Calvin Belkov went to Israel for the first time when he was 60 years old.
During his childhood, he realized the historical significance of the Jewish homeland because so many of his parents’ generation had perished during the Holocaust. From reading magazines and newspaper articles, he gained an academic understanding of the country. In 1992, Belkov traveled abroad to celebrate his nephew Scott Konikoff’s Bar Mitzvah.
Steve and Ronnie Jane Konikoff, Scott’s parents, made arrangements for the entire family to stay in a quaint neighborhood in Jerusalem and tour the country. Belkov recalls, “When it came time for the ceremony, we gathered at the top of a hill overlooking the ancient city.”
After Scott finished chanting the Haftorah, Belkov, given the Hagba honor, raised the Torah scrolls over his head. As he did, he looked out over the landscaped valley and was awestruck by the beauty and spirituality of the moment. “I was inspired by a feeling like no other,” Belkov says. “I felt that I was going to fly right to heaven!”
Belkov grew up in an Orthodox home, and kept kosher all his life. As a young boy, he, Gene Kantor, and Shulamit Reich walked to Congregation Beth El for Shabbat. He conducted Mincha and Maariv services by the time he was 17 years old. When his mother passed away at age 40, Belkov became a reliable minyan participant for decades, ensuring that Kaddish could be said by mourners.
The year following his nephew’s Bar Mitzvah, Belkov participated in a volunteer program he had read about in Hadassah magazine. A group of dentists from Orange County, N. J. had established a clinic in Ashdod, a seaport town near Tel Aviv, known for its oil wells. For one month, Belkov lived on the coast, practicing dentistry by taking care of new immigrants and needy locals.
Pleased with the experience, Belkov asked his wife, Linda, to join him the following year. Having weekends free, they hoped to find relatives from his mother’s side of the family who had fled to Israel instead of immigrating to the United States, Canada, or Cuba as the others had done. Belkov still possesses an unopened letter written by his mother to her relatives stamped with the Nazi insignia, indicating that it was never delivered.
Hearing many wonderful stories about Pardes Katz from their friend, Marcia Hofheimer, they decided to include it on their list of weekend possibilities. As far back as the early 1980’s, Tidewater and its Israeli sister city were linked through a national Federation program called Project Renewal. Pairing communities allow Americans to create an intimate relationship with one abroad. Pardes Katz is a frequent destination on UJFT trips to Israel.
Through financial assistance, Tidewater helped the “Matenas” (community center) develop early childhood and teen programming, a computer lab and meals for the elderly. Its centrality provides joy and hope for many of the residents who were affected by the proximity of the surrounding poverty stricken ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of B’nai Brak.
With an impromptu visit, the gracious community immediately welcomed the Belkovs into their Yom Ha’ Atzmaut festivities. “The residents treated us like royalty!” remembers Belkov. In response to their persistence, Linda spoke extemporaneously to an eager audience, offering greetings from Tidewater. After a tour of the facility, the Belkovs felt an inexplicable bond with the proud residents.
Returning to volunteer one more year in Ashdod, Belkov dreamed of the possibility of starting a dental clinic in Pardes Katz. Reaching out to UJFT in Norfolk, he was encouraged to create a private fundraising campaign. Belkov’s donation was the first of many to come from family and friends.
Inspired by his vision, Rabbi Arthur Ruberg of Beth El asked Belkov to speak during a break in holiday services. At the Kiddush luncheon that followed, a congregant stopped Belkov and proposed, “When you are ready to start the project, come back to me.” That donor pledged $5,000 a year for five years from the Pincus Paul Foundation.
As the executor of a local woman’s estate, Peter Decker, a Tidewater lawyer, also supported the project with some of his deceased client’s undesignated funds. Having accumulated enough money to start the project, the Belkovs met with the Israeli Minister of Health in Jerusalem to obtain his approval. He was an English physician who had immigrated to Israel.
They were shocked to learn that he did not want to see another American dental clinic manned by volunteers, taking employment opportunities away from Israeli citizens. He mentioned an ORT dental hygiene school that had been established for young Arab women, noting that those women needed jobs.
When Belkov returned home, he shared his experience with Sonny Lefcoe, a local dentist and member of the board of trustees for Tel Aviv University’s Dental School. Lefcoe really liked the concept of providing Pardes Katz with a dental clinic and went to the school to ask for help. Tel Aviv University licensed Belkov and all the other volunteers with visiting professor status, and the dream became a reality.
From articles placed in the UJFT News, Tavia and Daniel Gordon, who had an office in Israel, volunteered to help ship the clinic’s equipment. Lefcoe assembled the machinery and adapted it to the Israeli electrical current. The Gordon brothers shipped 10 huge, 75-pound boxes filled with equipment for two operatories and dental supplies donated by local doctors. Leonard Strelitz made the necessary arrangements for the boxes to be picked up duty free at the airport. Today, the dental office still sees patients.
When he originally stayed in Ashdod, Belkov attended services at an Orthodox schul. Paired with an elderly English speaking immigrant from Germany, the two became friends. Years later, the man’s daughter married a rabbi stationed at Langley Field. During the start-up years of the clinic, Belkov travelled to Israel sometimes twice a year. Since his first visit, he has been there 14 times. Through the years, he and Linda maintained their friendships with visits, letters and telephone calls.
After practicing dentistry for 42 years, Belkov sold his practice in 1996 when he was 64 years old. Pardes Katz had his undivided attention until his older brother passed away in 2000. Philip Belkov had been running his parent’s grocery and tobacco wholesale business. Started in 1923 as a small store, a block off of Church Street, the business settled on East Princess Anne Rd., where Philip ran a ship chandler, selling duty free cigarettes, whisky and supplies.
Not wanting to close the business, Belkov took a risk and added wholesale kosher products, starting small. In Tidewater, there was only one kosher market on 21st St. He remembered when there were five local kosher butchers. There were no kosher wholesalers in the area. In fact, there was only one in Baltimore, and another between Tidewater and Georgia. He believed this new business endeavor would help the Jewish community.
Within a few years, VA-Bel handled the wholesale of Empire poultry, and many other kosher products. Belkov also became the exclusive dealer of kosher wines for the region.
He and his siblings acquired their sense of generosity from their immigrant parents. His sister, Beverly Handel took care of Beth El’s gift shop for many years, followed by her daughter, Regina Rose. The standing candelabrum next to the bima was donated in memory of his mother, Sylvia, and the Belkovs named a room in Beth El’s Sunday school wing. Taking on many responsibilities and roles during the years, Linda was a dedicated volunteer and served as Beth El’s president. At B’nai Israel, Philip named the chapel to honor his family. Believing in the welfare of the community, the couple has retained a membership to the Simon Family JCC.
This past November, Belkov returned to Israel five years after his last visit. He travelled with his nephew, Maury Handel, 60, who was coincidently going for his first time. They stayed at a magnificent new hotel in Jerusalem called the Mamillia, built over a shopping center, housing 100 stores, standing today as a symbol of Israel’s ever changing landscape.
Together, he and his nephew shared many wonderful experiences. However, for Calvin Belkov, the most poignant memory will remain standing atop the hillside, overlooking Jerusalem, reflecting back to the moment his life changed and took on new meaning.
by Karen Lombart