Grapevine: A Singapore-Hon Kong alliance

An alliance was formed in Jerusalem on Sunday, between one of the most prominent Jewish families in Singapore and one of the leading Jewish families in Hong Kong.

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October 28, 2014 22:20
Reuven Rivlin.

President Reuven Rivlin. . (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

 
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An alliance was formed in Jerusalem on Sunday, between one of the most prominent Jewish families in Singapore and one of the leading Jewish families in Hong Kong, through the wedding of Cherie Rachel Sassoon to Philippe Albert Bera.

The bride, a psychologist, is the daughter of Victor and Michelle Sassoon of Singapore; the groom is the son of Raymond and Nicetta Bera of Hong Kong. The Bera family also has a strong connection to Switzerland, with guests coming from there, Singapore, Hong Kong, the US and many points elsewhere.

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The henna took place at Bayit Al Hayam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and about a dozen buses were used on Thursday to transport guests from the capital’s Waldorf Astoria to the henna festivities. Plans did not go entirely as scheduled, as the heavy Thursday traffic impeded progress; guests who came from the Dan region arrived well ahead of those traveling from Jerusalem.

On Saturday, the festivities moved to the David Citadel Hotel where a synagogue was set up for the wedding guests, who after the service were served a lavish luncheon. On Sunday, buses were again used to transport guests from the Waldorf Astoria to the Olmaya banquet halls on the capital’s Haas Promenade.

If the elegantly coiffed and attired women at the henna looked like they had just walked out of Vogue, what they chose to wear to the wedding was even more spectacular. Unlike most Israelis, people in other countries still dress up to go to weddings, and some of the women’s form-fitting dresses with long, fishtail trains looked as if they had come straight out of Hollywood, while the men looked debonair in their tuxedos, black bow ties and patent leather shoes. In fact, the whole wedding had an old world Hollywood ambiance, though the groom’s father gave it a more romantic description, calling it a true fairytale wedding.

And indeed it was. Olmaya, which overlooks the Old City panorama, was the location for the bridal ceremony but not the reception and dinner – which was back at the Waldorf Astoria, where many of the guests were also staying. In fact, the hundreds of guests who flew in from abroad did much to boost occupancy rates in Jerusalem’s luxury hotels. Victor Sassoon did not forget to thank them for their efforts and expense in rejoicing with the family at the wedding.

Philippe Bera is heir to Omtis, the fine wine distributor which brings many wine connoisseurs to Hong Kong. The Bera family also owns considerable residential and commercial property. The groom has a background in banking and worked for several years in Switzerland before joining the family business. He and his bride had dreamed for months of showing Israel, particularly their beloved Jerusalem, to family and friends – but with Operation Protective Edge, it seemed their wish to walk down the aisle in the Holy City would not be realized. They spent days and nights glued to the television screen, wondering how long the hostilities would last.

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In the interim, they went through a civil ceremony in Switzerland on August 26. As they were walking out of the marriage office, they received an SMS that a cease-fire had been declared, and thus arrangements could go ahead for the religious ceremony in Jerusalem.

The groom, in addition to being an astute businessman, is also a young philanthropist who sits on the boards of United Israel Appeal and the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Center, and actively supports several other causes including Community Chest and the Hong Kong Cancer Fund. The latter has been a longtime beneficiary of the Bera family’s philanthropy.

The bride’s father, Victor Sassoon, has been named by Forbes as one of the 40 richest people in Singapore, and is known as the coffee king of Asia, having revolutionized the coffee shop business in Asia and the US through The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf chain, which he owns in partnership with his brother Sunny and Severin Wunderman, a Belgian- American.

The Sassoon family, once known as the Rothschilds of the East, like the Rothschilds developed branches in several countries; also like the Rothschilds, their manifold business interests include banking, albeit not the Singapore branch of the family. Before entering the coffee business, Victor Sassoon was an importer of luxury watches and a concert promoter who brought top-of-the-line entertainers to Singapore.

The wedding ceremony, conducted by Rabbi Mordechai Abergel of Singapore, featured rabbis from his native country, Hong Kong, Israel and New York serving as witnesses and reciters of the seven blessings; among them was eminent Kabbalist Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Hillel. Though most of the rabbis present seemed to be from the bride’s side, Rabbi Asher Oser, leader of the Ohel Leah synagogue in Hong Kong, was definitely from the groom’s side.

Because there were so many non-Jewish guests, most of them Asian, Singapore-based venture capitalist and investment consultant Yishai Klein, who travels all over Asia, was the master of ceremonies; he explained each detail of the marriage service.

Guests sat inside the building, while the actual marriage took place outside. The bridal canopy was decorated with masses of white flowers and greenery, and lining the long aisle was what looked like a whole garden of baby’s breath. There were bridesmaids, groomsmen, gorgeous little flower girls in white dresses and capes, and cute little pageboys in tailored suits and urchin caps. Singer Yossi Azulay serenaded the guests and then came the petite bride, who wore a stunning full-skirted lace gown and a long, trailing veil with an embroidered lace finish. The service was conducted in accordance with Baghdad tradition, but once the groom had broken the glass, the music changed and the melodies were Ashkenazi.

The two fathers of the bridal couple delivered similar messages about the need for husband and wife to treat each other with dignity, mutual respect and sensitivity.

The mother of the bride was responsible for all the wedding details, and her love for flowers – a given among Singaporeans – was evident in the Waldorf Astoria’s reception hall and especially in the banquet hall, where numerous clusters of pastel-colored roses and orchids decorated the mirror- surfaced tables; garlands of roses decorated the bridal table.

There were also scores of candles in different sizes, adding to the romance and charm of the occasion.

The Waldorf Astoria pulled out all the stops and for the reception, produced a huge variety of buffets featuring East/West cuisine to satisfy all tastes. There were so many guests that there was barely room for the many waiters and waitresses to move during the dinner.

A brass band heralded the arrival of the bride and groom and nearly everyone began to dance with them and around them, proving that mitzva dances are universal.

Once the dinner got underway, the music changed, first to a slow melody as the bride and groom danced together, after which they were joined by their parents and gradually, other family members and guests. Then the music went into a frenzy, the dance floor filling with merrymakers energetically enjoying themselves.

The bride and groom met less than two years ago, when the groom went to Singapore on his final banking assignment. He hadn’t been looking for romance, he said, but as soon as he laid eyes on Cherie Sassoon, he knew he had met the love of his life.

“You are just one individual in the world,” he said, “but you are my whole world.”

■ MORE THAN 500 Russian-speaking Jews gathered in Huntsville, Ontario over the weekend for the inaugural Limmud FSU conference in Canada.

Founded eight years ago by Chaim Chesler, former treasurer of the Jewish Agency, and New York philanthropist Sandra Cahn, to serve young Russian-speaking Jews around the world, Limmud FSU has brought together thousands of Jewish young adults of Russian heritage in the former Soviet Union, as well as in countries with Russian speakers around the world.

Attendees heard from distinguished guests, including Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat, Canadian MP Irwin Cotler, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Limmud FSU chairman Matthew Bronfman.

Taking place just after the two deadly terror attacks in Canada last week, both Livnat and Cotler addressed security and terrorism in their remarks. “I salute the prime minister of Canada on his strong support of Israel. The recent terrorist event in Ottawa was not only directed against the Canadian Parliament. It was also directed against the democracies of the free world,” said Livnat.

Cotler said the country needs to toughen security measures against terrorism while preserving the nation’s democratic freedoms.

“Canada is a country that takes pride in its openness, freedom and democracy, but at this point, the Canadian government needs to take the right measures to ensure it remains not only peaceful but also secured in a way that we combat the threats. Security has to be expanded, but not at the expense of freedom. We need to protect democracy, but also to protect our citizens.”

This was the first time the global conference for Russian-speaking Jews was being held in Canada, home to about 330,000 Jews, including an estimated 70,000- plus Russian speakers, many in the Greater Toronto area.

■ NOVEMBER, WHICH begins at the end of the week, is rife with important dates.

From the Jewish perspective, the most important dates – in no particular order – are the Balfour Declaration, Montgomery’s defeat of field marshal Erwin Rommel in the Battle of El Alamein, the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Kristallnacht, the death of singing rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the signing of the 1973 cease-fire between Egypt and Israel, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Israel, the commencement of the Nuremberg war crimes trials and the anniversary of the UN vote on the partition of Palestine.

Beyond events of specifically Jewish and Israeli interest were the election of Abraham Lincoln as America’s first Republican president and his subsequent Gettysburg Address; Russia’s launch of Sputnick II, the first inhabited space capsule; the crowning of King Juan Carlos of Spain; the start of the EU; the Gunpowder Plot, now known as Guy Fawkes Day; the opening of the Berlin Wall, after standing for 28 years as a symbol of the Cold War; the opening of the Suez Canal; South Africa’s new constitution after 300 years of white majority rule; and the births of an incredible number of world leaders, including Winston Churchill and Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann.

But the most important round-number anniversary this year is related to Armistice Day, which brought World War I to an end. World War I erupted 100 ago; each year, the British Embassy holds an annual Remembrance Day Service at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Ramle to mark the end of World War I hostilities, and to commemorate the contribution of British and Commonwealth service personnel in the two World Wars and in later conflicts. This year, British Ambassador Matthew Gould plans to make the Remembrance Day Service an extra-special occasion, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War and to honor those who served in the second.

The simple ceremony will begin at 10:30 a.m., and will last for around 45 minutes. It will include wreath-laying and will be followed by a short service in the Jewish section of the cemetery.

After the service, attendees will be invited to a reception at the Ambassador’s Residence.

Participants in possession of the war medals of a deceased relative are entitled to wear them on the right side of their attire.

■ PRIOR TO Armistice Day, Australian Ambassador Dave Sharma, together with the Beersheba Municipality, will on Friday, October 31 host the annual commemoration of the Battle of Beersheba, which marks the fall of the Ottoman- controlled city of Beersheba to British and Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) troops on October 31, 1917. The historic charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade of the Australian Mounted Division played a critical role in achieving victory over the Turks, and paved the way for Gen. Edmund Allenby, commander of the British forces, to enter Jerusalem on foot on December 11, 1917.

The commemoration service will begin at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Beersheba at 9 a.m., after which there will be another ceremony at the nearby Turkish memorial monument.

This will be followed by a tribute to the Light Horse Brigade in the Park of the Australian Soldier, which was built by the Melbourne-headquartered Pratt Foundation and inaugurated in April 2008 by then-governor-general of Australia Michael Jeffery and then-president Shimon Peres. The occasion was historic, in that it was the first visit to Israel by an Australian governor-general.

■ WHILE STILL a student at the Hebrew University, he and other students staged a demonstration outside the official residence of then-president Zalman Shazar to protest the inauguration of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany, President Reuven Rivlin confessed on Thursday, at a reception hosted by German Ambassador Andreas Michaelis to mark the Day of German Unity and in celebration of the upcoming 50th anniversary of Jerusalem- Berlin diplomatic relations.

While the demonstrators were outside, Germany’s first ambassador to Israel Rolf Pauls was inside, presenting his credentials to Shazar.

The date was August 24, 1965, and if anyone would have told Rivlin at the time that he would one day find himself in the residence of the German ambassador, or that he would be the person to receive the credentials of Germany’s next ambassador to Israel inside the President’s Residence, he would not have believed them.

As it happened Michaelis, his wife, Heike, and embassy staff had selected some historic photographs to display at the entrance to the garden: Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion with Germany’s first postwar chancellor Konrad Adenauer; German chancellor and statesman Willy Brandt; Rabin; Peres with German Chancellor Angela Merkel – and, of course, Pauls presenting his credentials.

After the formalities, Rivlin, accompanied by Michaelis, stopped to look at the photographs, and naturally had something to say in relation to the one with Pauls. When making his confession during the formalities, he said he was very glad to be at the German residence on this occasion.

“This day celebrates new beginnings.

It is a day that has meaning for all people who seek to find common ground where there is division. This day is about the will of people to break down barriers and learn to live side by side, not divided by walls, neither physical nor virtual,” said Rivlin. “We have learned from history, and at a terrible price. It is important we continue to teach this lesson, educating about the Holocaust and the dangers of racism and anti-Semitism – in West Germany, in East Germany, in a united Germany, in Europe, and all over.”

Rivlin may well be proof that a leopard can change its spots.

Neither Rivlin nor Michaelis in their separate addresses tried to evade the dark past which still looms over Israeli-German relations, regardless of how close the two nations have become.

Michaelis, in his reference to the Holocaust, said: “Has there ever been a more impossible relationship between two countries? At the beginning, it was not at all clear there could ever be a formal relationship between the young Jewish state and the nation which – at the lowest point of its history – had attempted to eradicate all Jewish life and murdered 6 million Jews. At the beginning, there was so much pain and suffering.

“And let us not get this wrong, there still is today. The memory of the Holocaust and its deep scars are not washed away by history.

Only if we fully comprehend and respect this dimension of our relationship, will we succeed in further developing it. What I experience as real friendship and trust between us today would not exist if we had not traveled the long and difficult path of serious and sometimes painful dialogue between our countries and people.”

Moving forward in time to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ongoing crises in the Middle East, Michaelis said: “The Middle East of today confronts us with a different political reality; this is not Europe at the end of the last century.

But the reality in this part of the world can be transformed, too – and we are all responsible for making it happen.

“Israel needs a stable and peaceful environment. It is totally unacceptable that this country has repeatedly become the victim of rocket and terror attacks. We should not witness another Gaza War or new confrontations on Israel’s borders; we have to break this cycle of violence.”

Rivlin emphasized the excellent relationship between Jerusalem and Berlin, praising Germany as “a great friend to Israel, and of the region” and “a great supporter of the efforts to find confidence- building measures between the peoples of the Middle East.”

The president also commended Germany for its support of Israel’s right to protect itself. “Germany’s leaders understand that terror organizations cannot run the world. They understand the problems which arise when a state must stand up and fight against terror organizations,” declared Rivlin.

Michaelis reiterated Germany’s commitment to Israel’s security, saying: “Germany has pledged to do its part to ensure that Israel will be able to live in peace and security. This is and remains one of the central pillars of German policy.”

At the outset of his address to the hundreds of people gathered on his lawn, including members of Knesset and the German Bundestag, Michaelis voiced wonder at the fact that 25 years had passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. While recalling the joy that marked the days when freedom became a reality for all Germans, Michaelis said that while it seemed like only yesterday, it also seemed part of a distant past, long gone.

“Was there really a time when two German states existed side by side? When Prague and Budapest lay behind an Iron Curtain?” he asked, adding in the next breath that it was difficult to comprehend the dramatic changes, which most people had not expected to see during their lifetimes and in the course of only one generation, reshaped Europe .

When the Cold War abruptly ended at the beginning of the 1990s and many shook their heads in disbelief, it suddenly became clear that 40 years of confrontation were indeed man-made. “It was a political architecture that could be changed by us. It was not a law of nature,” declared Michaelis, explaining his confidence that change can also come to the Middle East.

Throughout 2015, Germany and Israel will demonstrate the strength of the bilateral relationship with a vast array of cultural, scientific and political projects, exhibitions and events in both countries.

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