Some years back, the management of Beth Protea, the well known retirement home in Herzliya, identified a very real need for a center of guidance and information for the older generation of ex-South Africans and, in fact, all Anglo Saxon immigrants regarding the services, assistance and facilities that Israel offers to the elderly. It was in answer to that need that Protea Plus was established as a service to the community.
This center answers the many questions that come to mind at what can be a sensitive and vulnerable time of our lives and also a period of anxiety for our families. Hearing of this superb facility provided by Beth Protea, I took the opportunity to meet the lady who has created the fine reputation that it enjoys - Ziona Kemelman. Let me introduce her to you, the reader, as best I can, through this article.
It is said that angels walk amongst us mere mortals and I believe I may well have met one of those angels in Ziona. Social worker par excellence, her name is known intimately by all those in Israel concerned with the welfare of the underprivileged or maligned, from the man in the street to an army of volunteers to the highest government authorities. Ziona walks through life with her eyes and ears wide open for the opportunity to observe any social injustice or problem that needs redressing, then gathers her forces and throws her energies into solving them. Married to Arthur and blessed by three sons and four grandchildren to date, her life as a wife, mother, grandmother, homemaker, administrator and counsellor certainly requires clever juggling of time.
In Hod Hasharon, where Ziona has lived her adult life, she is recognized and loved by all who have crossed her path. Working there as a young woman, when the area was predominantly very low income, she identified a local problem and her subsequent work undoubtedly prevented a social disaster from developing. It involved the rehabilitation of young people who were existing aimlessly, not attending classes, college or university, unmotivated and unstimulated. The authorities directed her to work for `Project Renewal’ in the Hod HaSharon region and over the next ten years her life was devoted to this cause.
The distress and despair of the small group of Ethiopian immigrants battling to adjust to the Israeli culture despite their Jewish heritage next captured her imagination and her energy. She established an organization to develop leadership skills in order for them to advocate the reunion of their families left behind in Africa. This garnered financial support not only from the Israeli government but also from American Jewry and resulted in `Operation Solomon', the initiative of Prime Minister Shamir, which brought the Ethiopian Jews back to Israel. Today they form a vibrant Ethiopian community whose offspring are now integrating successfully into this society.
Four years later in 1990, in her ongoing quest to uplift and settle lost souls around us, Ziona found herself enmeshed in another social problem. She walked the streets of Tel Aviv morning, noon and night searching for the homeless .She found many orphaned, deserted, addicted, mentally damaged, sad and lonely people in her quest. Again, ten years of her working life was spent creating comprehensive rehabilitation plans for these unfortunate people. She established committees, gathered like-minded workers and volunteers, government and private support. They had much to do, providing the homeless with independence, food and shelter, rehabilitation into real homes, reclaiming their dignity and self-esteem, registering them as citizens of Israel and addressing the apparently insurmountable problems of society.
When the offer came in 2001 to work for Protea Plus, it was a wish fulfilled and she accepted the opportunity with enthusiasm. The wheel of fate turned again four years ago and Ziona once again served in Hod Hasharon where it all began. This time appointed for a period of time as President of the Services for the Aged in her home district. She served her term in tandem with her responsibilities at Protea Plus. She organized social connections, entertainment and regular visits, giving added meaning to the lives of those needing it.
At work she keeps close to her a hardcover foolscap notebook that houses the many ideas that spring into her mind at odd moments. I have no doubt that they are all implemented in time to the benefit of the public she serves. Ziona clarified her job to me:
“Twenty years ago when you reached 65 or 70 years old you started slowing down, contemplating the ravages of time. Today at that same age you should consider planning for 25 to 30 active years possibly still available to you. I am happy to help you plan it so that every day is meaningful and as rewarding as possible!”
At Beth Protea, where we met, there are numerous nonagenarians participating in the stimulating life available to them. Other similar homes tell the same tale. Life expectancy is lengthening constantly. Together with the pleasure of enjoying these twilight years there are problems that come with ageing that must be addressed. Ziona has the experience to guide wisely and deal with whatever vicissitudes life deals out – be it coming to terms with the loss of a spouse, learning new skills to remain independent in changed circumstances, which departments to approach for help with housing, rentals, medical help, pensions and even where to go for weekly dance sessions! The list is endless. But each crisis is another challenge for this indomitable lady. Sometimes it takes nothing more than a kind word of advice over a single phone call; sometimes it takes weeks of work to solve problems. Calls come in from concerned family members from all corners of Israel - in fact from all over the world, from anxious relatives and loving friends.
There are similar centers and individual specialists all over Israel these days addressing the specific difficulties of this age group and they certainly do wonderful work. Here in the Sharon region we are privileged to have this facility at Beth Protea and so appreciate the expertise of Ziona Kemelman to guide us. I left my interview with her filled with respect and admiration and inspired by her persona.