This autumn Geraldine Averill of Vineyard Haven, a devout Episcopalian, will celebrate her 80th birthday in Israel. Her hosts will be Ehud Neor and his family, who are faithful to the practices and beliefs of Judaism. Mr. Neor graduated from Martha’s Vineyard High School in 1974. Back then, he was known as Billy Luce. Though his name and nation may have changed, his tie to Ms. Averill hasn’t. He is her son.
As a teen from Vineyard Haven, Ehud [Billy] used to hit the field for the Vineyarders, sometimes as guard and sometimes as linebacker. Though football isn’t part of his life anymore, he told The Times in a series of Skypes and emails, he remembers quite a few of his fellow teammates — 1973 Mayflower League co-champions — including where on the Island they hailed from and what positions they played: Timmy Anthony, Richard Clark, the Look brothers, Mark Landers, and Robert Trebby, among others. “The great Ron Brown got his start,” he said, “running through holes created by our offensive line.”
During Ehud’s teenage years on the Vineyard, his mother was a business partner in the Ice Cream and Candy Bazaar in Edgartown, while his stepfather, Preston Averill, owned and operated Averill Distributors with his son Preston Averill, Jr. Save for occasionally playing baseball beside the Hebrew Center on a field that is now the center’s parking lot, he had little exposure to Judaism on-Island, nor did he show signs of wanting to visit Israel, let alone move there for good.
“There was absolutely no indication that he would emigrate as he was growing up,” said Ms. Averill.
Ehud’s [Billy’s] interest in Israel came when he was a young adult studying on scholarship at Wabash College in Indiana. In 1978 he chose the Middle Eastern country for his junior year abroad, largely because it looked to be a free trip. He arrived at the University of Haifa with enough extra tuition reimbursement to visit Greece and explore neighboring Egypt and Jordan. It was when he was returning to Israel from Jordan over the Allenby Bridge that he felt an unexpected sense of homecoming. That in turn spurred him to seek rabbinical guidance about conversion. He then put his all into learning the Hebrew language, and eventually became extraordinarily fluent.
“I studied eight hours a day for a year — studied, straight through; four hours, a one-hour break, then four more hours. I learned Hebrew better than the Hebrews. Anyone who can keep up that pace can become an expert in a foreign language. No secret to it.”
Continuing to be captivated by the faith and culture of a country smaller in area than the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, he went on to marry a woman he met during his studies, to gain his citizenship, and to officially change his name and religion.
Ehud’s wedding was held in one of Israel’s large urban centers. With the lion’s share of his friends and family more than 5,000 miles away, members of the West Bank kibbutz he’d been living in beefed up attendance.
“It took place in Petach Tikva,” said Mr. Neor. “At the time I was living in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion. Real religious Zionist-pioneer types. Half the kibbutz came to the wedding and really livened the whole thing up — as if a Jewish wedding needed livening-up. On the other side was my wife’s family; upscale, mostly secular Baghdadi Jews. Quite the mixed bag. It was a real blast. My mother came with my brother [Mark Luce], who showed up in his Navy uniform, having been discharged a day before their flight to Israel.”
With his new wife Dvora, he subsequently moved to one of the Jewish settlements in Gaza and began a farming enterprise.
“Dvora is a true sabra — tough on the outside and sweet and tender on the inside,” said Ms. Averill. “I couldn’t ask for a better wife for my son or daughter-in-law for me. She’s bright, intelligent, fun, and a wonderful mother.”
“We lived in Gan Or, in Gush Katif — between Khan Yunis and the [Mediterranean] sea — for 19 years,” said Ehud. “Our children grew up there — our two boys were born there. We worked together with the Arabs from Khan Yunis on our farms.”
Unfortunately, the warfare and terrorism that has plagued modern Israel since its beginning in 1948 did not abate after Ehud matriculated into Israeli society. He and his wife actually lived in an area more prone to violence than many other parts of the country. As his mother discovered during an early visit, Neor family life functioned on a level of alertness unfathomable to most Americans.
“My daughter-in-law and I were going shopping when they lived in Gush Katif,” said Ms. Averill. “When I started to fasten my seatbelt, she told me not to. We had to be ready to jump out of the car if a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the car. Then I looked down and saw that she had her purse open, and there was a gun in it. That finally made it real to me where I was.”
During their time in Gaza, Ehud and his family survived numerous firebomb attacks, shootings, and bus bombings. They were resilient, however. Even after Ehud’s business partner in farming was stabbed to death, they stayed on. Only when Gaza was relinquished to the Palestinians and their own government forced them to did they move out of the area to the new settlement of Be’er Ganim.
Ehud and Dvora still live in Be’er Ganim, just north of the ancient port of Ashkelon. From there, Ehud, a self-taught programmer, runs a computer-consulting firm which has offices in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. His wife, though largely retired, teaches part-time at a girls’ school. Their son Yaniv, who’s still in the army, lives with them. Their oldest daughter Namaa lives with her family in Jerusalem, while their daughter Efrat and her family live close by in Ashkelon. Hanan, their other son, was just released from the army. He lives with his family in Jerusalem.
Though the Neors’ life in Be’er Ganim is largely free of the particular types of terror they experienced in Gaza, their home is within range of rockets fired from the very same place. And although Israel is defended by a system of antimissile batteries called the Iron Dome, not everything can be intercepted. At home, Ehud and his family have a type of heavy concrete safe room that is common in Israel. He was forced to hurry to the room at least once while emailing the Times earlier in the month. These shelters are considered such an important element of daily safety that even stores and restaurants have them.
“Once during the recent fighting, Dvora and I were in the checkout line at a supermarket,” said Ehud. “When the alarm went off, we had about 30 seconds to run to the far wall to the safe room: everyone, customers and employees alike. If you are on the road, you need to pull over and lie down on the side of the road. I had to do that once.”
Ms. Averill witnessed a rocket scare her son experienced while they Skyped with each other.
“He just tore off his headphones and started running out of the door to his office,” she said. “He turned and mouthed to me, Rocket. I was left staring at the door and prayerfully waiting for his return. Thank God he did in a few minutes.”
Despite the perils to be found in modern Israel, Ehud and his family lead happy and relatively peaceful lives (save for those family members serving in the military). That happiness will only swell when Ehud will be able to introduce his mother to her new great-grandchildren as well as take her to some of the world’s greatest cultural and religious treasures when she arrives for her birthday.
“I’m looking forward to meeting two new great-grandsons,” said Ms. Averill. “They bring the total of great-grandchildren to five. Being with my family is such a joy.”
“My plan for my mother, besides a festive meal, is, believe it or not, to follow the Via Dolorosa. She is a very devout Christian, and though the ‘route’ is normally a Catholic thing, I have some connections along the way that will let us see views of Jerusalem that are rare and inspiring. She is my mother, after all. And if I am any good at being an observant Jew, I would give her much of the credit, though she may not want it!”
To learn more about Ehud Neor’s life in Israel, visit his blog:neorupdate.blogspot.co.il/.