Obituary: Eli Benson

Transformative, energetic UK Chief of MDA, Israel's only ambulance service


Best known as the charismatic head of Magen David Adom UK, Israel’s sole national medical emergency service, Eli Benson has died from cancer aged 76. During his 19 year tenure, he transformed the charity’s fortunes from a modest organisation to a multi-million pound operation through legendary dinners and other fundraising initiatives.

Many remember him for his flair for mentoring and describe him as “the wind beneath their wings.” I remember his warmth, his charming, eccentric humour and interest in his family.

The youngest of six children Eli was born in Bombay (Mumbai) to parents originally from Aden (Yemen) while it was a British annex. They left because of growing unrest and frequent pogroms against the Jews. Eli was sent to Bishop school, a military boarding school in Puna – described as the Eton of India – at the tender age of eight. He was happy there, enjoying cricket and hockey, the outdoor activities offered by the Scouts, and achieving Junior Bantamweight in boxing. Due to his numerical acumen he was nominated treasurer. When cruelly taunted with the nick name “Shylock”, Eli responded with humour and unabashed charm, reminding them that he was an accomplished boxer and that Jesus was Jewish.

At the age of 14 he sailed with his mother to London to live with an aunt. He attended Robert Montefiori school and achieved a few diplomas including one in marketing and an HNC in business studies. Rifling through years of paperwork, I found school exam results with scores of between 90-100 per cent as well as an aptitude test report produced in 1970 (he would have been 29 years old) by the Vocational Guidance Association.

His first job was at Stepney Borough Council as a local government officer, followed by work with an import/export company and a stint in retail. It is said when the owner was away he sold all the old stock deemed “impossible to shift,” raising thousands of pounds of revenue for his elated boss.

In 1972 at the age of 30 he joined YPZ (Young Poale Zion) and became its secretary (mazkir). From there he went to JIA (former Joint Israel Appeal)and by 1990 he was appointed Campaigns Director at World Jewish Relief heading the Central British Fund. He contributed to the covert military Operation Solomon to airlift Ethiopian Jews to Israel and helped negotiate the exit of Bosnian Jews during the armed conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995.

In 1999 he joined Magen David Adom UK (MDA) and as CEO he raised millions of pounds for the charity. After retiring the worked as a charity consultant and volunteered for the Barnet advocacy, but he remained committed to MDA to the end. He attended the dedication of the 11th ambulance funded through the efforts of Norman Rosenbaum and Cockfosters Synagogue. Poignantly, he asked friends to donate to MDA rather than give him a birthday present on what was to be his last birthday. He is survived by his wife Anita, sons Gideon, Doron, Alon and Eytan, daughter-in-law Bruria and five grandchildren.



Eli Benson: born June 14, 1942. Died September 16, 2018



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