American Jews. “It was an amazing time, Israel was the big hero, and suddenly people who never thought of themselves as Jewish were crawling out of the woodwork.”
The transition to living in Israel, however, often proved difficult, and many grew disillusioned. “I would ‘guesstimate’ that until the late 1980s, anywhere between 25 and 30 percent, and even maybe close to 40 percent, of those who came to Israel ultimately left,” says Waxman. “The rate of return has been much lower since the 1990s, mainly because life in Israel, at least in economic terms, has become easier and a much larger share of the immigrants from the United States are Orthodox Jews, who tend to be more motivated.”
The Six-Day War caught Joe Romanelli in Costa Rica, where he was serving a stint as a budding American diplomat. Romanelli, who was born in Cleveland and grew up in Brooklyn, joined the U.S. Foreign Service after he graduated from Columbia University.
“When the Six-Day War broke out, I panicked,” he recounts. “I kept thinking what would happen if Israel lost the war. It started me out on a whole process of thinking about my connection to the country.”
On his first trip to Israel, two years later, Romanelli decided to quit the Foreign Service and relocate permanently. “I came to the conclusion that what Israel needed for its survival more than anything else was people, and if that’s the case, I should make aliyah.”
Privileged to help
His first job in Israel was assistant to the spokesman of the aliyah department of the Jewish Agency, where he was responsible for the foreign press. After that, he was promoted to director of the organization’s North American aliyah desk. “I consider it a privilege that I was able to have a career that allowed me to help others make aliyah,” Romanelli says.
Sydney Shapiro, another young Jew who was inspired to move to Israel because of the 1967 war, also dedicated his life to promoting aliyah. Shapiro, who from a very young age had been active in the religious Zionist Bnei Akiva movement in his hometown of Cape Town, South Africa, says that settling in Israel had always been his goal. “The Six-Day War is what clinched the deal for me,” he says.
Shapiro arrived on the first plane of volunteers out of South Africa after the war. Upon landing, he was sent with friends from Bnei Akiva to Shluchot, a religious kibbutz in the Beit She’an Valley. After volunteering there for a few months, he returned to South Africa, where he worked for the Zionist Federation for a few years before coming back to Israel permanently in early 1970. He spent most of his career since as an executive at Telfed-South African Zionist Federation (Israel), the association of South African immigrants in Israel, serving as the organization’s director for 30 years.
During the few months he spent in Israel following the 1967 war, he says, one particular experience stands out. “It was around the time of Tisha B’Av,” Shapiro says, referring to the Jewish fast day that commemorates the destruction of both the first and second temples, “and we were on our first trip to the Old City after Jerusalem was unified. I remember us asking ourselves whether it was still necessary to fast on this day, now that the Jewish holy sites were under Israel’s control.”
Grateful to contribute
He has absolutely no regrets. “I’ve never thought of going back to South Africa in all my years here,” says Shapiro, who lives with his family in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana. “Many of my friends are pessimists about Israel, but not me. Maybe it’s because I’m a dreamer and I feel grateful to have been part of what happened here and to have contributed to it.”
Romanelli, too, says he does not have second thoughts about his decision. Although leaving his family behind in the United States was difficult, he says, his only big regret after all these years is that one of his two sons ended up leaving Israel for a high-tech job in Atlanta.
Gold is somewhat less upbeat. Leaving Israel was never an option she considered, she says, but as Israeli society has verged more to the right politically and religiously, she finds it difficult to celebrate certain national holidays, as she once did. “I always think of the other side, and that makes it harder,” she says.
The disastrous occupation
Did Israel turn out the way that Bloom expected? “Look,” he says, “I am not at all happy with how we failed to find a solution to the 50-year-old problem of the territories, and it is pretty disastrous to the country that this problem hasn’t been solved.”
Because of the occupation, he adds, “there’s been an erosion of Zionism and democracy and of moral standards in this country, and that’s a tremendous price to pay for not solving the problem.”
Yet Bloom does not believe all hope is lost. “I have a kind of optimism that we’re going to get over this,” he says. “The solution isn’t for people to leave the country — and I would never think of doing that or want my children to — but rather, for like-minded people to get together and do something about it.”
Going with the flow
Norman Slepkov, from a small Canadian town near Niagara Falls, was 19 when he came to Israel for the first time. He arrived a few days after the 1967 war ended, to attend a yearlong young leadership program. That year stretched into nearly 50.
He did go back, as planned, when the program ended, but not for long. “I missed Israel and felt it was my home,” he says. So instead of attending art school in North America, as he had originally intended, Slepkov enrolled at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, in Jerusalem. Since then, he has enjoyed a varied career as an artist, graphic designer and restaurateur.
“It wasn’t my plan to remain in Israel for good. Things just happened,” Slepkov says.
Did Israel live up to his expectations during these 50 years? “I accept everything for what it is and just go with the flow,” he answers. “That’s the type of person I am.”