A Personal Account of the Early Years of the State of Israel

You never know whom you’re going to meet at the gym. Shortly after my wife and I arrived on aliyah this past December, I joined the newly renovated YMCA in Jerusalem. Twice a week, I work out in the same studio as Shayka Adler, a 92-year-old man who was a marathon runner, disciplined athlete (who, at age 60, also did a four-kilometer (almost 2.5 mile) swim race in the Kinneret), amateur sports trainer, and soldier in the founding of the State of Israel.

As a teenager, Shayka joined Etzel (the Irgun) and fought against the British. In 1944, informants started to report members of Etzel to the British. Shayka knew his days were numbered, and he evaded being captured by volunteering to serve in the British army. As luck would have it, he was sent to Egypt to train and fight against the Germans and the other Axis powers.

When WWII ended in 1945, Shayka returned to Israel but was caught by the British for belonging to Etzel, which was considered an illegal organization. He spent over a year in jail in Latrun. There, he received a hero’s welcome by his fellow prisoners for his ingenuity in evading prison until that time. Once released, he fought in the Independence War and joined Tzahal when all of Israel’s forces were consolidated. Eventually, he became an officer in charge of the physical training of soldiers.

Since 1951, Shayka has been a member of the YMCA, my guess the oldest member or at least the most veteran member. Although professionally he was in the construction business, he took his interest in fitness seriously, published articles on the subject, and was an in-house consultant for the YMCA. In those 67 years, he has broken a hip (in a motorcycle accident) and injured his neck. Nevertheless, Shayka still comes to the gym every Sunday and Wednesday walking slowly and with a limp in order to stay in shape.

This week marks 70 years since the Altalena confrontation, a violent face-off between the IDF (Ben Gurion) and the Irgun (Begin). Shayka wasn’t on the cargo ship when fighting broke out on the Tel Aviv coast, and he was careful not to pin blame on anyone. The one individual he singles out is Menachem Begin, who ordered his men not to shoot back at the IDF, for averting a civil war.

Twice a week, I exercise next to a participant in and witness to the events leading up to the birth of the State of Israel. We stretch, lift, and sweat together at the YMCA directly across the street of the King David Hotel, which was the British administrative headquarters that the Irgun bombed in 1946. Every time, I see my 92-year-old friend, I am reminded there is no such thing as history in Israel. It’s all current events.

92 year old witness to the founding of the State
Altalena
About the Author
Rabbi Lee Buckman works at 929 (https://www.929.org.il), an initiative designed to engage Israelis in exploring the relevance of Tanach to contemporary Israeli society. He is the former Head of School at TanenbaumCHAT, a Jewish day high school in Toronto that serves nearly 900 students in grades 9-12 from all denominational backgrounds, and recently made aliyah to Jerusalem.
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