It's home, sweet home, indeed, for the Gonens of Cherry Hill

They are children of Holocaust survivors. The memories are especially poignant at holiday time.

Posted: September 15, 2012

Home is the sweetest of words for Abraham "Avi" Gonen and his wife, Raya. Both have known the displacement of the Nazi Holocaust as children of Jewish survivors who grew up with a deep understanding of what Judaism had cost their parents.

As Jews around the world prepare for the Jewish New Year, which begins at sundown on Sunday, the Cherry Hill couple sat in their sun-splashed family room and remembered other times.

The survival of Raya Gonen's Lithuanian mother was thanks to a brave Christian family in that war-torn country who sheltered the Jewish teenager. Posing as a Catholic girl, complete with a cross around her neck, she spent five years in the same home where several Nazi soldiers had forced their way in, but never learned of her true identity.

At war's end, after losing nearly everyone in her family, Raya's mother met and married a Jewish partisan who wept when he learned her story. When the family ultimately emigrated to Israel as refugees in 1957, they began life there in a desert hut that had no electricity, no heat except for a kerosene heater, and no indoor plumbing.

"Any step up felt like a palace to me," Raya recalled.

Avi Gonen's father was minutes away from being loaded onto a cattle car headed for the Auschwitz concentration camp when a Nazi soldier who admired his tailoring skills pulled him out of line, declaring that his sewing ability was "crucial to the war effort." Gonen's father and several other Jewish tailors would spend their war years in the basement of a factory, emerging when the war was over.

"It was remarkable that an enemy army officer would save Jewish lives," said Gonen. That Nazi officer's name was later added to the list of the Righteous Among Nations at Israel's Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem.

So both Raya, once a top Israeli fashion model and now a celebrated opera singer and member of the music faculty at Muhlenberg College, and Avi, a professor of optometry and associate dean and director of global development for Salus University in Elkins Park, have reasons to be grateful for the blessing of living freely as Jews in the United States.

Their contemporary Cherry Hill home, purchased in 1996 in an enclave of 50 homes, is filled with treasures that reflect both Avi's extensive world travels and Raya's love of light and bringing the outdoors in.

An open area that yokes together family room, kitchen, and cozy solarium is lit by windows free of covering. That means that views of an expansive and exceptional garden are present in all seasons.

In the family-room area, with its sweep of sand-colored tile, is a sumptuous blue-green leather couch stretched out near a stone fireplace with a huge brass former tabletop from Morocco as its unusual adornment. A pass-through set of glass shelves from family room to dining room holds accessories and art objects from far-flung places, including Lithuania, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.

Judaica, much of it silver, including a Hanukkah menorah and a whimsical detailed metal depiction of a fiddler on the roof, is displayed on a nearby table.

The modern mood continues in the dining room, with its Italian-style contemporary table crafted of glass, pewter, and wood, surrounded by high-back black leather chairs, also with pewter trim.

"We like simplicity, lots of glass, and a soft color palette," Raya explains. "And luckily, we agree on most things about design."

That penchant for subtle design is evident in the formal living room, with its pale beige sofas, glass-topped coffee table and show-stopping abstract painting of a table setting, a piece that introduces splashes of color into the otherwise neutral setting.

Across from the living room is what Raya calls her "sanctuary," the place where she escapes from distractions and practices her singing almost daily. It is her at-home music studio with piano, desk, sofas, and posters of her many performances, including one at Carnegie Hall in 1998 in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Israel's founding.

A current and passionate music project focuses on Raya Gonen's "Singing for Survival: From Holocaust to Hope," her one-woman live performance of music written by victims and survivors of the Holocaust. She hopes to transform the piece, created in honor of her parents, into a one-hour video documentary in order to share its message with a wider audience.

"I see music as a triumph of the human soul over the forces of evil," says Gonen, who is working with veteran Philadelphia producer Henry Nevison to fund the project.

Some of the Gonens' best thinking and planning takes place outdoors.

"In our first years here, we had created an indoors we enjoyed," says Avi, "but the outdoors was definitely less interesting." That changed drastically in 2006, when Avi masterminded the transformation of what had been simply grass, shrubs, and a modest wooden deck in their expansive backyard.

Now, three distinct areas include a raised section with a marble built-in table that can seat 16, and is perfect for large gatherings; a massive outdoor grill and preparation area; and a small private arbor toward the back of the yard with several towering trees and abundant shrubs. Flowers are everywhere, including in a huge urn overflowing with bursts of color, from lilac to reds and yellows.

So for this Jewish couple, and their children and grandchildren, home is a beautiful and safe haven. Perhaps its meaning to the Gonens is best summed up in a delicate flowered ceramic wall piece just off the kitchen, written in Hebrew, that loosely translates into this basic prayer:

"Bless this home and keep its inhabitants safe and free from harm."   

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