BY RON FEINBERG / AJT WEB EDITOR //
Ed Rechtman, the son of Polish immigrants, spent his life living out the American dream.
He came of age during the great depression, met and later married his high school sweetheart, served in the Navy during World War II and spent much of his adult life in Atlanta and on the highways and back roads of the Southeast as a traveling salesman.
America was his home, a land that he embraced and loved. But Rechtman was also Jewish and, it turns out, Israel was deep in his soul.
He visited the tiny nation several times as a tourist, but in the late 1980s he became part of a special and unique volunteer program that placed him on a military base in Israel. The experience would change him forever.
“He told me that being in Israel was like falling in love,” his wife Esther said recently. “I knew what he meant.”
Edwin Frank Rechtman died Sept. 19 following a lengthy illness. He was 88. A memorial service is planned for later this month.
Rechtman lived a full, at times eventful and exciting life. One of his first adventures came shortly after graduating from high school in 1943 when he enlisted in the Navy and was commissioned an ensign, eventually serving aboard the USS Gilbert Islands as a navigation officer.
In 1945 he got around to marrying his high school sweetheart, Esther Weisman, and for the next several decades – after first moving south to the small town of Reform, Ala. and opening a factory to manufacture headwear, then moving to Atlanta in 1963 – he stayed busy with the stuff of life: work, family and then a little more work.
Rechtman’s unlikely love affair with Israel began after he spotted an advertisement for a group calling itself Volunteers for Israel. The organization handles logistics in the U.S. for Sar-El, an Israeli program that places volunteers from around the world on Israeli Defense Force (IDF) bases.
“He was a very easy-going gentleman,” Rechtman’s brother, Leon, recalls. “But then he went on this trip to Israel and he enjoyed it so much, it became his annual vacation – for the next eleven years.”
It also became his passion.
When the local VFI coordinator, Sharon Sleeper, made Aliyah, Rechtman took over her duties, recruiting and interviewing potential volunteers, handling marketing for the program and, once each year, making his annual trek to Israel.
Once settled on a base, Rechtman slipped into the IDF work uniform that all volunteers wear and stayed busy doing a host of menial chores aimed at freeing up Israeli soldiers and reservists for more important work.
“Ed was simply amazed that the people of Israel were creating a modern nation in a part of the world that at times seemed to be living back in the 17th century,” Leon Rechtman said. “They were building the country from the ground up and the fact that Israel was prospering he thought was a miracle.”
And he wanted to be part of it.
Rechtman eventually got his brother Leon to join him and together, over a period of years and assignments, the two men worked their way across the country, repairing weapons and communication equipment, painting tent posts and benches, collecting and bundling up spare parts for vehicles.
He also got to know the people of Israel and the country in a very up-close and personal way, spending extended periods of time around Tel Aviv, where he had friends, and working for the IDF on bases from the Negev to the Golan Heights.
“Israel was very important to Eddie,” said Esther Rechtman – the couple was married for 68 years. “He was a very competitive man and had strong opinions. But what I remember most is that he was always very caring and gentle.”
In addition to his wife, Esther, and brother, Leon, Rechtman is also survived by another brother, Melvin; three sons, Paul, Jay and Neal (a fourth son, Mark, died in 1994); nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
The family requests that those wanting to make contributions send checks to the American Friends of the Mogen David Adom (AFMDA), indicating donations to be used for the Sar-El Ambulance Fund in memory of Ed Rechtman; mailing address is AFMDA, 352 Seventh Ave., Ste. 400, NY, NY 10101.