Our brand-new Peugeot wagon was delivered on the same day we met Rachel, a glorious mid-May Friday. We had eagerly piled the four little kids and the ancient dog, a reject from the streets of Newark, into the car to visit my sister’s family in Herzliya.
We were staying in Mevaseret, a leafy suburb in the Judean mountains near Jerusalem, at an Immigrant Absorption Center, although we were not yet official olim, immigrants; we had arrived six weeks earlier, in March 1973, my husband having just started a one-year assignment consulting with the government.
Our kids became Israelis far faster than their parents and the sudden independence was formative. They were emboldened and they remain so all these years later, and I won’t even get into their language skills. Suffice it to say that they have them and we don’t.
So, there we were, a New Jersey family embarking on our inaugural solo car trip in Israel, when we saw Rachel before we reached the city limits of Mevaseret. That first glimpse of Rachel was unforgettable: Here was a woman about my own age, early 30s, laden with a backpack holding an infant, a toddler attached to another pack on Rachel’s chest, a 5-year-old girl walking beside her, and a 7-year-old boy on her other side fully in charge of an unwieldy suitcase.
We had never met but we all know that “kol Yisrael chaverim,” all Israel are friends, so I yelled to my husband to stop the car. I opened the window and asked her where she was going and she replied Tel Aviv. “Get in,” I said in a voice that made clear I would not take no for an answer.
We shared stories during a noisy ride to Tel Aviv. Her husband, Chaim, was leading a group of college students on a tour of Israel. We would soon learn that the absent husband grew up in Newark’s Weequahic neighborhood, just as I had. Weequahic forever, even 6,000 miles from Newark Beth Israel, where Chaim and I were born.
My friendship with Rachel was birthed right there and then. By trip’s end we both knew we would be buddies forever.
Her attributes were many, but I especially like friends who are funny, and Rachel certainly was; her dry and clever sense of humor had me laughing from the start. Just the kind of person I adore.
I still don’t know where she got the energy to do all she did. Rachel worked a full-time job, but luckily Israel is equipped with gans, day cares, for little kids, even babies, to help working parents. She was an amazing and creative cook, a supreme challah baker even in Mevaseret, where we all existed with a two-burner stove and no oven.
She and Chaim moved to Jerusalem about the same time as we did, in September, just in time for school, the chagim, and the Yom Kippur War. Rachel added volunteering to her already-overloaded life. If something had to be done, she was there to do it.
We promised to keep in touch when my husband’s assignment ended in May 1974 and we returned to New Jersey, and we did. We traveled often to Israel, never leaving without visiting Chaim and Rachel.
I was devastated when she told me she had been diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, but, of course, Rachel was optimistic a cure was in sight. A couple of years later I received a copy of Hadassah Magazine, the headline on the cover touting, “I Was Cured of Cancer.” I knew immediately that it was written by Rachel.
Eventually her cancer returned and she was brave until the end, dying shortly after her 40th birthday.
Anyone, especially anyone born in America and living in the Talpiot section of Jerusalem, knew Rachel. Whereas many in her position would have returned to the familiarity of the U.S. where they could depend on their families’ support, this was not her way. She had committed to living in Israel and her kids would grow up in Israel, with or without her.
And so her new community did for her what she would have done for them. They provided meals and took care of the kids and supported Chaim and did all the numerous acts of chesed, kindness, that were necessary to keep this family in Israel. And, ultimately, they buried her and continued to shelter and love her family.
Her children are now grown. They still live in Israel and I still weep for my beloved and cherished friend. May her memory be for a blessing.
Rosanne Skopp is a frequent blogger for the Times of Israel. She lives in West Orange and Israel.