Walter Robinson was a giant of a man with a giant personality and giant visions who overcame giant challenges
By David E. Kaplan
Each person’s passing is customarily marked by a stone revealing name, dates, a biblical reference and messages from loved ones. For Walter Robinson, who passed away 2 August 2023 aged 99 in Herzliya Israel, there already exists a stone – a mighty one that has windows, doors, balconies and patios for it is a stone not marking of a person’s passing but of a community’s celebration of life. That stone – more like a sparkling gem – is called Beth Protea, a retirement home perched in the city of Herzliya north of Tel Aviv in central Israel and it would not exist were it not for the grit and determination and always inspiring presence of Walter Robinson.
When Beth Protea was just an idea – an abstract conversational point “between men enjoying a scotch” as Beth Protea’s oral folklore records – it was Walter who grabbed that idea like a ‘loose ball’ in rugby and ran with it. There were no shortages of “tackles” along that tumultuous run for touch but nothing was going to stop this Irishman, also South African but most of all, an Israeli and a feisty proud Jew. Armed with a multitude of talents, exuberant personality, a power of persuasion delivered in lyrical Irish, and a team of merry men, all very able and ably plied “by copious amounts of whiskey,” as Walter put it to this writer in an interview many years ago, Beth Protea was transformed from an “good idea” to the pride of the Southern African community in Israel.
I remember as a much younger young man attending Beth Protea meetings where Walter would hold the floor. Waiting for the right moment to enter the verbal fray, with a loud authoritative but so pleasantly lyrical voice, he would present his argument, so well packaged and when the odds were stacked against him – as they frequently were – not hesitate to bring the full weight of G-d behind him as he so adeptly dived into the Torah portion of the week and selected that which served Beth Protea best. I have no doubt, with Walter’s hand, G-d had a hand too in ensuring the success of Beth Protea.
Before getting the Beth Protea project off the ground, finding the funds proved the first of the proverbial ‘tackles’. Walter related to this writer that “We held our first fundraising campaign back in 1985 in Haifa where there was quite a large resident Southern African community and after our presentation, you won’t believe the first question someone asked. “What are you guys planning to serve for lunch?” Can you believe it? That was the first question asked by this crowd of South Africans! We had no land to build on; we hadn’t raised a dime, and people wanted to know what we would be serving for lunch.”
Quick off the mark, Walter replied, “Well, if you don’t start donating, there will be no dining room in which to serve lunch!” and nearly three decades later, it was Walter himself with his beloved Fanny, themselves residents at Beth Protea, who would be sitting in that dining room and be asking:
“What’s for lunch?”
It was only fitting that Walter would spend the final leg of his life’s journey in the ‘The home that Walter built’.
Before Walter and Fanny arrived to settle in Israel, there had been a group who were toying with the idea of a retirement home but mainly to cater for parents who were left behind in South Africa. The concept found little traction until Walter’s arrival from Cape Town in 1981. Well-known and respected for his communal work back in his adopted South Africa, the ad hoc group roped him in and within a few months of his arrival in Israel, he was chairman of a steering committee. “They allowed me to unpack my suitcases first,” he bellowed with his boisterous Dublin guffaw. That Dublin accent was his inimitable trademark and it was only fitting that at his funeral – which in the words of his children was “a celebration of his life” – began with the playing of a joyous Irish song that many, familiar with the lyrics, joined in. Tears gave way to smiles as the song touched on life, lasses, love, green landscapes and whisky. The music and its message resonated and encapsulated the adventurous life of a man’s journey, a journey that spanned five countries ending in Israel but beginning in Dublin, Ireland, where Walter qualified as a civil engineer at Dublin’s prestigious Trinity College.
It was while there during WWII that Walter nearly ended up in jail and was rightly proud of it!
NO ROUTING OF ROBINSON
The year was 1944 and Walter and his student chums – all fervent Zionists – started a newspaper called the Dublin Jewish Youth Magazine(DJYM). One day, Walter opens the evening paper, and “I see this MP, Oliver Flanagan, questioning whether the directors of the DJYM have a license to publish and whether our articles had been submitted for censorship as required by wartime regulations. Both were serious offences, carrying prison sentences. Of course the answer to both was – NO. Bugger it, we just did what felt was right,” says Walter, delighting in his mischievous past. Flanagan was a notorious antisemite who in his maiden speech in the Irish Lower House the previous year, had urged the government “to rout the Jews out of the country.”
Well this antisemite was not about to “rout” Robinson. Once it was brought to fulminating Flanagan’s attention that “The owner of the paper’s printers was a great friend of Prime Minister Eamon de Valera and so if the printer could not go to prison, neither could we,” the harassment halted. Walter’s Zionism continued to soar, culminating nearly fifty years later in his finest communal achievement – the opening of Beth Protea in 1992.
Much would happen in the intervening years. Walter would work all over the world, beginning in Ireland, then the Scottish Highlands for three years and then further afield in Pakistan working in the naval dockyards of Karachi, followed by many years in South Africa where he met and married Fanny. Fanny I too got to know well when she was editor of Telfed magazine, a position that I would later assume. Walter and Fanny married in South Africa in 1956, and after a spell in Ireland and a trip through Europe, they settled in Cape Town where Walter joined the family engineering business. Their three children, Gary, Brendon and Rena, were born there and educated at the Jewish day school, Herzlia School, where Walter was active on the board serving as vice-chairman and subsequently chairman. How poignant, as was pointed out by one of his children in a tribute at the funeral, that from the school he immersed himself in Cape Town ‘Herzlia’ to the retirement home in the city of ‘Herzliya’ he immersed himself in Israel – covering the bookends of life’s journey – were associated with Theodor Hertzl, whose line, “If you will it, it is no dream” pertained to Walter who transcended that other journey throughout his life – from dreamer to doer.
One of Walter’s other kids had it right when said in tribute “He made the impossible possible,” and to understand how, the words of one his good friends who worked very closely with Walter to get Beth Protea literally “off the ground” come to mind. At a special ceremony I attended conferring on Walter ‘Honorary Life President of Beth Protea’ in 2013, Beth Protea’s “financial whiz” Herman Musikanth poignantly summed up Walter’s extraordinary leadership skills:
“Walter led out front, completely absorbed and dedicated, causing all those around him to follow. It was the trust, the honesty of purpose and his personal efforts, generated through his leadership that created the support.” Quoting the words of Albert Pike written in the early 1800s that “What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and this world is, and remains, immortal,” Herman concluded with – as I do now:
“I believe that Beth Protea is probably as immortal as one can get.”
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