One of several El Al planes bringing new immigrants to Israel in the week before Rosh Hashanah included an extra-special passenger. Stella Rockoff, 101, is the second oldest person, by two years, ever to relocate to Israel with the assistance of the Nefesh B’Nefesh organization.
Ms. Rockoff arrived with her daughter and son-in-law, Elaine and Michael Reinheimer, 50-year residents of Fair Lawn.
Savta, Opa, and Bubby were greeted at the airport by the Reinheimers’ children, Rena and Chaim, who’ve each lived in Israel more than 20 years, in addition to 17 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. That’s 17 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren for Ms. Rockoff, who has another five great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild in the United States.
“When we were at the airport, it felt like a miracle that my mother lived long enough to see this day,” Ms. Reinheimer said.
Technically speaking, Ms. Rockoff isn’t a new immigrant but rather a sort of returning citizen, as attested to by her trilingual birth certificate from the British Mandate of Palestine in 1921.
Stella Rosner was born in Jerusalem; when she was 5 years old, her parents decided to leave what was then a very challenging place to live. She grew up in Brooklyn and married Rabbi Herman Rockoff in 1940, moving to Pennsylvania and then to Manhattan’s Inwood section in 1952.
In addition to raising four children — Seymour, Elaine, Jonah, and Sharon – she wrote music prolifically and was the executive secretary of the Rabbinical Council of America for 30 years. Among her myriad duties were overseeing annual RCA conferences and the sale of burial plots to RCA members in the Eretz HaChaim cemetery near Beit Shemesh.
“All my life I dreamed of returning to my native country,” Ms. Rockoff said upon her arrival. “This is a day of celebration for me. My family left at a time when the Jewish State was just an idea, an idea that has since become the State of Israel, now a strong nation and a leader in innovation, and I am proud to finally call it home.”
For the past five years she’s lived in Clifton at the Daughters of Miriam Center. Before that, for five years she lived with her daughter Sharon Karpel in Fair Lawn and was the oldest member of Congregation Shomrei Torah.
The synagogue’s rabbi emeritus, Benjamin Yudin, visited Ms. Rockoff every Friday in Clifton, often accompanied by one of his grandchildren, to sing with her and share a few words of Torah.
Ms. Rockoff – described by her daughter and son-in-law as a cheerful, positive person — now lives in a senior residence in Ramat Beit Shemesh.
“We stayed in Ramat Beit Shemesh for about 10 days to settle Mom in her beautiful apartment there and now we’re trying to settle in here,” Ms. Reinheimer said on September 29 from the couple’s apartment in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Old Katamon.
Ms. Rockoff was not available for an interview, so the Reinheimers spoke on her behalf.
Ms. Reinheimer said her mother visited Israel frequently. “After our children made aliyah – Rena 25 years ago and Chaim 21 years ago — she came with us every Pesach to visit them. Our grandson married in 2015 and that was the last time she came until now.”
Ms. Rockoff composed a song titled “Israel Reborn” in 1948 to celebrate the founding of the state, as well as many songs about American Jewry and her love for the Land of Israel. The late Seymour Rockoff was a cantor, and he once performed an entire concert of his mother’s compositions, Ms. Reinheimer said.
Mr. Reinheimer said that his mother-in-law has always expressed an interest in returning to Israel, and because their children made aliyah it made sense for the three of them to make the move together. “But as long as I was working that was not doable,” he said. “I promised that as soon as I retired, we would fulfil her wish to make aliyah.”
He completed his career as sales manager for Knickerbocker Bed Company in Carlstadt last December and the planning started in earnest. Even so, the leaving was not easy.
“To live 50 years in one place… it’s quite a change for us,” Ms. Reinheimer said.
Both were active at Shomrei Torah; Michael once served as shul president and Elaine as sisterhood president. Shomrei Torah feted the couple with a farewell kiddush on September 10. Another couple from the shul, Michele and Jake Blatt, made aliyah two weeks previously.
“My parents came from Europe right before the second world war, and America has been very good to us,” Mr. Reinheimer said. “We had a wonderful life in a wonderful country, but it was time to be together with our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. We used to see the grandchildren twice a year, and we recognized that this was not the life for us, that we had to be more involved.”
He added that they feel proud to have two grandsons who completed their IDF service and another in the IDF now, a granddaughter who completed two years of national service – “sherut leumi” in Hebrew – plus another who just started sherut leumi. Other grandchildren are involved in charitable activities.
One grandson’s wife designed “From Fair Lawn to the Promised Land” T-shirts for the extended Reinheimer clan to wear when they greeted the flight sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh, which facilitates aliyah in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, and JNF-USA.
“I congratulate Stella and her family for making aliyah, proving that it is never too late to return home,” Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, the cofounder and executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh, said. “Stella was born at a time when we were fighting to establish a home for the Jewish people, and now she is returning to a country that welcomes thousands of Jews every year who are continuing to build it in every facet of life. This is the essence of what Nefesh B’Nefesh has been striving for these past twenty years.”