A Dutchman in the desert

He was thrilled to discover from a Dutch rabbi that his great grandparents were very religious Jews and known for their community work.

Peter Paul Broekhuisen (photo credit: Courtesy)
Peter Paul Broekhuisen
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Peter Paul Broekhuisen was a devout Christian – but when he came to volunteer at Aleh Negev it became a life-changing event in several ways.
He decided to make aliya, began researching his forebears and discovered deep Jewish roots.
Today he is a permanent volunteer, working with children with severe physical or cognitive disabilities – and is returning slowly but surely to the Judaism his parents abandoned.
Aleh Negev was founded in 2004 by Israeli war hero Doron Almog in honor of his severely handicapped son, Eran, who died in February 2007. Today the organization has four residential facilities taking care of hundreds of disabled children regardless of their religion or race.
“In my work I see Beduin and Jewish caregivers, ultra-Orthodox and secular, all working as one family together,” he says.
Broekhuisen first came to Israel as a volunteer, impelled by his strong Christian faith.
“I knew I had a Jewish grandfather,” he says, “and I wanted to experience the life he would have lived if he had come here instead of being deported to Buchenwald in 1941.”
Broekhuisen was born in Holland in 1959 and grew up in a family where religion was never mentioned.
After graduating high school he tried his hand at several jobs.
“I was a teacher in a special school for children from 12 to 16 who hadn’t succeeded in the regular school system,” he says. “I taught gardening and plant production for 20 years.”
He married and had two sons who both suffered from asthma so the family moved to Switzerland and there he opened a hotel in a very small village in the middle of the Swiss Alps.
“It was a small family hotel and I did everything myself,” he recalls. “I worked in reception, made the beds and waited tables.”
He found Switzerland less than welcoming and, with his marriage under pressure, he decided to volunteer in Israel, but had no idea how to go about it.
“A good friend advised me to contact the son of a Dutch rabbi who works for Aleh Negev. I sent him an email and within half an hour I got a phone call,” says Broekhuisen. “He said he wanted to start a volunteer program at Aleh Negev and asked me to be the first volunteer in a pilot project.”
He came to Israel and made his way to Beersheba.
“From the first day I felt fully accepted as part of a big family,” he says. “It was amazing to exchange the coldness of Switzerland for the warmth of Israel.”
With no experience working with handicapped people, he observed the other caregivers and soon picked up the basics.
“Many can’t speak or eat by themselves,” he says. “I help get them dressed and feed them, or sometimes just play games with them.”
After some time volunteering he had to return to Switzerland to wind up his affairs there.
“When I came back they hugged me and said how happy they were to see me again,” he says.
He is now studying Hebrew, fitting it in with his work and plans to start the conversion process as soon as his language skills improve.
“I do try to keep Shabbat,” he says, “and many of my co-workers have invited me for Shabbat meals.”
He also takes care of the Dutch volunteers, many non-Jews among them.
“There are many Dutch people who really love Israel and want to learn more about Jewish culture,” he says.
Since he began researching his Jewish roots he has collected many documents and slowly began to find people who can verify his genealogy.
He was thrilled to discover from a Dutch rabbi that his great grandparents were very religious Jews and known for their community work.
In December 2015 he finally got his official identity card and became a citizen.
“I think Hashem [God] guided the process,” says Broekhuisen.