Video archive documents those who helped create the Jewish state.
Jews throughout the diaspora were excited and inspired when the State of Israel was declared in 1948. Hundreds set aside their regular jobs or school activities to help the fledgling state as it faced attack from its Arab neighbors and prepared to welcome thousands of Jewish refugees from Europe.
Some opened their checkbooks and their address books to find resources and contacts that could help with munitions, technical knowledge and vital supplies; others traveled to Israel to fight.
Now their individual stories are being videotaped by Toldot Yisrael, a nonprofit Israeli organization that seeks to preserve this part of Israel’s heritage.
“Toldot Yisrael means the ‘chronicles of Israel,’” explains Aryeh Halivni, executive director. He emigrated from Cleveland to Israel in 2002 and found there was nothing comprehensive documenting the founding of Israel.
Inspired partly by Steven Spielberg’s video archives of Holocaust survivors, Halivini began to interview a group of individuals, mostly in Hebrew, to create film testimony about their role in Israel’s founding. He then expanded the interviews to the second generation, who could tell the stories of their deceased ancestors, some of whom fought for Israel, smuggled weapons or helped develop the new nation’s infrastructure.
Halivni and his team have completed more than 1,000 video interviews, mainly in Israel, and are working on a series of approximately 100 in North America. (Examples of interviews are available at www.toldotyisrael.org.) Most of this group is American “because Americans were in a position to contribute the most,” he says. Interviews have been conducted in New York, Reno, Cleveland, Portland, Minneapolis and in Metro Detroit.
Many of those who helped Israel were World War II veterans whose service inspired them.
“They didn’t see themselves as heroes,” Halivni said. “They said, ‘How could we not?’ They lived in a time that required certain action.”
The William Davidson Foundation is funding Toldot’s interviews in North America.
“Toldot Yisrael is making it possible for the world to learn about the unwavering commitment and solidarity of the Jewish people, including countless American Jews, during the tumultuous post-World War II era,” said Kari Alterman, senior program officer for Jewish life at the William Davidson Foundation. “As the State of Israel neared creation, so many people — the well-known and the little-known — stepped up to ensure that a Jewish homeland would be funded and thrive. Our goal in supporting Toldot is to help them supplement and complete their work.”
Joseph “Jerry” Lapides, 87, of Southfield was born in Europe and spent his earliest years in the U.S. His family immigrated to Palestine in 1934. He remembers his school’s advanced physical education class was actually a thinly disguised form of military preparation for the anticipated war of independence. His school bus was the target of rocks thrown by Arabs; protective wiring was installed over the windows to protect the students.
In 1947, he was invited at age 17 to join the Haganah, the Israeli underground defense organization active during the years of the British mandate. He was a shomer — a guard outside an Arab village — and then served in the Israeli Air Force after independence was declared. His father was an American citizen and the family returned to the U.S. in 1948; Lapides later came to Michigan for graduate studies. Now a retired professor, he continues to visit Israel where three of his grandchildren live.
Dorothy Gerson of Franklin described a multigenerational dedication to Israel in her video interview. She attributes her commitment to Israel to her grandfather, Joseph Wetsman, who immigrated to Iowa as a young man. He was “one of the earliest people to believe that the Jewish people had to have a homeland. He went to the second Zionist Congress in Switzerland where he met Theodore Herzl. I grew up from childhood knowing there has to be an Israel,” she says. Gerson’s mother, the late Sarah Wetsman Davidson, was a founder of Detroit’s Hadassah, part of the women’s Zionist organization.
During the early 20th century, Gerson’s grandfather visited Palestine with friends, Gerson said. Together they bought and donated land that became the future site of Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. That commitment expanded over the years through major contributions by the late William Davidson (Gerson’s brother) and his wife, Karen, and other Gerson-Wetsman family members to the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower of the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem.
Detroiter Ed Levy Jr. told the story of his father’s role in meeting Israel’s acute need for housing after independence. The late Edward Levy Sr., who owned a large construction supply company in the Detroit area, donated and shipped surplus military and other construction equipment to Israel and helped establish a quarry for building materials.
Others from Southeast Michigan who were interviewed include Ann Newman and Armand Lauffer.
Halivni expects that most interviews, some of which are several hours long, will be completed this year. Then it will require a few years to catalogue them for online use; they will be housed at the National Library of Israel. Individuals who have a story to tell about personal or family roles in helping to create the State of Israel can sign up at www.toldotyisrael.org.
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