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Meet Geoff Roland

The “Accidental Oleh”

by Rabbi Don Levy

Most Jews who came to live in Israel from other lands, shall we say, “later in life,” have long stories about their developing desire over many years to live in the Jewish State, but (as the saying goes) Life Got in the Way. In our own Netzach Israel synagogue community here in Ashkelon, we have a number of members who fit this description.

Not so Geoff Roland. By his own telling, he’s the “Accidental Oleh.”

Coming from Manchester, England (across the Atlantic Sea), he was looking for property to buy in Israel: as an investment, but also for a “landing place” should British Jews ever need to leave the UK in the future in view of the increasing antisemitism there.

Wanting to be on the coast, he looked in Nahariyah first, but found Ashkelon to his liking with its more central location and larger Anglophone community. He was shown a beautiful mini-penthouse flat, and breaking all the rules of buying property, made an instant decision to buy it, which he hasn’t regretted.

As he tells it, he stood in the flat, looked out at its view of the city and the sea. He wondered why he was buying it for someone else to enjoy, and made another instant decision. He went home and immediately began the process to become an oleh, so that he could come to Ashkelon to live. In the process, he discovered Netzach Israel and made a number of new friends among the corps of newer members, most of whom are fellow Anglo olim.

That’s his story, he’ll tell you, and he’s sticking to it. But, in reality, there’s a story behind the story. To know Geoff is to know at least some of this story.

Geoff studied Electrical Engineering at university in Cardiff. He worked in the British railroad industry, and then in the engineering insurance industry in Manchester, for some years before finally realising that he was too independent to thrive in the corporate world. He then decided to strike out on his own in an independent domestic appliances business, again in Manchester, where he lived for 40 years. He married a Canadian on the way – they met in shul (Conservative) in Washington DC one Kol Nidre – and remained in Manchester. (He was born and brought up in Harrow, London.) Now widowed, he has two grown children, a son and a daughter.

Geoff’s son, Jonathan, spent a Masa programme voluntary year in Ashdod in 2017/18, teaching English to children at a state primary school. During that year, Geoff came to Israel to visit his son and spent some time in Ashdod and the south, which he really enjoyed. Jonathan, who was until recently living in London and working as a fund-raiser and project liason person for the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA), has lately made aliya himself, keeping the same job and living in Tel Aviv. So, it appears that Geoff, “accidental oleh” notwithstanding, does have serious ties to the State of Israel. In addition to the aforementioned, his partner Cathy has several close relatives in the Negev. Cathy herself lived in Israel as a young woman and has been helping Geoff in his struggles to acquire Hebrew proficiency, not the easiest of tasks!

I’ve enjoyed having Geoff as part of my own circle of friends. As an engineer, he retains his fascination with the way things work and loves to explain process. Being an ex-railroad man, he retains his fascination with trains in general. We have made several train trips together to the Center, during which I learned all about rolling stock, catenary towers, switching and the like. When we travelled to Jerusalem together, he wanted to ride the entire length of the light rail line there. I decided to humor him; I thought it was a better idea than barging into a synagogue whose décor interested him, close to mincha time… (Okay, okay, I admit that I have something of a train fascination myself, so I didn’t mind the long light rail ride.)

Trains aside, Geoff has a delightful sense of humor. As he’s now just finished Ulpan, we’ve lately been “plotting” for him to be hired as the next rabbi of Netzach Israel, on the platform of chanting the entire Avinu Malkeinu on Yom Kippur (rather than whispering through it except for the last line), and introducing formal sermons (in English, of course…).

Okay, okay, he’s not really in competition for the job of rabbi! But he has entered the employ of the synagogue on a very part-time basis, agreeing to serve as the facilities caretaker taking over when the last holder of the job couldn’t continue. In addition to those duties, as a hobbyist-bookbinder he is on a mission to repair every damaged siddur and chumash in the synagogue’s inventory. Every time he thinks he’d re-bound the last one in need of his touch, he finds another one on the bookshelf.

Geoff, welcome to Ashkelon and Netzach Israel! You have become an important part of the crazy mosaic of personalities that is our community!