“Israel is the Place for Jews to Live”
by Lisa Presman
The stories of our lives are woven tapestries, each one unique and beautiful. Billie Saltsberg began our conversation saying she had no stories to tell, but her words blossomed into a work of art as her story came to life. Billie Saltsberg has been an Ashkelonian and Nezach Yisrael member for 49 years since making Aliyah from New York, NY. But Israel and Zionism were not new to Billie, they were the strong, stable yarns supporting the tapestry on which she wove her life story.
Billie was born in Queens, NY over 90 years ago. Her home was filled with the sights, sounds and scents of a Jewish home. Her mother filled it with the Jewish holidays. She loved learning about all things Jewish in her small Hebrew School run by a nephew of her mother. “I loved it. I liked to sing the songs. We had young teachers and learned history.” Her love of Jewish learning was just beginning. It was there that she met her future husband, Phil Saltsberg, and was introduced to what would become her life-long passion, Zionism.
Billie was 15 when she met Phil. He was older, 16½, but their Hebrew School groups were combined and all the kids spent time together, enjoying their once-a-week Jewish studies and social time. Everybody was friends and would go to a soda shop after school. Billie had lots of friends but Phil stood out. These were tumultuous times for the world. World War II raged in Europe and the South Pacific. “We listened to the radio a lot and knew what was going on with the war. I have records of the songs from that time. I listen to them when I’m nostalgic.” Her favorite is I’ll be seeing you. “Phil and I loved it and it was an important song. When I want to be with him I put that song on.” Phil died in 2018.
As a child, Billie was also witness to man’s inhumanity to man and the Jewish people. “I had an uncle who was bringing over our relatives from Europe; all the nephews and nieces, and cousins, about 30 of them. We knew all about what was going on in the camps. He used to sponsor all these people.” There were always family members who had fled Europe in her home. She is still connected to one of these cousins in Israel. These early life stories were infused with a Jewish soul and this informed the path that she was soon to take. “I was looking for something as a kid and found that Judaism was the answer. I just loved it.”
“I had a lucky adolescent. I wasn’t miserable as a teenager. I had a boyfriend and a nice crowd of friends and I was busy all the time.” At 17 Billie learned about Zionism. “I joined a teenage Zionist youth group called ‘Masada’ where I was introduced to Zionism. It was the young adult group of the ZOA (Zionist Organisation of America).” Billie’s world changed, and the path that she would take through life was now sealed.
In college, she became a group leader for Young Judea, a Zionist youth organisation that is dedicated to Jewish values, Jewish pride, and love of Israel. She led a club of local girls in Queens. “I am still friendly with a member of that group. I was the leader of the club. She is in her eighties now. I found her husband for her. Young Judea changed my life.” She loved working with the girls sharing her passion for Judaism. “I became interested in the Zionist movement and the literature. I became immersed.”
The war came to an end and Phil returned from the Navy. They both entered college and decided to wed after their studies were completed. All through college Billie participated in Young Judea running groups, participating in leadership training, and enjoying courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative Movement. These were the things that inspired Billie and added color and meaning to her life.
After college, she and Phil were married and "I became a professional Zionist so I could be close to the movement. I was a field worker and program writer.” In this way she could stay involved with Young Judea and Zionism. Billie worked for the Zionist Youth Commission in summer camps and took groups to Israel. They decided to make Aliyah, but the vicissitudes of life can get in the way of best laid plans. After the birth of their four children, it would be 18 years before they could fulfil their dream.
Ashkelon was the perfect place for Billie and Phil: small homes, not far from city life like they had grown up in, and with a Conservative kehillah, Netzach Yisrael. Their first Shabbat at the kehillah was a special one. “We were met at the door and we introduced ourselves. Phil was asked if he would like to do the haftarah that morning. He looked at it and said, yah, I’ll do it.” They were both active members and Phil applied his skills as a teacher to tutor Netzach Yisrael Bar and Bat Mitzvah children. "After he retired he spent his days working at the kehillah in any capacity that was required. It is impossible for me to talk about my story here in Ashkelon without including Netzach Yisrael.” The Kehillah members as well as the Rabbis and their families, have been there during times of great joy and great sorrow. “The kehillah has always been there for my family. I am blessed” she says. Billie and Phil have also been blessed with four children, eleven grandchildren and fourteen great-grandchildren.
Billie’s love of community involvement and working with children continued to grow in Israel. She earned a degree in social work from Hebrew University and worked with families until her retirement. “I was looking for something to believe in. So I got involved with Zionism to be Jewish and be responsible and do as much as I can for the Jewish people, and be a part of the world. My life is devoted to the continuity of the Jewish people.” Billie instilled this love of Jewish peoplehood into her family as well. Zionism, peoplehood and family, this is her story. “I love people and I was able to do that (be a social worker) and also be around people.” She also loves teenagers. “The age that most people can’t stand them are the ones I love. I think that I may still be a teenager. Maybe I never grew up.”