Grapevine: Getting to the root of it all

For the opening plenary of the International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, the ballroom at the Ramada Jerusalem Hotel was packed to capacity.

July 7, 2015 20:13
FROM LEFT, Dalia Rabin, Tuvia Tsafir and Moshe Alon at launch for the late Robert Slater’s updated b

FROM LEFT, Dalia Rabin, Tuvia Tsafir and Moshe Alon at launch for the late Robert Slater’s updated book on Yitzhak Rabin.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

For the opening plenary of the International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, the ballroom at the Ramada Jerusalem Hotel was packed to capacity.

Let’s face it, even though genealogy is a relatively recent pursuit for most people, it’s really part of Jewish DNA. After all, the Bible has list upon list of who begat whom from generation to generation.

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This conference drew record attendance with 800 participants from more than 25 countries, said conference chairman Michael Goldstein. Registration started a week after the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, while the previous conference was winding up in Salt Lake City. Organizers did not expect to get any response in view of what was happening at the time in the Middle East. But 25 people signed up immediately and that gave them hope. Yet they never expected so great a turnout. Of the 800, some 300 were first time participants indicating that genealogical research is contagious. Sadly there were very few young people, even though it’s a given in Israeli schools that children are asked to do some form of genealogy project to trace the roots of their families and thus confirm that every classroom is emblematic of the nation’s melting pot society.

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■ GENEALOGY HAS in fact become big business as at least one of the younger people at the conference could testify. Gilad Japhet, the founder and CEO of MyHeritage, the key sponsor of the conference, is a hi-tech executive who turned a hobby into a passion, and a passion into a thriving start-up. The softy spoken Japhet started on a school genealogy project in 1982 when he was 13 years old. His teacher loved the result, especially the 40-page interview that he did with his mother about what it was like growing up in Petah Tikva in the 1930s. But the school project was not enough to satisfy his curiosity about his forebears.

At age 30, already doing fairly well in hi-tech, he asked his wife if she minded if he took six months off to devote himself to genealogical research. She gave him the green light. The software that he needed for his research was not yet available, and because of his background he was creating new programs as he went along.

In 2003, he asked his wife if he could found a genealogical start-up – and again she gave her consent. The beginning was difficult.

Genealogy had barely penetrated the software industry, and investors were reluctant to shell out money. Japhet used up all his savings, mortgaged his house and his car, and with the help of a colleague launched a start-up that was originally called Inbal, after his daughter. He worked at home for two years, but as the enterprise grew and he was able to find investors, his team expanded and he moved into an old Templar farm house. That too became inadequate as the team continued to increase, fueled by Japhet’s acquisition along the way of eight genealogy companies. Today, the team comprises 210 people.

Genealogy is a good business, said Japhet, who now has offices in Or Yehuda and Tel Aviv. He is particularly proud of the pro bono work done by his office for what he calls “mitzva projects” around the world – primarily for Holocaust survivors or their heirs or on Holocaust related issues. He has helped hundreds of people to regain assets looted by the Nazis.

One of his rewarding projects culminated in a recent gathering on the Greek island of Ereikoussa where several families during the Second World War hid a Jewish family from the Nazis by moving them around from house to house. Some of the descendants of the Greek rescuers wondered what had happened to this family after the war and asked for Japhet’s help. The problem was that they did not know the surname of the Jewish family – they knew only the first names. Yet despite all odds, Japhet succeeded in finding descendants in Israel and the United States including two brothers from Rehovot whose mother Rosa had been saved, but who never spoke of her wartime past. It was only when they and other relatives from Israel and the US went recently to Ereikoussa for a grand reunion with the Greek families that all the pieces in the puzzle fell into place.

Japhet is currently involved in another pro bono project that is digitizing the head stones on graves in all cemeteries in Israel. Working with volunteers, he has so far digitized the head stones in Holon, Segula, Yehud, Pardess Hanna and Rishon Lezion. He said that by 2017 the photographing and indexing of every grave in Israel’s 1,086 cemeteries will be complete.

He would appreciate more volunteers for the task, he said. All this material will be available free of charge to anyone and everyone doing genealogical research.

The keynote speaker at the opening plenum was Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who is chairman of Yad Vashem – Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority and a former chief rabbi of Israel.

When introducing Lau, Goldstein noting that Lau’s son David is now chief rabbi of Israel, said “The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.”

Lau corrected him and said: “The apple didn’t fall from the tree. It’s still connected to the tree.”

The explanation was that his son the chief rabbi calls him several times a day to seek his advice.

Explaining the importance of roots to even the most assimilated of Jews, Lau gave the example of Jewish surnames taken mainly from biblical sources with a change of suffix as the Jews wandered from one diaspora to another so that for instance what was originally Ben-Yaakov, became Jakobsohn, Jakubowski, Jakobishvili, Jacobson and Jacobi in Israel.

Roots are part of memory, he emphasized, citing the Passover Seder as an example.

Jews everywhere, regardless of affiliation, celebrate Passover to some degree, and remember that we were slaves in Egypt, he said. More observant Jews remember this every week when they recite the Shabbat Kiddush, Lau continued.

“The past goes with us. Whoever breaks with his past loses his identity,” he said.

Just as Japhet is engaged in photographing tombstones, so too is Yad Vashem, said Lau. Of the 6 million Jews who were murdered or who perished in the Holocaust, Yad Vashem has been able to document only 4.5 million names. Whole communities were wiped out and their records destroyed, said Lau, but very often, the tombstone of a relative will also contain the names of family members lost in the Holocaust and Yad Vashem volunteers photograph them in the hope of being able to add to the names already on record.

The name of each individual is important, said Lau.

“It’s not just a matter of who you are, but what your roots are.”

■ THERE ARE seldom more than 30 people present at a dedication ceremony marking the gift of a new ambulance to Magen David Adom. But when the Christian Friends of Israel who had come to an Open Skies conference, presented their ambulance at a ceremony in Jerusalem, there were 560 people from 22 countries. And they gave a lot more than just an ambulance.

Members of the group contributed more than 90 units of blood. The ambulance was donated at the initiative of Brother Sadhu Sundar Selvaraj of Angel TV, who came dressed in his long saffron robes. Many of the participants in the conference and the ceremony were from different parts of Asia. There seems to be a groundswell of support for Israel and Israeli causes among Christians in Asian countries.

The ambulance will be used in Safed and the North where medical services are not as readily available as in the Center.

■ ASSISTED BY hundreds of children from around the country, and Israel’s first lady of the stage and screen Gila Almagor, former president Shimon Peres last Thursday launched the wish tree for peace in the plaza of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque in tandem with the opening of the International Children’s Film Festival. The tree is part of an international Peace Tree project.

The children were encouraged to hang their wishes for peace on the branches of the tree throughout the school vacation period. Peres related to the violence in the region in particular the terrorist attack in Sinai, saying that radical Islam is harming the interests of Muslim countries and is attempting to do the same in Israel.

“The terrorist extremists are the enemies of us all,” he said, “meaning not just the whole region, but the whole world.”

For this reason he said, there must be a united front against terrorism. Looking at the children around him who came from different religious and ethnic backgrounds, Peres said that he was confident that they would help to bring about peace.

Among the children was seven-year-old Chanel Ifraimov, a special needs child from Sderot who inadvertently became a national celebrity at the beginning of last week. Her mother Tehila had sent invitations for Chanel’s birthday party to everyone in her class at school along with their parents. In the last minute, after the tables were set and the decorations were up, all the parents canceled, and a forlorn looking Chanel was left sitting among her balloons, sad that no one wanted to come to her party. Unable to bear the sight of her little girl looking so unhappy, Tehila posted a plea on Facebook, asking anyone who had the time and a child in Chanel’s age group to come.

“There’s no need to bring presents. Just come,” she wrote.

The message struck a chord and dozens of parents with children in tow, as well as kibbutzniks, members of both secular and religious youth movements, clowns and other good hearted people came bearing gifts and money. Chanel was somewhat overwhelmed by it all and needed a little comfort in her mother’s arms, but all the guests were thrilled that they had been able to make her day and that there many other people who had been moved in the same way.

■ AMONG THE members of a high ranking international delegation of B’nai B’rith that went to Rome to meet with Pope Francis and the Council of Cardinals was attorney Haim Katz, the chairman of the Jerusalem-based B’nai B’rith World Center.

The pope was extremely gracious and gave his blessing to the Jewish people. Katz presented him with a framed original newspaper report of the of Nostra Aetate declaration, formulated by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council that half a century ago revolutionized relations between the Catholic Church and people of other faiths, particularly the Jewish people. Members of the delegation thanked the pope for his strong stand against anti-Semitism.

■ LESS THAN two weeks after announcing his resignation from the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Avi Weiss is in Israel this week to commemorate his father Rabbi Dr. Moshe Weiss, who at age 96, died at his home in Jerusalem on June 8. Rabbi Moshe Weiss was born in Oswiecim, Poland, better known to the world as Auschwitz. Before the war, some two thirds of its population was Jewish. Moshe Weiss was one of 10 children, who together with his parents and six of his siblings and their families migrated to America before the war. Three of his siblings and their families remained in Poland and did not survive the Holocaust.

Moshe Weiss was among the first Jews to return to Poland to search for survivors not only from his own family, but Jews in general. He wrote movingly of that experience and his many subsequent visits to Poland.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, his brother Rabbi Mordechai Weiss of Alon Shvut, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat and Torah teacher Dr. Bryna Levy of Jerusalem will share reminiscences of Moshe Weiss at a shloshim remembrance evening at Yeshurun Central Synagogue in Jerusalem, this coming Thursday.

One of the reasons behind the resignation of Rabbi Avi Weiss from the RCA is their refusal to recognize the rabbis that he has ordained and their opposition to women taking a more central role in Jewish spiritual life to the extent of becoming rabbis themselves. While the Orthodox rabbinical leadership has recognized that women can study Torah and Talmud and even be accepted as pleaders in rabbinical courts, they are balking at the idea of women rabbis. Women have been serving as rabbis in Reform and Conservative congregations for some 40 years.

■ A PROMISE to a dying man resulted in the launch last week at the Daniel Hotel Herzliya of Rabin: 20 Years After. The book by celebrated journalist and author Robert Slater, who died in March 2014 after a long battle with cancer, was an update of a biography that Slater had written with former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s cooperation.

The updated version is based on more intense research and conversations with Rabin’s former colleagues, aides, political adversaries, family and friends.

The original book Rabin of Israel – Warrior for Peace had been published in May 1993, 18 months before Rabin’s assassination by Yigal Amir, whose name has resurfaced in the media due to a controversial documentary film about him.

Slater’s revised biography of Rabin was his final project. The updates were completed only a few weeks before The Jerusalem Post and Jerusalem Report contributor’s death. Kotarim International publisher Moshe Alon had pledged to Slater that he would continue to go ahead with the project that had been so important to him in the twilight of his life.

Elinor Slater, who had worked on several book projects with her husband, spoke of how important this one was to him and voiced her appreciation for the fact that it had come to fruition.

The late prime minister’s daughter, Dalia Rabin, said that this was the first and only biography about her father that had been written with his cooperation. This was very uncharacteristic of her father, she said, because he had never given much thought to leaving a legacy, but the chemistry between Slater and her father had been such that the book was able to come to be.

The launch included a panel discussion moderated by former Jerusalem Post and Jerusalem Report editor-in-chief David Horovitz who is now the founding editor of The Times of Israel. Following Rabin’s assassination, Horovitz co-wrote The Jerusalem Report’s prize winning book Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin that was published in 12 countries and won the US National Jewish Book Award for Non-Fiction. Participants in the panel were Prof. Amnon Rubinstein, who had served as a minister in the Rabin-led government and Prof. Gabriela Shalev, a former Israel ambassador to the United Nations. While the three were not always on the same page as to how the situation on the ground would look today if Rabin had not been assassinated, they did concur that even though there might not have been peace there would have been more hope than there is at present.

■ YET ANOTHER break in the glass ceiling was the swearing in ceremony in Australia last week of Linda Dessau as the first Jewish and first female governor of Victoria, although there have been two Jewish governors general of Australia. The first was Sir Isaac Isaacs, who in 1931 became not only the first Jewish but first Australian born governor general, and the second was Sir Zelman Cowen, who served from December 1977 to July 1982. Both men were legal experts. Isaacs distinguished himself as a judge and Cowen in academia.

■ ALSO IN the State of Victoria is the upcoming visit by Australia’s Ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma, who on July 21 will share his impressions of Israel with members of Melbourne’s Jewish community at an event co-hosted by the Zionist Council of Victoria, the Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal and the Zionist Federation of Australia. Sharma has the distinction of being Australia’s youngest ambassador ever.

Since presenting his credentials to then president Shimon Peres in August 2013, Sharma has been active in many spheres and not only those of a bilateral nature.

A keen athlete himself, Sharma attended the 2013 Maccabiah Games even before presenting his credentials. He took pride in seeing wheelchair ace tennis player Adam Kellerman win the first two gold medals for the Australian team.

As a father of three young children, he was quick to voice concern about parents leaving children in locked cars, especially in the heat of the long Israeli summer.

He has met with Australian trade and academic delegations, hosted Australian musicians at his residence, attended Australian film festivals, donated blood at Hadassah Medical Center, participated in athletic events, attended briefings of the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization and visited the Save a Child’s Heart Facility at Holon’s Wolfson Medical Center where he met with doctors, patients and their parents from around the world. He hosted a delegation from the Society of the Heritage World War I, presided over Anzac Day commemorations in Jerusalem and Light Horse commemorations in Beersheba, launched Israel’s One Million Hands For a Peace Agreement campaign, participated in Holocaust remembrance ceremonies, visited injured Syrians who are being treated in Israel and even attended the first National Convention of Indian Jews in Israel. Although not Jewish himself, Sharma is of Indian descent on his father’s side.

The above represents just a small fragment of his activities, so he will have much to tell to an eager audience down under.

■ LISTENERS TO the interesting Internet interviews on Voice of Israel, in which both interviewers and interviewees have included Jerusalem Post writers such as Gil Hoffman and Ruthie Blum, should be aware that it’s not going to be a free service for much longer. According to VoI CEO Glen Ladau, there will be a metered paywall.

Without registering, listeners can listen free of charge to five broadcasts per month.

Listeners will receive two weeks of unrestricted use upon registration. After the two weeks, they can either become paid subscribers or revert back to five free broadcasts per month. The cost of the subscription is $5.89 per month, or $58.90 annually (pay for 10 months, get two free). This translates to less than $5 per month, or approximately NIS 18 per month, Voice of Israel provides more than 130 hours of fresh, new content each month.

■ THERE WERE a lot of dual nationals at the American Independence Day reception hosted last week by US Ambassador Dan Shapiro and his wife, Julie Fisher, on what was actually Canada Day, which Shapiro publicly acknowledged. At least one of the guests was not just a dual national but a triple national. David Weinberg, who writes a regular column for The Jerusalem Post is an American, Canadian and Israeli citizen, and as such was celebrating both American Independence Day and Canada Day. He was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to a Canadian mother, grew up mostly in Toronto and immigrated to Israel 25 years ago. Professionally, he also holds a triple header: He has represented the US Jewish community in Israel (Anti-Defamation League); the Canadian Jewish community in Israel (Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs); and worked for the Government of Israel (as senior adviser to then deputy prime minister Natan Sharansky, and as coordinator of the Global Forum against Anti-Semitism in the Prime Minister’s Office). His son, Dovi, who was with him at the reception, was being compensated for missing the previous year’s reception.

Dovi was supposed to accompany his father last year, but was called up on reserve duty with the Givati Brigade to fight in the Gaza conflict. This year, he said, he “closed the circle” by joining the hundreds of other merry makers on the ambassador’s lawn.

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