Walter Berk subscribes to the words of Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
In Berk’s case, it’s because he doesn’t like to be reminded of his past.
Not when you consider he was a 5-year-old orphan in a foster home, finding himself without a family at a time people were just starting to recover from the Great Depression.
Not when he survived that to join the military, training men whose mission was to go to Korea to fight in a war that was never declared.
Not when he went on to live a normal life and raise a family until his wife of 47 years, Eleanor, died in 2005.
Therefore, instead of looking back, he’s looking ahead — only not too far.
After all, Berk is 87 but still going strong.
He’s believed to be among the oldest to ever make aliyah, having moved to Israel in late March. That enables him to be near his son, Allen, and eight of his 15 grandchildren.
But that’s only partially why he did it.
The real reason is because he feels he has a purpose in Israel. In Langhorne, where he was spending time with Sheila Weiss, whom he met after Eleanor’s death while both were volunteering, that wasn’t so much the case.
But with Sar-El, the 35-year-old National Project for Volunteers for Israel, Berk found a way to not only keep himself occupied but to do something meaningful.
Now his mission is to convince others in the United States to join him.
“I decided to come here and help out,” said Berk, who first got involved with
Sar-El more than a decade ago and had visited for a few weeks regularly since then before deciding to make it permanent. “And they need a lot of help here.
“I pack medical supplies. Whenever there’s a disaster in Haiti or Nepal or someplace, they send supplies over. The supplies get used up, so they have to be repacked, of course.”
Just as Berk used to have a job as an electrical contractor in New York City before retiring a few years ago, now he’s found this. But he wants company.
“We need help,” said the Brooklyn native, who’ll periodically cross the Atlantic to spend time with Weiss and visit his sons, David and Lenny, in North Jersey. “They get people from France and other countries, but they seem to have a shortage of Jewish people.
“Instead of taking that trip to Florida for a couple of months, you should come over here. After I stopped working and my wife died, I wondered, ‘What am I going to do? Where am I needed?’
“When I came to Sar-El, I thought, ‘I’m needed here.’ Since I’m needed here, I decided I’m coming here.”
It makes sense when you factor in his commitment, coupled with the family ties he already has.
“He feels a very deep connection and feels he’s doing something worthwhile for Israel,” Weiss said. “I give him lot of credit.
“He’s a worker. He doesn’t like to sit still. But he doesn’t want to just work. He wants to work for Israel.”
And after Berk finishes his current visit to the States, Weiss will accompany him in Israel for a few months.
“We’re unskilled labor, taking the place of soldiers so they can do what they do,” the 81-year-old Weiss said. “We feel good about it. He says it was beshert we met when we did because I wasn’t looking for anybody and I’m sure he wasn’t after losing his wife.”
She said it’s far too early to decide whether she’ll ever make aliyah herself, but commends Nefesh b’Nefesh for making Berk’s transition so smooth.
“Nefesh B’Nefesh got me here and gave me a terrific job,” Berk said. “They’re always asking me what kind of help do I need.
“The last few weeks, they helped me get all my papers straightened out. The whole operation’s gone very smoothly.”
That was seldom the case for Berk during his childhood.
“I remember very little of my past,” said Berk, who grew up being shuttled around by a foster care association in New York before going to a family whose religious beliefs were “as close to Communism as you can get.”
“But I have the type of past I’m not really interested in remembering. All I can think about is tomorrow. That sort of leads to why I’m in Israel now.”
He said whether you’re Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox or even secular, it doesn’t really matter.
“My wife was Orthodox, so we went to Rockwood Park Jewish Center,” he recalled, “but I just consider myself Jewish.
“Judaism is a great religion. You can pick whatever you want to be. I hate people who want put you in a box. Just be part of the community and enjoy life.”
Berk’s doing precisely that.
“They’ve fixed up the beach here better than it was,” said Berk, who lives in the Tel Aviv suburb of Tel HaShomer. “They’ve got exercise equipment and people flying kites on the water and in sailboats.
“I miss America. No question, it’s a great place. But I always said to my kids, ‘Make your own decisions and do what you think is best. And be helpful.’”
Clearly, Berk has practiced what he preached. And each time he goes to the Sar-El base in Matzrap that gets reinforced.
“Working on an army base, what can be better?” he asked. “They get me up around 7 a.m. Give us food. Give us a bed. It’s an excellent program. But we need help.”
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0729