Bella Lewensohn Schafer Recalls Her Service in War for Israeli Independence

Bella Lewensohn Schafer
Bella Lewensohn Schafer in her Center City Home (Selah Maya Zighelboim)

In the 1840s, Moishe Zvi Lewensohn heard that the Messiah would soon come, and he moved to a small piece of land in the Middle East — then called Palestine under Turkish rule — to await the arrival.

He never saw the Messiah, but a century later, his great-great-granddaughter helped transform that small piece of the Middle East into a country for the Jewish people.

Bella Lewensohn Schafer, 90, served as a sharpshooter and an officer in charge of a battalion of women during the Israeli War of Independence.

Getting married, having children — those were once-in-a-lifetime occasions, but fighting for Israel’s independence was more than that, she said.

“I’m part of Israel history,” said Schafer, a member of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel and an honorary member of Congregation Rodeph Shalom.

Schafer was born in Israel in 1928, so when the war against British rule broke out, she was 20 years old.

But her participation in Israeli independence began before her military involvement, when she was a young teenager. She grew up in Jerusalem, and helped the war effort by transporting weapons with other girls in her youth group. They would hide grenades in their clothes and transport them on the bus. There were few weapons in the early days of the Israeli military, so they had to be careful with anything they got their hands on.

“It was very unsophisticated, and we had to be very careful of the British,” Schafer recalled. “It was a very secretive, underground type of a thing.”

a black and white photo of Bella Lewensohn Schafer and otherwomen soldiers lining u
Bella Lewensohn Schafer (front row, second from left) during her time in the Israeli army (Photo courtesy of Deborah Schafer)

When Schafer joined the army, she was sent to an officers training to be put in charge of a group of women in the war effort.

At first, women and men served in two different armies, then the women’s group was dissolved and attached to the men’s group.

When she first approached the men’s camp in her role as an officer, she was met with skepticism. Schafer was a “little, somewhat chubby girl,” she said, and the men were unused to having women in their camps.

She met a group of men sitting outside and asked to see their commander. They pointed to her gun and asked her if she could use it. Then they asked her to prove it by shooting a bottle. She did.

Sharpshooting was always something she was good at.

The war, Schafer said, “was awful. That’s all there is to it. It was really awful, and we, the women, behaved just like the men. We shot, we lay on the ground and shot the Arabs coming up.”

One of her responsibilities during the war was taking supplies to her soldiers stationed at Mount Zion. It was a dangerous task, because Arab soldiers would shoot at them, so she had to bring the supplies at night during new moons.

“Jerusalem was under siege, and it was really, really hard,” Schafer said.

Schafer has a Hebrew-language book about women’s role in the fight for independence, but she is in few of the photos. Instead, she was usually the photographer.

She always loved photography.

When she was a teenager, her brother sent her a Kodak camera and supplies to develop photos. She turned a hallway in her house into a darkroom. After the war, photography was something that continued, at various times, to be a passion and a hobby.

When the war ended, she returned to school, where she studied Jewish history while still serving in the military. But she didn’t graduate.

In 1949, she met Stephen Schafer.

She had gone to Haifa with her family to pick up her cousin, who was coming to Israel by boat after having spent some time in the United States. The cousin was there with Stephen Schafer, who had come to Israel to study Hebrew so he could become a Reform rabbi.

Stephen Schafer went back to Jerusalem with the Lewensohn family, who found him a place to stay. He would come by often for Shabbat dinners. Bella Schafer was still in the army, so she wasn’t living at home, but she would also come by for Shabbat at times.

The two eventually grew close and decided to marry. At first, Bella Schafer said, his family was resistant to the idea of him marrying an Israeli.

“They were Reform Jews, so they were afraid,” Schafer said. “But then my father, whose English was very good, he spoke to them and they relaxed, once they heard my father and who he was and what he was doing, and that I didn’t come for money or anything else. It was love.”

When he moved back to the United States, Bella Schafer moved with him. Her intention was always to come back to Israel; in fact, she promised her parents that very thing, but wasn’t able to come back for several years, when her mother died.

The young couple first arrived in Philadelphia where Stephen Schafer’s family lived.

Then they headed out to Cincinnati, where her husband went to rabbinical college. There, she volunteered for the school’s library and eventually became a librarian.

Stephen Schafer’s first rabbinical appointment was in Toledo, Ohio, where the family lived for the next seven years. Then, they moved to Allentown, where Bella Schafer spent the next decade, until the two got divorced in the early ’70s.

Mort Prince, Bella Lewensohn Schafer and friend Sandrine Erdely-Sayo
From left: Mort Prince, Bella Lewensohn Schafer and friend Sandrine
Erdely-Sayo sit beneath a rug made by Schafer’s mother, Fruma Lewensohn. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Schafer)

She moved to Philadelphia and went back to school, where she spent the next three years working toward her bachelor’s and master’s in social work at Temple University.

“I worked very, very hard, and I worked,” Schafer said. “I taught. I taught at Temple. I taught at the University of Pennsylvania. I taught at Gratz College as soon as I came here.”

She taught Hebrew and Jewish history. Over the years, she has also held positions as director of adult services at the Gershman Y, and as a supervisor for the city. She also has run her own family therapy practice.

She continued teaching until about 15 years ago when she met her partner, Mort Prince. The two of them, she said, are “more than married.”

With him, she has made trips to Israel every few months. Traveling, in general, has been another thing she has enjoyed during her life.

“I love to travel, and it’s a lot of fun,” Schafer said. “I have found a lot of fun in traveling on my own, meeting people on my own. I’m a gregarious type of a person.”

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