Israel’s seniors brush off fears of war

TEL AVIV — With war in the region apparently just around the corner, many anxious Israelis are bracing for a possible Iraqi missile attack. But some of the nation’s most experienced citizens are hardly overwhelmed with fear — they have found comfort at homes for the elderly, which have experienced a surge in demand ahead of military conflict.

Like many Israelis, Miriam Ben Haim is concerned. She’s deep in thought, sizing up her opponents and calculating her next move. But while most Israelis are currently troubled with the ongoing poker match between President George Bush and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Ben Haim has other things on her mind. She’s playing bridge.

Seated with friends in the main hall of the Golden House Residential Center in south Tel Aviv, war is not a hot topic of conversation. “I’m too busy to take the time to think about the war,” says the 70-year-old widow, a retired office clerk, as her fellow “golden girls” dance to the live music being played in the background.

Overhearing these comments, Golan Rubinstein breaks into a wide smile. “This is our greatest achievement,” the owner of Israel’s oldest residential center for senior citizens states proudly. “They don’t need to think about it because they know there is someone who is taking care of them.”

Ironically, Israel’s most vulnerable citizens have become the ones most at ease in the face of war. At least in this safe haven.

But a dozen years ago, Israel’s senior citizens found themselves on the front lines. While it is common knowledge that only one Israeli was killed as a result of a direct Scud missile during the 1991 Gulf War, not many know that in fact there were 86 Israeli casualties in that war.

Many died from suffocation due to incorrect use of gas masks. Some poisoned themselves to death with atropine injections mistakenly taken to counteract non-existent chemical attacks, and others suffered stress-related heart attacks. Almost all the victims were elderly.

“The No. 1 rule is, ‘Don’t be alone,’” says psychologist and geriatric specialist Yehiel Nissinholz. “In times of fear and distress, loneliness can be disastrous.”

Nissinholz says the Gulf War was a major turning point in that elderly Israelis finally understood the need for a community, especially in times of tension. A huge boom in old age care followed the war.

Most recently, several old age centers in the greater Tel Aviv area have reported a drastic increase in public interest following the latest buildup for war. All have gone to great lengths to produce a stress-free environment for their residents.

The Golden House, however, took it one step further. “Afraid of the war? Come for a three-month trial period so you won’t be alone,” read a front page ad in a local Tel Aviv newspaper two weeks ago.

The results were staggering. Over 270 telephone inquiries led to several dozen personal visits. Management is already preparing to absorb the new recruits in the coming days and weeks.


Izella Hershkowitz, who just turned 80, was one of the first callers to respond to the ad. “I was really impressed that they were concerned about people like me who are afraid of the war,” she said.

A resident of the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, which suffered most of the blows in 1991, Hershkowitz vividly remembers sitting alone in her shelter, hearing the bombs land outside her door. She does not want to go through that again this time.

Current residents share those sentiments. “You come here because you don’t want to be alone,” said fellow 80-year-old Lucia Bat Harim. She’s been living in the home for 12 years, arriving just before the previous war against Iraq.

She says she came to the Golden House seeking safety and security and found exactly what she was looking for. A retired psychiatric nurse, she has recently volunteered to help others during the war. However, she herself claims not to be concerned, “I’m not worried about the war. Negativity never helps. Worrying makes you sick.”


And indeed, with all the preparations in place, there is little left to worry about. While most experts believe a scenario in which Israel will be targeted once again is highly unlikely, house management has left nothing to chance.

In addition to existing panic buttons next to every bed and 24-hour standby medical teams, the already large staff has been reinforced in advance of the war and now numbers around 140, a very favorable ratio to the just over 300 residents.

Sealed bomb shelters on each of the 14 floors are ready for use. Several lectures have been held, and numerous evacuation drills conducted.

The Israeli army has even sent representatives to the center to teach the seniors how to properly put on their gas masks and use their emergency kits. And if that is not enough, management promises to walk them through every step of the way to make sure “they don’t fool around too much.”

There was plenty of that during the last war. “It was amazing. We were in the shelter, bombs were falling and they were all dancing and singing,” Rubinstein recalled with a chuckle. “War is an experience, not necessarily a pleasant one, but an experience nevertheless. And it’s much nicer to pass the time singing than sitting alone at home in fear.” 


Shimon Ongerfeld agrees. He has been living here for nine years, says he has no fear and personally doesn’t need any company in order to feel safe.

“But it is better to be alone here than alone at home,” admitted the former bookkeeper. “At least if something happens, we can help each other out.” But the 81-year-old widower hasn’t given too much thought to the war. He’s been too busy playing Remi, surfing the Internet and learning new dancing styles.

But like many others here, he is no stranger to war. In 1939, just before the German invasion, he fled Poland and joined the Russian army. His entire family stayed behind. All perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Subsequently, he joined one of the Jewish military brigades and arrived in Israel in 1948, just in time to fight in the War of Independence and two subsequent wars. After surviving all this, he said, it’s hard to get too anxious about a vague missile threat from Baghdad.

Ben Haim, another survivor who lost her father in the Holocaust, echoes his words. “If we survived the Holocaust, we’ll survive this, too,” she said. “And if something was meant to happen, it will happen anyway. Thinking about it won’t make any difference.”

But dealing with the anxiety and the stress is much harder for those who are alone, outside the protected environment of a senior citizen residential center.

Hershkowitz, who survived the Holocaust in Romania and decades of violence in the Middle East, also realizes that the current tension is insignificant compared with what she has experienced. Nonetheless, she said that coping with fear is even harder today. “I was a lot younger then,” she explained, “and now I’m all alone.”