When the war began on the morning of Monday, June 5, 1967, Shai Robkin was a 15-year-old student at Grady High School, growing up in a household where “Israel was really front and center of our Jewish identity.”
Lori Ann Draluck was 12 and looking forward to becoming a bat mitzvah at Congregation Shearith Israel. Four days earlier she had returned from a trip to Israel with grandparents Irving and Elsie Levy, who were celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary.
Toby Parker was a 19-year-old student at Purdue University in Indiana. Her home in Atlanta became a collection point for medicine that would be shipped to Israel. When the Sachnut (the Jewish Agency for Israel) sought volunteers to work in Israel to free soldiers for other duties, she stepped forward.
These four Jewish Atlantans — and many others — remember how six days in June 1967 changed Israel, changed what it means to be Jewish in America and, in some cases, changed their lives.
Fifty years ago, Atlanta’s Jewish community was smaller, numbering about 16,000, and centered more intown with just six congregations: Beth Jacob, Shearith Israel, The Temple, Ahavath Achim Synagogue, Congregation Or VeShalom and Congregation Anshi S’fard.
For months, The Southern Israelite (now the Atlanta Jewish Times) had carried reports of escalating tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors — bellicose rhetoric threatening Israel’s destruction, punctuated by cross-border raids, shelling and occasional armed clashes.
The May 26 edition reported that Zionist groups in Atlanta and the Atlanta Jewish Community Council (now the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta) had sent urgent telegrams to President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and members of Congress.
The communication to the president read: “The Atlanta Jewish Community Council, representing 49 organizations, virtually all the Jewish groups in greater Atlanta, is greatly concerned with the serious threat to peace in the Middle East. The Arab terrorist attacks on Israel and the girding of Arab nations to attack her is of vital concern to our government, which is interested in peace and democratic ideals. We trust that our government will take all appropriate measures immediately reaffirming our commitment to Israel’s security and territorial rights.”
On May 29, several prominent Christians, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, issued a statement calling on “our fellow Americans of all persuasions and groups and on the Administration to support the independence, integrity and freedom of Israel.”
Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan of Atlanta was one of a trio of Catholic leaders who jointly issued a similar statement a few days later.
The Southern Israelite reported that five Atlantans — Dr. Marvin Goldstein, Max Cuba, Max Rittenbaum, Dr. Irving Goldstein and Mike Gettinger — attended an urgent meeting of the United Jewish Appeal in New York the weekend of June 3 and 4. Israeli Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir and Louis Pincus of the Jewish Agency briefed the gathering on the dangers facing Israel.
The war began June 5 with an Israeli airstrike that shattered Egypt’s air force.
On June 6, the Atlanta Jewish Welfare Fund held an invitation-only (by telegrams sent the day before) meeting attended by 200 Jewish community leaders, among them “top contributors to the Atlanta Jewish Welfare Fund.”
That session raised $1.132 million for the Israel Emergency Fund being coordinated by the national United Jewish Appeal. After a presentation by Pincus, who had been invited to Atlanta after the meeting in New York, a pledge of $100,000 was made, followed by one of $50,000. Then another $100,000 was pledged, followed by 10 announcements of $25,000 to $57,000.
“The pledges came so fast and so spontaneously that Dan Garson, who was keeping a record on the board as announced so people could know the status at any given moment, was unable to keep up at one point because of the large number of announcements that were being made simultaneously,” Southern Israelite Associate Editor Vida Goldgar wrote in the June 16 edition.
Similar meetings were held that night in Jewish communities across the country.
Milton Weinstein and Sidney Feldman led the Atlanta campaign for the Israel Emergency Fund, which was distinct from the annual Jewish Welfare Fund campaign. The latter was suspended when the war broke out but eventually raised more than $1.1 million.
The Jewish community at large was invited to a rally at 8 p.m. Thursday, June 8, at Ahavath Achim. The Atlanta Jewish Community Council urged the community to “come and demonstrate your support for the people of Israel in the hour of peril.”
The event raised an additional $200,000 from Jewish and non-Jewish Atlantans, The Southern Israelite reported.
Robkin remembers the evening at Ahavath Achim.
“It was probably the very first time that I went to any sort of major rally for Israel,” he said. “It was so passionate.”
The war that began on a Monday ended on a Saturday, June 10, but Atlanta’s efforts to aid Israel continued.
On Monday, June 12, Marvin Goldstein, Nathan Lipson and Milton Weinstein flew to New York for a meeting of the United Jewish Appeal, taking with them a check for $1 million.
The Atlanta District of the Zionist Organization of America held an emergency meeting June 12 at the Atlanta Jewish Community Center on Peachtree Street in Midtown.
Adolph Rosenberg, the editor and publisher of The Southern Israelite, attended barely 24 hours after returning from Israel, where, after a conference of the American Jewish Press Association, he had reported on the war. He “was given a standing ovation by those present who expressed admiration for his courage in remaining in the field of battle even though the State Department had requested all American citizens to return home immediately,” his newspaper reported.
A small box at the bottom of The Southern Israelite’s June 16 front page addressed itself to “All Women Of The Atlanta Jewish Community!”: “The Jewish Welfare Fund Women’s Division ISRAEL EMERGENCY FUND (I.E.F.) CAMPAIGN will be phoning you for your contribution on SUNDAY MORNING, JUNE 18. The people of Israel depend on us — Be more than generous with your response.”
The June 23 edition of The Southern Israelite carried a statement from Weinstein and Feldman that “Atlanta can be justly proud of its outstanding record in contributing to the Israel Emergency Fund.”
By mid-July, the Israel Emergency Fund campaign in Atlanta had raised more than $1.56 million (equal to approximately $11 million in 2017) from 1,878 donors, not all of whom were Jewish. That sum included $25,000 from a non-Jewish (unspecified) foundation in Atlanta, $25 from an Atlantan stationed with the Air Force in Spain, and $2.61 from a 5-year-old in Atlanta, accompanied by a printed note reading, “This is all the money I have.”
The newspaper reported that a record $570,000 in Israel Bonds had been sold during that organization’s recent fundraising campaign.
The June 23 edition also carried a letter written before the war by Rabbi Emanuel Feldman to Beth Jacob President Larry Nager and his wife, Frances.
Rabbi Feldman, his wife, Estelle, and their four children (including 12-year-old Ilan, who in 1991 succeeded his father on the Beth Jacob pulpit) took up residence in Bnei Brak (an ultra-Orthodox city east of Tel Aviv) in September 1966.
As the tensions rose and most visitors, including Americans, exited the country, the parents decided that the Feldman family would remain.
“If this were France or England, we would leave with the rest of them, of course. But this is Israel, and to leave during an hour of crisis somehow does not appeal to us,” Rabbi Feldman wrote in his May 26 letter.
As he wrote, his children — Amram (z”l), Yonatan, Ilan and Chava — “are downstairs helping fill up sandbags and cleaning out the air raid shelter, which is standard equipment around here. They think this is some kind of Western movie, with Arabs instead of Indians. That this is deadly serious I am happy they do not realize. Their morale is high, as is the morale of the rest of the populace, and there is every confidence that if things come to an armed confrontation that Israel can take of itself. We have, after all, a secret weapon, and He will surely not allow this last place of refuge to go under.”
In its June 30 edition, The Southern Israelite published another letter from Rabbi Feldman, this one written during the war. “We are all fine, thank G-d, and came through the bombardment and shelling without a scratch. It was, to say the least, an exciting time in our lives, and we are glad to have stayed on to see it through.”
He reported hearing the Shehechyanu prayer recited and blasts of the shofar over Israel Radio “over and over again. And the soldiers at the Wall fell into one another’s arms and wept. And we wept. And all Israel wept.”
Rabbi Feldman was able to visit the Western Wall just 24 hours after it was in Israeli hands, taking advantage of a Southern Israelite press card given him by Rosenberg.
“Soldiers, grimy and hot from battle, were running up to it, prostrating themselves at its foot, and weeping. They put on Tallis and Tefillin, most of them, and with their guns on their shoulders and in full battle dress they davened Shacharis and said the Shma. And again we wept,” the rabbi wrote.
The diary that Rabbi Feldman kept during that period was published as a book, “The 28th of Iyar.” (The 28th day of the Jewish month of Iyar was June 7, 1967, the day Israeli paratroopers liberated the Western Wall, the Kotel ha’Maaravi.)
Fifty years later, in April, the Rabbis Feldman, Emanuel and Ilan, spoke at Beth Jacob about that experience and their belief that the events of 1967 were divine miracles.
“We who were living there saw in our own eyes the hand of G-d,” Rabbi Emanuel Feldman said.
He recalled seeing his students at Bar-Ilan University, “my boys,” mobilizing and going off to war. He said he sat in his car and prayed for their safety.
“We didn’t know why we stayed. When the bombs were falling, we thought we were crazy,” Estelle Friedman told the Beth Jacob audience. “We didn’t want to abandon Israel.”
“We just didn’t feel right in abandoning the holy place in its time of need,” her husband added.
Rabbi Ilan Feldman recalled “moments frozen in time.”
The children at his school in Bnei Brak had practiced moving to the bomb shelters; when the war started, they went. He remembered the ground shaking from tank battles just 25 miles away and being excited, not scared.
When the war ended, he recalled, Bnei Brak closed for a day of prayers, “an entire city davening.”
A couple of weeks after the war, his class took a field trip to Jerusalem. When they reached a point some 70 yards from the Western Wall, their rebbe, an older man, “ran like a child to the Kotel.” In that moment, Rabbi Ilan Feldman said, “I learned what it is to love.”
Some 6,400 miles away, in Atlanta, Robkin lived with his parents, Max and Ozna.
“I was really known among my friends as the super Jew type. As Jon Stewart would have put it, I was the Jewiest of all of them,” said Robkin, whose family attended Ahavath Achim. “This was a very tightknit Jewish community. As a teenager, I probably knew every Jewish teenager in Atlanta.”
Max Robkin was a life insurance agent for Mutual of New York and an official of the Atlanta branch of the Zionist Organization of America. Max remembered his own father visiting Leo Frank in prison after his conviction in the killing of a 13-year-old girl at the downtown Atlanta pencil factory he managed. (Frank later was kidnapped from a state prison and lynched in a wooded area of Marietta.)
Following the news was an obsession in the Robkin household. “Every opportunity they had. … They always were listening to the radio,” Shai Robkin said of his parents. “As things were starting to build up, it seemed quite apparent that something was going to happen. Something was about to happen. I could feel it in my own household.”
He added: “For my parents, it was like the world coming to an end. When everyone learned that Israel destroyed the Egyptian air force, it had gone from grave concern to this incredible feeling of pride and achievement, almost a feeling that a miracle had really happened.”
Robkin and his wife, Judy, made aliyah in 1976, and he served in the Israel Defense Forces. They were co-owners of Israel’s first bookstore/coffee shop, Sefer ve Sefel, which they sold when they returned to Atlanta in 1984.
Lori Ann Draluck was allowed to miss her last month of seventh grade at Kittredge Elementary School when she traveled to Israel with her grandparents. They arrived in Israel on May 12 and made the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv their base while taking tours around the country.
As reports of possible war reached Atlanta, Lori Ann’s parents called and told her grandparents that they should leave. They stayed, she said, “until we were the last people left in the hotel, other than all the reporters.”
They arrived home June 1, four days before the war began.
Irving Levy wrote in The Southern Israelite, “In accordance with the old truism, it is probably easier today, spiritually and psychologically, to be an alerted soldier on the Sinai Border, than a confused and worrying civilian in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv; and probably also easier to be a Jewish civilian in Israel than one, say, in New York or Atlanta.”
Fifty years later, the now-Lori Ann Struletz remembers attending a meeting of Der Arbeter Ring (The Workmen’s Circle), a Yiddish organization that her grandfather and great-grandfather belonged to, where she and her grandparents gave a talk about their trip.
She had plenty of stories to tell when she began eighth grade that fall at Lakeside High School. “I milked it for everything it was worth. There were so many stories to tell. It literally got me through high school,” including a paper for a Spanish class on the differences between American and Israeli teenagers.
“I have been three times since then, and it is just amazing to me what a country can become,” Struletz said.
Toby Parker answered the call for volunteers issued by the Jewish Agency, leaving shortly after the war and remaining in Israel for 11 months.
“I grew up in a Zionist household. I am third-generation Hadassah — five generations now if you count my daughter and granddaughter,” she said.
“My mother, Laurel Weiner, got the Sachnut notice calling for volunteers. I said I wanted to go, and both my parents encouraged me to go. I was very excited. It was like a great adventure. I wasn’t afraid at all. I was eager to go,” Parker said.
She left for orientation in New York the week after the war ended. “We were told how hard the work would be, and none of us volunteers believed them. Our job would be to take over the soldiers’ jobs, freeing them up for other duties.”
In Israel, Parker was assigned to a kibbutz, meeting Jews from South Africa and Greece who also were volunteers.
“I was assigned to the fields hoeing eggplants. It was very hard work. After 10 days, my hands were too swollen from farm work, so I was transferred to the kitchens: cooking, setting tables, doing dishes, etc.,” Parker said. “Then I was assigned to pick olives. This all took place over a period of five months or so. Then I was transferred to a kibbutz outside Jerusalem where I worked for about a month. This gave me a chance to explore Jerusalem. I wanted to see the Old City. It smelled 5,000 years old. It was dirty, smelly, with stalls that sold goats and chickens which were hanging for selection. As I walked, the feeling in my heart was that I was home. This is where I belonged. This is where I should be.”
She then was assigned to Hadassah’s Mount Scopus hospital. “Remember, I was a third-generation Hadassah life member, and I had always heard of Mount Scopus growing up,” said Parker, who is now the president of Hadassah’s Southeastern Region. “My mother and grandmother had raised money for Mount Scopus, so I was very excited to be there. We were assigned to the nurses’ quarters, and my job was to scrape radiators.”
Fifty years later, Elliott Levitas remembers the emotion of those days in June 1967, when he was a 36-year-old member of the Georgia House of Representatives.
“My recollection of that time is that in the Jewish community there was a combined feeing of relief, pride and optimism similar to and second only to the euphoria at the 1948 declaration of the establishment of the state of Israel itself,” he said.
“Heads were held higher. There was a feeling that a corner had been turned and the future security of Israel was assured even if it required the force of arms against hostile neighbors and others bent on the destruction of Israel. Israel could defend itself and prevail. Previous doubts were quelled. There was an upsurge of feelings of closeness to and identification with the people of Israel.”
Charles Kass Cohen, who grew up at Ahavath Achim, was 13.
“If I was aware of the community’s mood, I don’t remember,” Cohen said. “However, speaking for myself and my family, we were so proud. To be the fellow Jews of those who were defeating and humiliating these mighty Arab armies filled us with great pride. I have a memory — and 50 years later I can’t swear this is a fact — of a family member telling me that non-Jews in my mother’s small Georgia hometown were praising the Israelis when speaking with my uncle who ran the family business there.”