Israel's forefathers: The pre-Zionism Jews who made returned to Israel

Long before Zionism was founded, groups of Torah-true Jews from all over the world began “the long trip home,” and it is thanks to their initiative and daring that we are again in our Land.

 A view of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A view of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Neither Theodor Herzl nor the Biluim, and not the brave pioneers of the First Aliyah and Second Aliyah, can be credited with being the sole precursors of the return to Zion, which led to the independent State of Israel. Long before Zionism was founded, groups of Torah-true Jews from all over the world began “the long trip home,” and it is thanks to their initiative and daring that we are again in our Land.

Among the early immigrants to Jerusalem in the “modern era” were Eliezer and Rivka Sila Bergman. who emigrated in l834 from Zell, a small village outside of Wurzburg in southern Germany. They arrived with Eliezer’s elderly mother and their five children, aged eight to six months. Their journey took almost nine months, and their initial two years in the Holy Land were fraught with adventure and tragedy. From letters that Rivka Sila wrote to her family back in Zell, we learn colorful details about their travels and a great deal about the couple’s faith and idealism.

The story of Eliezer and Rivka Sila Bergman: The forefathers of the return to Zion

Rivka Sila was the eldest daughter of a rich merchant and great Torah scholar, Mendel Rosenbaum. He devoted his whole life to Jewish communal affairs in Bavaria, whether political or educational, and supported many projects to further the renewal of Jewish settlement in Israel. As Jewish education was his prime concern, Reb Mendel engaged a tutor to imbue his five sons and four daughters with a sound basis in Torah, Talmud and Yirat Shamayim (the awe of God). This tutor was Eliezer Bergman, a talmid chacham in his own right and protégé of Rabbi Avraham Bing, the chief rabbi of Wurzburg. Eliezer eventually married Reb Mendel’s oldest daughter, and several years later the couple moved to Israel, with Rosenbaum’s blessings and support.

Eliezer Bergman was that rare combination — a visionary, yet a practical man. As Reb Mendel’s son-in-law, he was assured a comfortable life in the business world or in the pursuit of a scholarly future at the yeshiva Rosenbaum had founded in Zell. Instead, he chose to leave Germany just as new laws were being enacted, and the spirit of emancipation gave Jews in that country the hope that they were about to be given full rights as equal citizens; that the dark days of persecution and discrimination were ending.

Eliezer also wrote letters, in Hebrew; but compared to the more emotional and picturesque correspondence of his wife, his writings are factual, informative, and ever optimistic, no matter what the difficulties. Throughout their journey, he recorded meticulously prices, routes, victuals and supplies for the benefit of those who would come after him. He calculated the needs of a family or the needs of an individual down to the last detail – how much “ship bread” should be purchased, the importance of taking a “night pot” on board, where to stay overnight, etc.

 IDF servicemen salute at a Remembrance Day ceremony at the Mount of Olives Cemetery in Jerusalem. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) IDF servicemen salute at a Remembrance Day ceremony at the Mount of Olives Cemetery in Jerusalem. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Rivka Sila shared her husband’s dreams, and endured many hardships and tribulations on their odyssey, not the least of which were loneliness and homesickness. Throughout their travails, she retained an unshakable faith in the Divine Good, despite the death of a child, the loss of all their belongings, bitter disillusion, and long separations from her husband.

In August 1834, the family left Zell and traveled overland through Europe by stagecoach. Every night they slept in a different inn. Often when the people learned they were immigrating to the Holy Land, the Bergmans were put up free of charge. Jewish families who were strangers went out of their way to help them, donated supplies, arranged transportation for them, relinquished their own beds and gave them advice — good or bad – enthused and inspired by the pilgrims. Sometimes entire communities would accompany them to the outskirts of their settlement. After several weeks, the Bergmans reached Italy, where they waited a long time for a ship.

The sea travel by sailboat is vividly described in the letters. It was extremely difficult for the family, as mother and children suffered continuously from seasickness. Their supplies were inadequate. The journey should have taken 15 to 20 days, but lasted 46. Occasional storms threatened the safety of their flimsy vessel. There were even rumors of pirates in their vicinity. At last, in November l834, they arrived in Beirut, which they had been told was part of the Holy Land.

Happy as they were to be on solid ground again, they soon discovered that their troubles had not ended. Eliezer disembarked before the others to seek suitable lodgings. When he tarried, the captain, impatient to continue on his way, simply dumped the family on the dock, and there Rivka Sila and her mother-in-law, surrounded by their babes and bundles in a strange and frightening Oriental land, awaited Eliezer’s return. The ordeal continued because Eliezer couldn’t find a place for them to stay. They spent their first Shabbat in the Middle East and several more days on the pier under the open sky.

From Beirut, the family went by donkey to Sidon (Tripoli), where they lived for four months. During that time, they were repeatedly forced to move by soldiers garrisoned there. Moreover, they learned that the borders of Eretz Yisrael were considerably smaller than they had been led to believe and did not include Syria and Lebanon. Therefore, when Eliezer found an opportunity to join a party of pilgrims who planned to visit the four holy cities of Safed, Tiberias, Hebron and Jerusalem, Rivka Sila agreed that he should join them and find a suitable place for them to live within Eretz Yisrael proper. As she wrote in a letter to Zell, “We have withstood so much already, and not to be in Israel after all that….”

Eliezer traveled the length and breadth of the Land as his forefathers had done before him, and in the end decided to settle in Jerusalem. Typically, his choice was based not on religious or spiritual considerations but rather on practical ones. “Living standards are lower. It’s cheaper.” 

Through a shaliach (messenger), Eliezer sent the good news to his wife in Tripoli that he had found lodgings in Jerusalem within what is today the Jewish Quarter. Rivka Sila bravely packed up their belonging, and with her mother-in-law and her little children, set out on yet another sea journey, to Jaffa. The trip was relatively short, but as they made port on Friday afternoon, Rivka Sila decided not to risk desecrating the Sabbath and stayed on board until Motzei Shabbat. However, that night a terrible storm arose. The ship lost its anchoring and smashed on the rocks outside Jaffa. Miraculously, no lives were lost, but all the Bergman belongings – the bedding, pots and pans, and clothing so carefully packed and transported from Germany – sank in the port. Even Rivka Sila’s purse, containing all their money, and some of the shoes and clothes they were wearing, were all swept away. Kind families in Jaffa took in the poor, disheveled refugees, warmed them, gave them lodging and clothing. When Eliezer heard of the mishap, he went to Jaffa immediately (three days) and brought his family home (by donkey) to the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem.

The modern immigrant can readily sympathize with Rivka Sila’s remark in one of her first letters from the Holy Land: “It’s no mean accomplishment to live here. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t strong enough to withstand all this. There’s much to suffer here, but of course it all depends on how you take it.”

The Bergman family quickly adjusted to a sedentary life in Jerusalem. To her family in Zell, Rivka Sila wrote her impressions as an oleh chadash (new immigrant). She marveled at the Oriental dress and customs. At that time, even Ashkenazim dressed like Sephardim. She mentioned the mild winters without snow or ice and the unusual fruits and vegetables she encountered in the shuk (market), such as watermelons, tomatoes, and long-leaved lettuce. Eliezer, on the other hand, compiled a list of trades lacking in Israel — hatters, furriers, candlemakers, doctors and even talmidim chachamim (scholars) whose language he could understand. He proposed business ventures to his wife’s family and gave a vivid description of the halukah system in effect, a system he was eventually influential in changing [a system to support Jews in Palestine with funds raised abroad].

AT THAT time, he and a man named Yehosef Schwartz were the only German Jews in Eretz Yisrael. By l840, there were eight other German families, but since they were not supported by any halukah committee (dependent on one’s country of origin), Eliezer sought other avenues for their livelihood. He turned to the Pekidim and Amerkalim Organization, established in l822 in Holland and Germany to encourage aliyah to Eretz Yisrael and develop projects to make the settlers independent. This group, later called Hod (an acronym for Holland-Deutschland), received generous support from abroad for its immigrants, and thus became the most prestigious kollel in that era.

Eliezer became the chief agent of Hod, and through his efforts the organization established a society for the purchase of land for agricultural purposes in l854. It sponsored a free loan society (gemach) in l850; a central storehouse for food and medicine during a cholera epidemic in l866, as well as medical clinics, which eventually led to the Shaare Zedek Hospital in l872. In l858, Hod established the first Jewish-funded housing project in the Old City, Batei Machaseh, which provided rent subsidized homes for Torah scholars. Throughout the second half of the l9th century, it supported various business ventures, such as a short-lived cigarette “factory” which Eliezer administered. Eventually Eliezer was sent to Europe (some say even to America) to organize support and financial backing for all these undertakings. This, however, took place much later and is recorded in historical documents and in his own meticulously kept four-volume diary.

However, during the initial years of Eliezer and Rivka Sila’s aliyah, they encountered countless difficulties. Rivka Sila, in her letters, relates some of them and also voices a recurrent complaint: “Why don’t we hear from you?” From the day they left Zell until March l835, not even one letter from their relatives in Bavaria got through to them. Rivka Sila was sick with worry and despondent from what she considered their neglect. For a short time, she acted angry and refused to write herself. Eventually letters began to arrive, perhaps due to Eliezer’s suggestion that they send two copies of every letter – one though Trieste and one through Constantinople. To Rivka Sila’s great joy, contact with her beloved and extended family was reestablished.

Before their arrival in the Holy Land, in the summer of l834 there were riots in Safed, Hebron and Jerusalem, and many Jews were attacked or left homeless. But by the time the Bergmans arrived, a new and stronger government was in charge, and the situation was relatively peaceful. So much so that Rivka Sila could write: “You can send a child of four years old out to buy something with a pruta (coin) in his hand, and nothing will happen to him.” Moreover she continues, “Since the time of our Holy Rabbi (apparently, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi), there has never been such a period of tranquility, thank Heaven, for the Jews of Eretz Yisrael as now. One might even say that the beginning of the redemption by His Great Mercy is at hand, and in the near future the Redeemer will come to Zion and the Complete Redemption will be effected, may it be His will, Amen.”

In other preserved correspondence from Rivka Sila, we learn more details of their daily life – the precarious health situation which had devastating effects on their offspring; the sale of goods which her father had sent in lieu of support; Eliezer’s adoption of a Syrian (Halab) Jewish community, where he became their teacher and spiritual guide; her good relations with neighboring Arab women, who taught her how to wash the family’s laundry in a borrowed basin; and, above all, their abiding love for Jerusalem and living idealism. As she concludes in one letter, “I think I did a lot for my children by bringing them here.”

Eliezer, who had traveled throughout the Holy Land and had seen the famous graves and ruins of Israel’s glorious past, proclaims in one of his letters, “My heart is aflame and my feelings in turmoil. I bless the Eternal Judge for the ruins all around us which are being rebuilt, for the joy and enthusiasm that we were privileged to arrive in the Holy City which is desired by all, and to which all hearts are directed.” Local gossip, legends and historical facts intermingle in the reports by both Bergmans, now describing famous sites such as Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, where Jews were allowed to ascend only a few steps, and then jumping to yet another good business deal in rosewater, specially manufactured in the Holy Land.

The harsh realities of life in Eretz Yisrael in those early years stand in contrast to the hope and faith which sustained these early pioneers and make us stand in awe at all they endured. Yet without their sacrifices and tenacity, we realize that a Jewish commonwealth would not have evolved in our generation. 

What eventually happened to the Bergmans in Israel?

Of their first five children, who made the arduous trip from Zell, four died in childhood. Only one son, Benjamin, survived. Another child, Yehuda, was born in Jerusalem and grew to maturity. In l844, Eliezer made his first trip to Europe for Hod. In his absence, Rivka Sila was murdered by Arab marauders and was buried on the Mount of Olives.

Eliezer abandoned his travels and returned to Jerusalem with a second wife, Sarah Asher, whom he brought back to care for his two children. Sarah’s father and her brother, Shmuel Leib, accompanied them. The father died en route, and the brother, who stayed behind to look after the father at their port of departure, came after them but drowned at sea in a storm outside of Haifa.

Benjamin married at the age of l5. He had one child, Rivka Sila, from whom stem many well-known, established Jerusalem families – Yehuda, Ezekiel, Hazan, Rivlin, and Sasson. Benjamin died at the age of l8 while abroad on business. Yehuda, the youngest brother, also married at l5 but had no children from his first wife. He remarried in l864, and from this union several other well-known Jerusalem families stem – Bergman, Mintzberg, Shlesinger and Min HaHar.

In l850, Eliezer Bergman once again went abroad for Kollel Hod. He died in l852 in Berlin, alone and penniless, and was buried there, apparently the victim of a typhoid epidemic. His second wife, Sarah Asher, remarried in l858, but her second husband died shortly thereafter. None of her children reached maturity. Yehuda died in l886, and Sarah six months later. This medley of tragedies, although no less easy to endure, were unfortunately the norm in those early years, especially in “the Orient.”

In 1971, the descendants of Eliezer Bergman were able to trace the whereabouts of his grave. After various difficulties in getting the remains out of East Berlin, Avraham Bar Tura, a great-great-grandson, succeeded in having him reburied on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Thus the saga of Eliezer and Rivka Sila Bergman came full circle. How fitting that the couple look down upon the bustling metropolis Jerusalem has become, high above the Western Wall, where crowds of worshipers, tourists, soldiers at swearing-in services and schoolchildren on outings gather, little realizing how much we are all indebted to forefathers of this mettle. ■

Leah Abramowitz is a geriatric social worker who is the coordinator of the Geriatric Institute of Shaare Zedek Hospital and Melabev. A version of this article was originally published on