Posted in , on January 31, 2013

Dr. Jerry and Rivke Berkowitz: Hijacking Survivors and NCSY Supporters

Dr. Gerald (Jerry) and Rivke Berkowitz have a slightly different story than your average NCSY alumnus. They got involved with NCSY when their children were in high school, figuring it would be temporary until their Buffalo, New York chapter recruited some new advisors. As associate headmaster of Buffalo’s Kadima Jewish Day School, Rivke was more than qualified to fill the void in Jewish after-school programming, and 25 years later she finds herself still involved with NCSY. “I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s almost hard to imagine not doing it,” says Rivke. “I get much more than I give. I love the kids [NCSYers] and they love me back.” In 2005, Jerry and Rivke were inducted into NCSY’s prestigious Ben Zakkai Honor Society in appreciation of all the great work they did and continue to do for NCSY.

But things were not always so rosy for Jerry and Rivke, a breast-cancer survivor who jokes that even after chemotherapy, surgery and radiation “I still haven’t reached my desired weight yet.” “I find that it’s easier to laugh than cry,” says Rivke. And it is this decidedly positive attitude that kept Rivke and her husband sane as they lived through the hijacking of their plane on a trip home from Israel in 1970.

After spending the summer in Israel in 1970 with their baby daughter Talia, Jerry and Rivke boarded the plane home bound for the United States with two stopovers, one in Athens, Greece and one in Frankfurt, Germany. Rivke felt apprehensive about flying at that time because there had been a hijacking in Athens a few weeks prior. There was also a cholera epidemic in the Middle East at that time, and as she suspected she might be pregnant, she was afraid they would want to vaccinate her before she left Israel, which might affect her and her child negatively. Fortunately, the flights to Athens and Frankfurt went smoothly.

While in Frankfurt, Jerry left the aircraft to get some fresh air. On the bus on his way back to the plane, he noticed a fishy looking character but didn’t think much of it. They took off from Frankfurt, and Rivke settled in to her bulkhead seat with her baby in a box at her feet. As she was purchasing head phones to watch the in-flight movie, a man and a woman started pushing down the aisles toward first class yelling “Imshi! Imshi!” (“move out of the way”) holding guns and hand grenades. All the first-class passengers ran to the back of the plane as a voice came over the loud speaker saying: “This is your new captainspeaking. I am from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. We will take you to a friendly place with friendly people.”

For a moment, Rivke thought it was a joke. “The mind takes a while to get used to something. My first thoughts were ‘what a foolish thing to do, to have a pretend hijacking!’” explained Rivke. But once the hijackers made all the passengers put their hands behind their heads and stay like that for many hours, it felt very real.

Finally, they landed in the desert in Jordan in an old abandoned World War II airfield.  Outside the window, the Berkowitz’s saw that an army armed with bazookas, anti-aircraft missiles, and other weaponry they had never seen before surrounded their airplane. Later they found out that there were 3 other planes hijacked that day that were headed for the desert in Jordan too. They stayed on the plane overnight.

The next day, all the passengers from countries who did not have Palestinian prisoners were taken off the plane, along with the women and children.  Rivke did not want to leave her husband, but he convinced her that it would be safer for her to go. On the way out, they asked everyone their religion. “Growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust, I heard young survivors telling their stories all the time. All my life I’ve been waiting for my turn. I’m not going to deny my Judaism now! I knew this was coming some day,” said Rivke. So she and her daughter got off the plane. They divided the passengers up into Jews and non-Jews and then sent the Jews back on to the plane. “At least now whatever happens we’ll be safe together,” she said to her husband.

After a week, they were finally allowed off the plane. Rivke was the first person to deplane, and as the Palestinians went through her luggage, they tried to take Jerry’s tallis bag.  “I said to them ‘You can’t have that!’ And they looked at me like I was nuts. I said to them ‘You said that you are anti-Israel, not anti- Jewish. This is my husband’s prayer shawl. You took my husband, you can’t take this too,’” tells Rivke, reliving her defiant moment. And they gave the tallis back to her.

After negotiations were settled between the disputing countries, the women and children were finally released. As they drove away in 15 passenger vans, they needed a Jordanian soldier and a Palestinian soldier in each van to guide them around the mines planted by the two warring nations. Then they were flown back to the United States, and the men returned a few weeks later.

While they were trapped on the plane, they told jokes and sang songs and tried to stay upbeat. Jerry and Rivke’s positive dispositions are even seen in the naming of their second daughter, Yael Geulah, who was named after their redemption from the dangers of the Palestinian hijacking. “My mantra is ‘I have no control over what happens to me, I only have control over how I deal with it,’” says Rivke.  And she remains optimistic to this day, as the couple continues to inspire hundreds of NCSYers around the country with their incredible story.