This Cliffside Park couple’s shared faith led them to move to Israel not once, but twice.
Both Sol Borodkin and Thelma Litwak were born and raised in Brooklyn, he in Crown Heights, she in Brownsville.
"He used to kid me that he married beneath him because he was from a better neighborhood," Thelma says with a grin. "But I’d always come back by reminding him that I was a Levi, while he was only an Israel."
As young adults, both belonged to the Labor Zionist youth movement, but Sol was part of an older group. They actually met in the Hebrew-speaking club when Thelma was 17 and he was almost 19. A year later, they were both leaders of two younger groups, and the activities they shared threw them together and eventually drew them together.
This was 1948, the year that Israel was recognized. Thelma says, "I remember going to a Habonim meeting the night the Jewish state was declared."
Sol and Thelma Borodkin
As Thelma and Sol grew closer, they often discussed the possibility of immigrating to Israel and helping to form the new nation. "The Zionist youth group specifically encouraged young adults to make this move," Thelma explains.
They decided to marry and go forward with their plans. "My parents thought we were too young," Sol says, "But they signed the under-age waiver so we could get married, since I was not quite ‘1."
"I was 19, but my parents accepted the engagement," Thelma says. "But they weren’t thrilled about the move to Israel."
After their wedding in 1949, the couple immediately embarked for Cream Ridge, one of several kibbutz training farms the Labor Zionist youth organization maintained in this country. "Our group needed members on a farm in Canada, outside Toronto," says Thelma, "so after seven months in New Jersey we were sent north to our group."
By Chanukah of 1950, the couple finally found themselves in Israel, first at a kibbutz in Geva in the Jezreel Valley. From there they went on to form their own settlement in Urim in the Negev. It was a desolate area, but as Sol remarks, "It’s a blooming place today."
While Sol was involved in the farming end of things, Thelma worked in the nursery. When Thelma realized she was pregnant, she and Sol decided to go back to America. "We didn’t like the idea of children being raised communally," she explains.
They settled in Brooklyn in the apartment downstairs from her mother (Thelma’s father had died unexpectedly, and she was glad to be there for moral support). Sol worked as a chemist and he went back to school to complete his master’s degree in chemistry, subsequently earning a master’s in statistics. He had planned on a doctorate in chemistry, but decided he needed statistics first, as he worked in quality control.
After their daughter, Arlene, was born, Thelma went back to school for a degree in education and began teaching in the same school where her daughter’s nursery was located. After their second daughter, Wendy, was born, and while Thelma was working in the New York City public schools, she received an Experienced Teacher Fellowship grant in English as a Second Language. "Sol and the girls looked after the house," she says, "so I was free to study. It was an exhilarating experience, with people from the Peace Corps, people from all over the world. It changed my life, not only professionally, but I began to look at things and language differently."
In 1968, the family again set off for Israel. "We’d always known we’d go back," Thelma insists. "It just took us 17 years."
Sol was hired by the Weizmann Institute to do research on water desalination, and Thelma worked in an elementary school for a year, then taught English at the Hebrew University. They remained there for four years, and lived in Rehoboth and Kiron. "Both our daughters loved it," Thelma recalls.
When the Borodkins returned to America, Thelma began teaching at Lehman College in the Bronx, where Sol worked at a pharmaceutical company. She received her doctorate in 1977. The couple then set their sights on moving to Manhattan, but the rents were beyond them.
So they found the next best thing a high-rise condo in Cliffside Park with easy access to the city. They still live there and are active in Gesher Shalom/JCC of Fort Lee.
The couple have five grandchildren, one step-grandson, and two great-grandchildren. Both daughters live nearby in north Jersey.
For 11 years Thelma taught English to Russians at the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly and now teaches Hebrew there. She is also active in ORT, writing articles and doing publicity for the organization. Sol also volunteers at the JCC, teaching computer skills to seniors.
Thelma and Sol still find time to share activities. "We go to classes and lectures all the time," she says.
"We care for each other a lot," he adds. "We have many common interests. We know how to give each other space, and we work together on a lot of things."
Nancy Butler is the author of 1′ Regency romances, three nonfiction titles (including "The Quotable Lover," Lyons Press), and three novellas, and has twice won the prestigious RITA from the Romance Writers of America.