Author Archives: Jew of the Week

Jew of the Week: Fernando de Noronha

Founder of Brazil

Fernão de Loronha (c. 1470-1540) was born in Lisbon, Portugal to a Sephardic Jewish family that had been forcibly converted to Christianity by the Inquisition. Like many such families, they continued to practice Judaism in secret. Loronha became a wealthy merchant, and also worked for the German Augsburg banking family. He was knighted by King Manuel I of Portugal (and for this reason, was often associated with the Noronha nobility, being incorrectly referred to as “Fernando de Noronha”.) In 1501, he financed a Portuguese expedition to explore the newly-discovered lands of South America, then called Vera Cruz. Scholars believe his primary motivation was finding a new home for persecuted Jews, where they could finally live free of the Inquisition. Some say Loronha captained the expedition himself, and we know for sure that on board was Amerigo Vespucci (after whom “America” is named). At the time, Europeans imported expensive red dyes made from brazilwood from India. Loronha came back to Portugal in 1502 describing the abundant brazilwood in the new lands and the opportunity for great riches. King Manuel gave him an exclusive ten-year charter for all the commercial rights to brazilwood in Vera Cruz. In exchange, Loronha had to send at least six ships per year on behalf of Portugal, build a fort for the Portuguese military, explore new coasts, and pay the crown 4000 ducats per year. His first six-ship fleet set forth the following year, establishing the first brazilwood factories in the New World. Soon, vast amounts of the precious dye were being imported to Europe, making it the continent’s second most valuable commodity (after gold). The fleet also discovered a new group of islands, which Vespucci named São Lourenço, or São João. Shortly after, a grateful King Manuel gave the islands as a gift to Loronha and his descendants, and made him the first official donatario (“administrator”) in South America. Today, the idyllic islands are still referred to as “Fernando de Noronha” in his honour. Unlike many other colonists, Loronha did not employ slaves, and obtained all the brazilwood through trade with local natives. Most interestingly, it was Loronha who was responsible for renaming the new land to “Brazil” instead of its original name, Vera Cruz. Still a Jew at heart (and soul), Loronha did not want to use the Christian term Vera Cruz (meaning “True Cross”), so he would always refer to it in all of his business dealings as “Brazil” instead. The new name stuck. Similarly, he renamed his main ship from São Cristóvão (“Saint Christopher”) to A Judia (“The Jewess”). In 1506, his crew on that ship discovered a set of islands in Mozambique, named Bassas da Judia. Today, the name has been corrupted to “Bassas da India”.

Words of the Week

Given the history of the attacks on Israel and the oppressiveness and aggressiveness of other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, boycotting Israel indicates a moral blindness for which it is hard to find any explanation other than antisemitism.
– Steven Weinberg, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, who passed away two weeks ago

The main island of the Fernando de Noronha archipelago of 21 islands, off the coast of Brazil.

Jews of the Week: Zalman Shazar and Reuven Rivlin

Two Israeli Presidents

Reuven Rivlin (b. 1939) was born in Jerusalem to a family descended from the great Vilna Gaon, that made aliyah in 1809. His father was a Hebrew University professor who first translated the Koran into Hebrew. Not surprisingly, Rivlin speaks Arabic fluently. That made him a key asset during those years when he served in the IDF Intelligence Corps. In the Six-Day War, Rivlin fought with the Jerusalem Brigade. He later studied law at Hebrew University, and served on Jerusalem’s City Council. In 1988, he was elected chairman of Likud and took his first seat in the Knesset. In 2003, he became Knesset Speaker, a position he held until 2014, when he was elected Israel’s tenth president. In that election, he had the support of Arab MKs, despite the fact that he has always been very right-wing, heavily criticized the withdrawal from Gaza, declared that “West Bank settlements are as Israeli as Tel Aviv”, and continues to push for a one-state solution. Nonetheless, he has been praised for building bridges in Israel, and being an eloquent spokesperson on the state’s behalf. Rivlin is a vegetarian and a big supporter of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, which he once managed decades ago. Earlier this month, his term as Israel’s president came to an end, and he has been replaced by (former Jew of the Week) Isaac Herzog.

Schneur Zalman Rubashov (1889-1974) was born in the Belorussian town of Mir, near Minsk, to a deeply religious Chabad family, and was named after Chabad’s founder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. From a young age, he was drawn to Zionism and was also a member of Jewish self-defence organizations in Eastern Europe. He regularly wrote articles for a number of Yiddish publications. After being released from the Russian army in 1924, he made aliyah and settled in Tel-Aviv, changing his last name to “Shazar” (an acronym of his full name). There he worked for the Histadrut (Israel’s national trade union) and also as a journalist. In 1947, Shazar was part of the Jewish delegation to the UN during the critical Partition Plan vote. He was elected to the first Knesset in 1949 and became the new state’s Minister of Education. In 1963, Shazar was elected Israel’s third president. He wrote a goodwill message that was taken by the Apollo 11 crew to the moon, where it still rests. On it he wrote: “From the President of Israel in Jerusalem with hope for ‘abundance of peace so long as the moon endures’ (Psalms 72:7).” Shazar was a devoted member of the “Chein Circle” for Hasidic study in Jerusalem, often hosting the group in his presidential residence. He became a student of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and later helped him produce his renowned translation and commentary of the Talmud. Shazar kept a regular correspondence with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and often visited him in Brooklyn. He co-founded Kfar Chabad in Israel. Shazar passed away shortly after completing his second term as Israel’s president. Today, his portrait appears on the Israeli 200 shekel note.

Words of the Week

I have no doubt, and my positions are known, that the status of Judaism according to halachah is what has kept us going for 3,800 years.
– Reuven Rivlin

President Shazar toasts the Lubavitcher Rebbe at Chabad headquarters (770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn)

Jew of the Week: Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe

Miracles in the Holocaust

Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam (1905-1994) was born to a Hasidic family of the Sanz dynasty in the small Jewish town of Rudnik, Poland. At just 14, he lost his father, and replaced him as the town rabbi. At the age of 21, he was invited to become the rabbi of Klausenberg (then part of Hungary), and head its yeshiva. During the Holocaust, his entire family was sent to Auschwitz, and Rabbi Halberstam tragically lost his wife and 11 children. Nonetheless, he did not lose faith and continued to serve as an inspirational leader for the Jews in the camps. During a 1944 death march that took place on Tisha b’Av, the Rebbe recited the traditional Kinot as the Nazis tortured the Jews. Since it was Tisha b’Av, the Jews took off their leather shoes, so the Nazis used the opportunity to make the Jews march on broken glass. They then left them to die of thirst in the summer heat. As reported by several survivors, the Rebbe asked everyone to start digging in the earth. When they did so, water miraculously emerged out of the soil. The Jews were saved, and the bewildered Nazis left them alone. The Rebbe then said: “Here we have proof that despite all the troubles and the apparent concealment of God’s face, the Holy, Blessed One still loves us.” Another time, Rabbi Halberstam was shot in the arm by a Nazi and left to bleed to death. He wrapped a leaf around the wound and made a vow that if he survived, he would dedicate the rest of his life to saving the lives of others. The Rebbe survived. First, he stayed at the DP camps to run soup kitchens and care for the countless orphans. He established and headed the She’erit haPletah (“Surviving Remnant”) organization, which built mikvehs, set up Jewish schools, organized chuppas, and raised money for the victims. During this time, he met General (and future US president) Dwight Eisenhower, who was inspired by the “wonder rabbi”. Rabbi Halberstam then moved to New York, got remarried, and had seven more children. In 1960, he made aliyah and settled in Netanya. The Rebbe opened both a Hasidic-Ashkenazi yeshiva, and a Sephardic yeshiva, established the town of Kiryat Sanz and, to fulfill his Holocaust vow, founded the Sanz Medical Center/Ladiano Hospital. Today, the hospital serves half a million people, runs strictly according to Jewish law, and has the distinction of being the only hospital in Israel that has never closed—not even for a worker’s strike. Famous for his deep love and concern for every Jew, Rabbi Halberstam was beloved by everyone who knew him, secular and religious, Ashkenazi and Sephardi. His two sons continue to lead the Sanz-Klausenberg communities in New York and Netanya.

Tisha b’Av Begins this Saturday Night

Words of the Week

I promised myself that if, with God’s help, I got well and got out of there, from those evil people, I would build a hospital in Eretz Yisrael where every human being would be cared for with dignity. And the basis of that hospital would be that the doctors and nurses would believe that there is a God in this world and that when they treat a patient, they are fulfilling the greatest mitzvah in the Torah.
Rabbi Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam, the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe