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Making aliyah in the golden years

Harvey Brooks, 65, a bass guitar player who once played with Bob Dylan, is among a growing number of older American Jews making aliyah. (Courtesy Nefesh B'Nefesh)

Harvey Brooks, 65, a bass guitar player who once played with Bob Dylan, is among a growing number of older American Jews making aliyah. (Courtesy Nefesh B\’Nefesh)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — In 1948, Harold Levine of the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn was rumbling through Israel’s Negev Desert in a mobile dental clinic servicing recruits of the fledgling Israeli army.

He did not know it would take him more than 60 years to fulfill his dream of making the country his home.

Last December, Levine finally made aliyah. Now 85 and living in Jerusalem, Levine is one of a growing category of immigrants from the United States: senior citizens. Some, like Levine, nurtured Zionist dreams of living in Israel over a lifetime and have refused to let age get in the way of that vision. Motivating many is an additional bonus: joining children and grandchildren who already have moved to Israel.

"It’s very exciting and fulfilling to be here, and I’m enjoying the process of getting settled," said Levine, whose two sons and their families live here. "It’s another adventure."

It’s not his first here. The now-retired orthodontist helped smuggle weapons, including rifles and handguns, and primitive radar equipment for the Jewish fighting forces onto the freighter he sailed here on in 1948.

Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that oversees North American immigration to Israel, says it has seen a gradual rise over the past four years in the number of older people making aliyah from North America.

Joy Epstein, clinical supervisor for Nefesh B’Nefesh’s department of social services, which counsels seniors before they arrive on how to choose where to live, their finances and how to navigate the Israeli medical system, says these immigrants come from a range of financial backgrounds, ranging from the wealthy to those dependent on social security checks. The U.S. recession has played a role in the decision of some to make aliyah, she said: There are those who decide that if they are going to live with a measure of financial insecurity, it might as well be in Israel, where they have long wanted to live.

Once here, older olim tend to tap into a rich cultural scene of concerts, classes and travel, often geared specifically for English speakers, Epstein said. Many enroll in ulpan Hebrew-language classes. One ulpan in Jerusalem caters to older English-speaking olim, who meet for classes three times a week for almost a year.

Among the recent arrivals to Israel is Harvey Brooks, 65, a well-known bass guitar player who once played alongside such musical legends as Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors and B.B. King. He says he caught the Zionist bug from his wife of 21 years, who for years took her daughters to Israel on backpacking trips and whose eldest daughter now lives here.

Through repeated visits, he became comfortable in Israel, and last summer he and his wife made aliyah from Tuscon, Ariz.

"I’m very relaxed here. I’m with my people," Brooks said. Although he is not religious, Brooks said he feels spiritually connected to Judaism after long years where he felt music was his only religion. He’s been checking in with the local Israeli music scene, meeting musicians, and he’ll be performing at a well-known club next month.

His wife, Bonnie, who continues to work in film production and had contemplated aliyah earlier in life, said they embraced the idea together of making such a big change.

"When it comes to deciding how to spend your last 25 years, what do you have to lose?" she said.

Eighty-eight-year-old Frances Greenberg waited a very long time to immigrate.

She had first thought she was coming when she boarded the ill-fated Exodus ship in 1947 along with some 4,500 other Holocaust survivors. At the time, she was alone in the world, the sole survivor of her Polish Jewish family. She stared out in disbelief when the British authorities, then in charge of Palestine, forced the ship to sail back to Europe. The ship docked in Hamburg, Germany.

Greenberg remembers the sinking feeling at being turned back.

"I didn’t believe it. I thought it couldn’t happen after all this," she said. "I realized we really were wandering Jews.”

In Hamburg, Greenberg, suffering from bad stomach pains, was taken to a hospital where she was reunited with a boyfriend who had wanted to go to the United States, not Palestine. He found her in the hospital and announced, "Francis, you’ve suffered enough," and promptly told her they would marry and move to Pittsburgh where he had family.

Two years ago, soon after her husband died, Greenberg made aliyah herself. She knew she would eventually make it here, and she joins a daughter who immigrated here many years ago.

"It’s not easy after all these years living in America, but I’m settling down here slowly," she said, then joked that she could not afford to acclimate too slowly at her age.

Living in an independent living community in Raanana, near Tel Aviv, she attends an ulpan, but gets frustrated when people speak too quickly.

"It does feel different to be a citizen," Greenberg said. Tapping into her new inner Israeli she adds: "I’m just not crazy about the politics here."

Like Greenberg, Miriam Pollak and her husband, both Holocaust survivors, are also in Israel after a long and patient wait. They immigrated in 2007, settling in Petach Tikva, near Tel Aviv, from New Haven, Conn. They brought with them Miriam’s mother, now 90.

Pollak, whose family survived the Holocaust in a Hungarian village on false papers, had first wanted to immigrate in 1949. But her mother, devastated by the loss of her entire family except a sister in Montreal, insisted the family instead go to Canada.

In later years she and her husband, a chemistry professor, were repeatedly unsuccessful in finding work that would allow them to make aliyah. Two of their daughters live in Israel, and they have 17 grandchildren here and another 12 in the United States.

But Israel always seemed like it should be their home, especially after what they lived through, she said.

"We always felt Jews needed a place,” Pollak said. “We saw how during the Second World War nobody wanted us. We need Israel."

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