Locals reminisce about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s high school days in Cheltenham.
To most of us who knew him back in the mid-1960s in Cheltenham, he wasn’t Bibi. Just Ben.
Different in many ways from the average suburban kid who seldom paid attention to the world around him. A young man with a purpose, disinterested in the cliques and social mentality that preoccupied many of his schoolmates.
Now that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just won a fourth term in office, it would be silly to think any of us could have predicted this tall, good-looking boy with the thick accent would grow up to become the leader of his country.
Yet, if you looked hard enough, there were signs during his four years in the region that Netanyahu was destined for something big.
“You could tell he had drive and intelligence,’’ said Dr. Arnold Meshkov, a cardiologist and the current president of Reform congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. “I had a feeling he’d do something great; that he’d be famous.”
Meshkov said he shared a lot of classes with Netanyahu. “I remember us arguing about politics. He was a very, very forceful debater, not into conceding you might be right.’’
Some things, apparently, never change.
Benjamin was one of three sons of Benzion and Tzila Netanyahu, who moved their family from Israel to Elkins Park in the summer of 1963, when Benzion accepted a teaching position at Dropsie College. Dropsie, an independent academic institution for Jewish studies, from which he graduated in 1947, was the precursor to the current Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies.
Their other two children were Iddo and Yonatan, who was killed in 1976, leading a daring Israeli operation to rescue hostages from a hijacked plane in Entebbe, Uganda.
Fellow Israeli Sara Starobin and her family helped ease their transition to American life.
“They’d come over for Shabbat dinner,’’ recalled Starobin’s son, David, a Washington, D.C.-based audio-visual specialist, who remembers their fathers playing chess while the mothers spoke in Hebrew. As for the kids, he said, “other times we’d go over to their house and play soccer in their backyard.
“I showed him around the area and was probably his first friend here. I have a lot of memories about soccer back in junior high,” he said, referring to their days at Ogontz Junior High. “He was the best on the team by far.”
By then, Netanyahu was already demonstrating traits that would translate well when he went into politics.
“He was always opinionated and strong-willed,’’ said Ellen Rosenberg Tilman, another classmate who lived nearby and often gave Ben a ride home from school. “He knew his facts and could back up his arguments with well-documented and intelligent points.
“He’d challenge both teachers and classmates with his ideas and interpretations,’’ she added.
While some have suggested, including in a recent piece in the Washington Post, that Netanyahu’s renowned “toughness’’ was forged during the time he spent locally, others question that notion, noting that the suburbs usually aren’t considered a breeding ground for the kind of grit and tenacity needed to survive in Israeli politics. Some attribute those qualities to his Israeli upbringing.
That’s not to say this foreigner in a strange land didn’t make his presence known.
“It seemed to me he was mature beyond his years,’’ said Dr. Marc Fisher, a Maryland periodontist, who knew him from chess club, where perhaps young Ben developed his strategy of always planning a few moves ahead. “He was really smart, serious and studious; not like your average high school student.”
“You knew he had a little more of an international upbringing,” said Fisher. “He had a certain worldly atmosphere that he didn’t get from other people in high school.’’
His classmates don’t recall Netanyahu having much of a social life, even though one female student who rode the bus with him to school each day describes him as “the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen.’’
She asked that her name not be used, as did another, who recalled him as “a definite hunk — but someone you’d worship from afar.”
Netanyahu appeared put off by those at Cheltenham trying to climb the social ladder. “He felt Cheltenham students were not sufficiently serious,’’ Dan Seltzer, the class of 1967 president, said of the man considered one of the school’s three most famous graduates, along with poet Ezra Pound and Hall of Fame slugger Reggie Jackson. “They were too social.
“He seemed like the kind of guy who was destined for success of some kind. But I don’t think in any way I could’ve predicted this.’’
As abruptly as the Netanyahu family arrived in the area in 1963, that’s precisely how they left. At graduation when his name was called to receive his diploma, Netanyahu was nowhere to be seen.
Those ceremonies took place in the midst of the June 1967 Six-Day War. Only later did we learn he and his family had returned home to join the battle.
“Ben missed Israel,” Zelda Stern told The Jewish Week in 2010, which was recently referenced in the Washington Post story about Netanyahu’s Cheltenham roots. “That’s what we talked about a lot.
“Not about politics, but the people and the land,” said Stern, who apparently still stays in touch with him. “He was my friend. And then one day in 1967, he just wasn’t there anymore.”
Bibi, we hardly knew ye.