WHENEVER THERE is any kind of gathering at one of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Israel, even the most secular of Jews goes looking for tombstones engraved with a Star of David. This is what happened last week in Beersheba, when Australian expatriates came together with a huge delegation of Australians who had traveled to the scene of the Australian Light Horse victory against the Turkish forces in 1917.
After scanning row upon row of graves, the Australian expats finally came across the grave of Captain S.J.H. Van Den Borgg, 27, of the Middlesex Yeomanry, who paid the supreme sacrifice on October 27, 1917. What distinguished this tombstone from the others, aside from the Star of David, was that it bore the name of his mother, Henrietta, plus what was obviously a personal sentiment: So far from home, yet so near to those who love him.
A series of fables have sprung up around him in Beersheba, and each story contradicts the other. But despite all the discrepancies, there was obviously no doubt about his Jewishness, and thus Rabbi Raymond Apple, the former rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Sydney and a former senior rabbi in the Australian Defence Force, led a graveside service and recited Kaddish.
MORE BY coincidence than design this week's column has a very strong Australian focus. At the opening of the Struggle for Soviet Jewry exhibition at Beth Hatefutsoth in Tel Aviv last week, there were many spontaneous, unplanned reunions between former refuseniks and Prisoners of Zion, and activists from different parts of the Jewish world who had demonstrated outside Soviet embassies, gone to Russia to show Soviet Jews that they were neither alone nor forgotten and who in some cases had even been arrested.
There was also a large representation of the 35s, the women's group that did so much to alert world attention to what was happening to Soviet Jewry. Even though they couldn't find themselves in the extensive photograph displays, the 35s came in for high praise from Natan Sharansky, the most celebrated Prisoner of Zion.
Among them was Delysia Jason, who continues to work on behalf of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Fellow Jerusalemites Isi and Naomi Leibler not only had reunions, but found themselves in some of the photographs. In 1962, Isi initiated a public campaign that resulted in Australia becoming the first country in the world to raise the plight of Soviet Jewry at the United Nations. He also published a book and numerous pamphlets on the issue and visited the Soviet Union on several occasions until his arrest and expulsion in 1980. Leibler involved all the members of his immediate family in Soviet Jewry activity, and maintained close contact with many dissidents, bringing them to Australia when he still lived there, and later entertaining them at his home in Jerusalem.
AND ONE last Australian reference. Chabadnik Shlomo Werdiger came from Melbourne with a very costly bike to participate in the annual Alyn Wheels of Love charity bike ride from Tiberias to Jerusalem. When he reached the capital, he realized that there was not much time left in which to recite the afternoon prayers, but he was reluctant to leave his expensive bike standing against a fence while he prayed. So he looked around and saw that he was near the Prime Minister's Residence. Approaching the guards, he explained his predicament, and they good-naturedly agreed to look after his bike while he prayed.
A prominent Melbourne businessman, Werdiger is president of the United Israel Appeal of Victoria, and plans to bring Sharansky to Melbourne in February 2008 to try to get Russian Jews who are not affiliated with the Jewish community to get involved.
ANOTHER OF several Jerusalemites who joined Wheels of Love was Dr. Morton Seelenfreund, for the third time. Last year he did the ride with his grandson and found it to be a terrific bonding experience. He did it again this year and hopes to continue next year. "It's a wonderful challenge," he said.
NOT EVERYTHING is as we think. Case in point: Rabbi Macy Gordon had a student from Iran who turned in a paper and signed his name followed by the Hebrew letters ayin and heh, which usually come after the name of a deceased person and stand for alav hashalom (peace be upon him). Gordon is one of those rabbis who isn't ashamed to learn from his students and asked the young man to explain. The student was flabbergasted that Gordon was unaware that the letters stood for eved Hashem (servant of God), and said that all Jews in Iran signed their names that way.
THE SPEECHES at the opening of the Yad Vashem exhibition focusing on Albanians who saved Jews during the Holocaust were either in Hebrew or in English. None of the visitors from Albania had been issued ear phones, so they just sat in the auditorium, not really sure of what was going on until Dorit Reuveni, a singer and guitarist whose family was saved by Albanians, began singing poignant Albanian songs. Within seconds the Albanians' faces lit up, and they joined in the singing. It couldn't have turned out better had it been planned.