BY JERRY STERNBERG
The 1960s were great years for me and my family. In 1961, I decided to go into business for myself, and over the next few years, I established several different companies. One specialized in salvage industrial scrap metal and surplus. Another one was the area’s first containerized garbage hauling enterprise.
Initially, I had few resources, but after struggling for a couple of years — and with the help of a great partner and a strong working team — we went on to achieve considerable success. Basically, I was in the business of buying things that nobody wanted. One memorable example of this was when I purchased Seely’s Castle, perched on 7 acres atop Sunset Mountain, for $40,000 — the estimated value of the scrap materials it contained.
Besides working and raising a family, however, I was active with the WNC Jewish Federation, which raised funds both for local charities like the Asheville Jewish Community Center and for the United Jewish Appeal, which focused on broader issues. At the end of its annual fundraising drive, the Jewish Federation’s board would decide how to allocate the money. A large part of the funds we raised went to the UJA, a national nonprofit, which was desperately trying to raise funds for Jewish refugees as well as Jews who were no longer safe in their home country and needed to be transported elsewhere.
At first, the organization sent professional fundraisers down from New York to help local groups run their solicitations, but it soon became clear that having pushy outsiders show up and ask for money turned a lot of people off. So the UJA started recruiting locals — peers who, as volunteers, were demonstrating a willingness to take time away from their family and their business to support a worthy cause, just as they were asking their contacts to do.
And to fill that role in Asheville I was invited, in the mid-’60s, to join the UJA’s National Young Leadership Council, which mostly consisted of successful Jewish businessmen. In that capacity, I traveled to various places in North Carolina as well as Tennessee, South Carolina and even Florida, and together we raised many millions of dollars for the cause.
The UJA also supported both summer and yearlong programs for Jewish children. Established in 1961, Camp Judaea in Hendersonville is still going strong, and there were educational programs at the JCC as well. In those years, several kids from Asheville were sent to Israel to work in a kibbutz, tour the country, meet Israeli children and perhaps get interested in moving there, which a number of local families did. Asheville had taken in a lot of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, and decades later, that awareness was still strong in the community.
War breaks out
In 1967, the UJA invited Leadership Council members to visit refugee centers in several European cities and then spend a week in Israel so we could see for ourselves how the young country was helping Jewish refugees become good, productive citizens.
Along with all the advance information, they sent me a shoulder bag with “United Jewish Appeal” printed on it. I carefully packed the bag in my luggage for use later in the trip, as I was not about to walk through the Asheville airport plainly identifying myself as a Jew. We had long since learned the hard way to keep a low profile.
The trip was slated to begin on June 12, but on June 5, the Six-Day War broke out between Israel and the surrounding Arab states. The first press releases from the Arab side proclaimed great victories, sparking fear and anguish both in our local Jewish community and across the U.S. In a show of solidarity, the Asheville community (including a few non-Jews) jammed the JCC meeting hall and raised a substantial amount of money. At that moment, it seemed to be the only tangible thing we could do.
For the first few days, there was no word from the Israeli side, after which the government announced that Israel was in the process of totally destroying the Arab forces. The news was absolutely stunning. It simply defied belief that this tiny country with a population of 2.5 million Jews could, in a matter of days, be well on the way to annihilating the forces of the far larger Arab alliance.
Turning the tables
At that point, I began to get the most amazing phone calls from acquaintances in Asheville. Non-Jewish friends and even people I hardly knew were saying things like “I didn’t know Jews would fight” and “You guys really kicked those guys’ ass.” Even people whom I suspected had antisemitic leanings were vigorously congratulating me, and across the country the press went wild, portraying Israel as almost a miracle state.
With the war still in progress, however, there was great hand-wringing over whether to postpone our trip. In the end, the UJA decided that Israel needed our group to bring back a firsthand account of its great triumph to show Americans, and especially the Jewish communities in the U.S., that supporting Israel might be the best way to avoid another Holocaust. I was the lone representative from Asheville, and I felt so proud. I pulled that little UJA shoulder bag out of my suitcase, slung it on my shoulder and practically shoved it in people’s faces as I walked through our little local airport.
A whirlwind tour
The trip proved to be an odyssey. First, we visited absorption centers in Europe where, at that time, mostly Russian Jews escaping antisemitism were staged for transport to Israel. We met people who were receiving medical aid and other services and, through an interpreter, learned a bit about their horrific experiences.
By the time we got to Israel, the war was mostly over, though there were still occasional firefights, and we were constantly warned about the threat of undetected land mines. From the Lebanese border, we traveled all the way south to el-Arish, where we met with Yitzhak Rabin and other military leaders on a battlefield. We took part in briefing sessions with many other prominent Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Levi Eshkol.
But the memory of one tragic experience from the trip has stayed with me. In Khan Younis in Gaza, we visited an Arab school, and in one of the classrooms, I saw children’s drawings depicting Jews with Star of David armbands being stabbed, shot and even beheaded. It appeared that hatred of the Jews was just part of the curriculum being taught to these impressionable young minds.
Spreading the word
Soon after my return to Asheville, I gave a presentation to the local Jewish community, displaying photos I had taken on the battlefields, Israeli military hats, even small shell casings I’d picked up.
My firsthand report was well received, and I was invited to speak at a local civic club and a church. After that, it seemed, Jerry went viral. My invitations snowballed, and I believe I wound up making more than 100 presentations at civic clubs and churches from Morganton to Murphy.
Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. An anthology of his columns is available from Pisgah Legal Services for a donation of $25 or more. To order your copy, visit pisgahlegal.org/jerry, or send a check labeled “Jerry’s book” to: PLS, P.O. Box 2276, Asheville, NC 28802. All proceeds support the nonprofit’s work.
Even people I hardly knew were saying things like “I didn’t know Jews would fight.”