By Jack Rabin
During meetings at Telfed in Raanana, or when you’re passing through, do you see all the photos on the walls of all the past Chairman of the South African Zionist Federation in Israel? I am sure you realise that behind these photos are individuals who devoted so much of their time to TELFED’S affairs. I am writing a short tribute to one of them – MAX MIODOWNIK. I hope others follow my lead and share the stories behind the faces of the people who built our community of Olim.
Max was a Sabra. He was born in what was then Palestine and moved to Johannesburg at a young age. His father was a “Master Builder”. Max followed in his footsteps and became the President of the Master Builder Association of South Africa, no mean feat for a builder at the time. Max often told of his love for sitting high up on a beam or girder in the buildings being constructed, reflecting on the world below. He obviously had no fear of heights.
Max’s father and mother were the undisputed king and Queen at night clubs in Johannesburg. They often (as was the vogue then) clubbed away night till the wee hours of the morning. In this Max and Doreen did not follow in their footsteps. They left behind a heritage of large buildings that they built in the Johannesburg area.
Max was Treasurer of the Zionist Federation of South Africa, and Chairman of its Inner Aliyah Committee. He was also the Chairman of the Jewish Agency and the JUA in South Africa. He was the chairman of the “friends” of the Israeli Labour party of Israel. During these years in South Africa, many Israeli Leaders came to South Africa, some of whom became his great friends – including Shimon Peres, Ezer Weitzman, Chaim Hertzog, Pincus Sapir and many others. Max was very active in Jewish affairs in South Africa and received and entertained many of the Army and other Leaders from Israel who came to South Africa to speak at various fundraising rallies. He had good ties with the Jewish Agency and their leaders throughout the world.
He was obviously very interested in the housing problems in Israel and, to this end, was the first person ever to obtain the rights from the Rothchild Foundation in Caeseria to 250 stands for housing the South African community. This became known as Project Club 250 . Unfortunately the project did not achieve the desired results and only a few took advantage of the Rothchild’s offer. Perhaps Max was years ahead of his time making this venture.
In 1948 Max married Doreen from Umtata in the Transkei and they set up home in Johannesburg.
He told of one of this many flights from New York to Tel Aviv when in 1948 he and Doreen came on a visit and flew by the famous “clipper” flying boat of Pan Am made by Boeing. This plane could take off and land on water. It was the largest plane in the world with a huge wingspan. Passengers could sleep overnight in the cabins with curtain dividers and stacked bunks (like a on a train).
Before they came on Aliyah, Max had already started studying the Israeli property market. He could not understand why a (then) Socialistic country like Israel was tuned and honed into home purchasing, whereas he thought that cheap long term rental housing was the real answer to the housing problem in Israel. Already then he had written to and told the friends that he knew and were in power in Israel, about his theories on rental housing.
In 1970 Max and Doreen and family made Aliyah.
Max was chairman of TELFED from 1975 to 1978 and during this period made many changes, improvements and additions to the TELFED agenda. He was one of those responsible for the move of TELFED from the small premises at 53 Hayarkon Street to the new comfortable modern premises in Beit Clal (behind the Tel Aviv cinema).
Under his chairmanship, professional committees ware formed in the fields of Medicine, Accountancy and Law, and also for Rental Housing (later to become Isrentco). In 1977, the biggest wave of Aliyah from South Africa (not surpassed even to this day) took place under Max’s guidance – with some 1600 arriving (compared to an average of around 250 Olim). This necessitated the establishment of more regional absorption committees, as well as new Klita facilities. It was during Max’s chairmanship that the TELFED magazine became a fully fledged magazine, containing news and features about South Africans who had settled in Israel.
In a magnificent boost to TELFED’s activities, Max took some of his executive members (including Sid Shapiro, Director of TELFED) to a meeting with Pincus Sapir (then the Chairman of the Jewish Agency). The meeting was held at the Agency offices in Kaplan Street, Tel Aviv. At this meeting Max was at his persuasive best. It was at this meeting that Sapir took his famous black book from his pocket and wrote a memo (Chettel) to remind himself to provide funds to TELFED for rental housing… Low and behold the sum of over 3 million was duly deposited into TELFED’s account a short while later, coming from a fund of the Agency in Holland.
These funds were used by TELFED to acquire a whole building for rental housing in Schwartz Street, Raanana. It enabled a 10 story building on the land adjacent to the Amishav hostel in Tel Aviv to be completed. This was a pioneering venture of TELFED providing subsidised housing for Olim for the first time!
In Israel, Max was also the Chairman of the English speaking section of the Labor party (in its heyday) under Chaim Hertzog and spent many a night arranging and travelling to various venues where Chaim Hertzog was the main speaker, in English.
Even long after his Chairmanship at TELFED, Max remained very involved as a volunteer in TELFED activities. One of the most memorable contributions he made was finding suitable accommodation for the thousands of Olim who came from the former Soviet Union and which was incorporated in TELFED’s direct absorption programme.
Max was rather a large man, over 6 foot in height (but very broad as well), a natural leader with a booming voice who could get up and speak at a moment’s notice. He made many new friends in Israel, and two of his friends (namely Chaim Hertzog and Shimon Peres) became Presidents of the State of Israel.
Max was particularly proud of his three children. His son Issy, who together with his wife Paula and young children, were among the first Jewish residents of Adjami in Jaffe. Paula was the daughter of Alec Pincus, who, together with their cousin George Berold, served on the TELFED executive in the late 1960s.
His elder daughter Michelle (of Beit Issy Shapiro fame), later married Sid Shapiro, the Director General of TELFED for some 45 years. His youngest daughter Heather, settled in Rosh Pina together with her husband Chezzie Harpaz, who was one of the pilots of a Hercules airplane that carried out the famous rescue operation in Entebbe.
Max is, to this day, sorely missed by those who knew him well.
He would have been particularly pleased to know that the younger generation has now taken over TELFED’s Executive, and that for the first time in the organisation’s history a woman, Batya Shmukler, has been serving as Chairman. Shortly, her photo (duly framed) will hang on TELFED’s Boardroom walls alongside Max’s.
Jack, together with his wife Esme and 2 small children (under the age of 3 years) made Aliyah in 1961 from Cape Town, South Africa. Today their extended family consists of some 22 persons and they are all in Israel. Their 6 grandchildren and 8 (soon to be 9) great-grandchildren live around the country from the Arava desert in the South and extending to Kadima Zoran in the Sharon. Jack was involved with TELFED for some 30 years, rising to the position of Vice Chairman, before his retirement.