Pittsburgher recalls mysterious trip to Israel 50 years ago
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Clandestine mission'I was a tool'

Pittsburgher recalls mysterious trip to Israel 50 years ago

Leonard Felman says he was called to the Jewish state to assist the IDF in 1969. He did not know the purpose of his work there until three years ago.

Leonard Felman (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
Leonard Felman (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

The Jewish Chronicle clipping from Dec. 19, 1969, is yellowed and a bit tattered now. But Leonard Felman, 84, continues to hold onto that article that reports on his trip to Israel, 50 years ago this month, during which he helped set up several hearing clinics along with his colleague, Dr. William Lippy of Warren, Ohio.

The trouble, said Felman, who still lives half the year in Pittsburgh and the other half in Florida, is that the entire article is false.

In fact, a search of the Chronicle archives shows no other article was ever published by “Chronicle Staff Writer” Shandel Bat Shmuel, whose byline is on the piece.

“I have a very good memory and I never heard of her,” said former Chronicle editor Joel Roteman, who worked at the paper from 1966 to 2001. “It sounds like a made-up name.”

Roteman, who was a Chronicle writer in 1969, has no memory of the article about Felman, or how or why it appeared in the paper.

Felman, however, does have a theory about how that article got placed in the Jewish Chronicle, a theory that could form the plot of a Tom Clancy thriller: He believes someone from the Israeli embassy planted the piece in the Chronicle to cover for Felman’s true, clandestine mission in the Jewish state — a mission that was not even clear to Felman until about three years ago.

Now retired from a multi-faceted career that included sound technology as well as running a linen and diaper company, Felman reflected back on another role he played in the 1950s and 1960s — as a “pawn,” as he puts it, for the Israel Defense Forces.

Specifically, Felman believes that he may have been instrumental to the Jewish state’s success during a covert operation now known as Rooster 53, a mission carried out with helicopters during the War of Attrition with Egypt.

Felman explained that he had been groomed from an early age to work covertly for Israel by David Glick, a Pittsburgh attorney who is credited with saving more than 90,000 Jews from Nazi Germany through his work with the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. An expert negotiator, Glick acted as a liaison in Germany in 1936 between Jewish communities there and the Nazi regime. His work in arranging for the safe immigration of thousands of Jews to South America is documented in the Rauh Jewish Archives.

Glick served as attorney for Felman’s family, and was also a close friend to Felman’s parents. It was through his connection to Glick that, in 1956, Felman was assigned to work with a high-profile American diplomat in Israel on a secret mission.

Felman was just 21, he said, when during a family vacation in Rome, he was separated from his parents and taken to Israel to work for that diplomat.

“I had been prepped for such a mission,” recalled Felman. “I had excellent credentials through ROTC and the military, and I worked with him closely for an entire month. I was a tool.”

While Felman does not recall too many details from that 1956 mission, he believes it was in preparation for the Six Day War, which would occur 11 years later, and which the Israelis anticipated, because the 99-year lease of the Suez Canal would expire in 1968, he said.

“When I left, (the diplomat) ordered me not to make contact with him. He told me think of myself as a pawn in a chess game,” recalled Felman.

Although Felman thought his work with the IDF was over when he left the 1956 mission, he was wrong.

In December 1969, Felman was living in Pittsburgh, married, had a 14-month-old child and was expecting to adopt another child through Jewish Family and Children’s Service that month. He was running his family’s linen and diaper service as well as Beltone, which specialized in noise and sound control.

Felman said that on Dec. 2, he received a telephone call from Dr. William Lippy, a customer of Beltone whom he had never before met. Lippy, an ear, nose and throat physician in Warren, Ohio, told Felman that he needed to be at Lippy’s home for dinner on Dec. 3.

The Jewish Chronicle. Dec. 19,1969.

“It was extremely unusual,” said Felman. “It had been 13 years since I left that mission in Israel. But Dr. Lippy used the words ‘it is extremely important for the IDF.’”

The next day, Felman drove to Lippy’s home in Warren — about 16 miles northeast of Youngstown, Ohio — where he was introduced to a handler from the IDF. The handler told Felman he was “needed in Israel immediately,” Felman recalled.

Lippy, 94, now lives in Florida. He does not remember that dinner with Felman, but he does remember a doctor in Warren who lived with him for about six months and who had the same last name as the IDF handler that Felman recalled.

While Lippy remembers visiting Israel in 1969, “it had nothing to do with the IDF,” he said, speaking by phone from his home in Boca Raton. “I met with Israeli doctors and taught them a procedure to restore hearing. I was an ear doctor. I had nothing to do with the IDF.”

Contrary to the reporting of “Shandel Bat Shmuel” in the Dec. 19, 1969 Chronicle, Lippy also said he did not establish any speech and hearing clinics in Israel that month, or ever.

Felman was reluctant to leave for Israel in December 1969, as he and his wife, Doni, were getting ready to move to a new house and were expecting to adopt their child in the next couple of weeks. He asked his IDF handler if he could go to Israel in January instead, but the handler insisted he be in the Jewish state by the end of the week.

“He never told me why,” said Felman. “And I didn’t get the full reason until 40 years later.”

Felman was told to bring with him his best sound and noise control meter and his file on Dampatin, a sound control substance he had created from diaper lint, which is extremely absorbent. The product was the consistency of Jell-O, was difficult to handle and was ultimately deemed not to be viable for sale, according to Felman.

When Felman told Doni he was headed to Israel, she was “shocked he was leaving,” Doni recalled. “But he told me he had to go and he couldn’t send anyone else.”

Shortly after he arrived in Tel Aviv, Doni called to tell him she had just been notified that the baby would be arriving within a week and that he needed to be back in Pittsburgh to pick her up.

Felman called his handler and explained to him the dilemma.

“I needed an excuse why I was not in Pittsburgh,” Felman said. “I needed a reason why I was not going to be there and he said he would take care of it.”

Felman suspects that the IDF handler arranged for the Israeli embassy to place the Dec. 19, 1969, article in the Chronicle to serve as an alibi for his presence in Israel and his inability to come back to Pittsburgh to receive his new child.

“Doni starts getting calls a week or two later about the article,” Felman recalled. “She reads me what the article said. My picture was in the paper. I had been in Israel for a week and half and I had not been near an Israeli hospital.”

Instead, Felman was “taken to one air field after another,” he said. “I looked at the helicopters. I knew that whatever they were doing was in part to silence the helicopters.”

Although he explained to the Israelis that he had never sold Dampatin because it was liquid and hard to manage, they were persistent in urging Felman to come up with a way to pack it in a helicopter. They also sought his advice on other ways to quiet sound.

He eventually suggested using sea sponges to contain the Dampatin, and also told the Israelis that “one of the ways to get rid of a noise is with a louder noise, to mask the noise. Masking is every bit as effective as silencing if you can get a reason for the noise.”

Felman now believes “that’s exactly what they ended up doing.”

Although he was never provided with the reasons for his 1969 trip to Israel, he is convinced that it was to help the Israelis figure out how to silence helicopters for Rooster 53, a mission he had not even heard of until about three years ago when he happened to see an episode about it on the Military History Channel.

Rooster 53 was an operation by the IDF during the War of Attrition, which raged along the Suez Canal following the Six Day War until a ceasefire in 1970, according to the Jewish Virtual Library. The Soviets supported the Egyptian military during the War of Attrition with equipment, including newer radars. Israel sought to capture the radars through Rooster 53 — named for the helicopters used in the mission — carried out on Dec. 26, 1969.

“A-4 Skyhawks and F-4 Phantoms began attacking Egyptian forces along the western bank of the Suez canal and Red Sea,” according the Jewish Virtual Library. “Hidden by the noise of the attacking jets, three Aerospatiale Super Frelons, carrying Israeli paratroopers, made their way west towards their target.”

Paratroopers surprised the security detail at the radar installation and quickly took control of the site. Two helicopters were loaded with the radar equipment, then crossed the Red Sea to Israeli controlled territory. The radar was studied thoroughly and provided the IAF with new countermeasures against the Egyptian air defenses, “removing a threat to Israeli air superiority over the Suez Canal.”

Because Felman’s claims date back 50 years, the IDF could not immediately verify them, according to the IDF’s North American spokesperson. Felman’s story, though, is not beyond the realm of possibility.

“At times throughout its history, including the pre-state period underthe British Mandate, Israel has occasionally drawn upon the expertise or resources of Jews in the Diaspora to help meet specific operational challenges,” explained Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg, a historian of the modern Middle East and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Eli Sperling, senior academic research coordinator at the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel at Emory University, agreed.

“In terms of specific examples of the post-1948 period, there are numerous examples of the American Jewish community providing support to Israel — political support, through fundraising, and through military service, including to both intelligence and combat units,” Sperling noted. “There was a regular exchange between the American Jewish community and many aspects of state-building in Israel, including in the military.”

Felman’s story could “absolutely fit into the larger framework between American Jewry and Israel,” Sperling continued. “The difference is, I don’t know of other people who were surreptitiously taken to Israel with only a foggy understanding of why. But interactions between American Jews and Israelis were not uncommon at all, and it is not out of the ordinary to imagine the Mossad reaching out to Americans.”

Felman vividly recalls his flight back to the States when he was finally allowed to leave Israel and go home to his family. He was picked up in the early morning hours of Dec. 23 by his handler and taken to the airport in Tel Aviv.

Once at the airport, Felman was transferred to another car and taken to a remote area where he saw an El Al plane, “surrounded by men and jeeps.”

“I get on the plane, and it looks like any other plane, but the front part of the plane, normally where the first class is, is heavily blocked by what looks like leather and zippers,” Felman recalled. He was seated in the back of the plane, along with only seven or eight other passengers.

After about an hour “the zipper comes full length, and Yitzhak Rabin (then Israeli ambassador to the U.S.) walks out,” Felman said. “He stops and talks to the first two people in front of me on the plane, and then he comes to me, and said, ‘Mr. Felman, the prime minister and I want to say thank you.’”

After he got back to Pittsburgh, Doni remembers her husband saying, “You wouldn’t believe who I flew home with.”

“I said, ‘You wouldn’t believe what’s going on here,’” Doni recalled.

She remains “very proud” of her husband.

“I think he is very creative,” Doni said. “It doesn’t surprise me some of the things he’s done helping Israel. I’m still not certain how everything comes into play.” pjc

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at
ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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