Author Archives: Jew of the Week

Jew of the Week: Baron Maurice de Hirsch

Moses of the 19th Century

Moritz Tzvi von Hirsch auf Gereuth (1831-1896) was born in Munich to a wealthy German-Jewish family. His grandfather was a banker for the Bavarian king, and became the first Jew to be permitted to own land in Bavaria. His father also served as the court banker, and became a German baron. Hirsch studied in Brussels, then took a banking job himself at age 17. Years later, he branched off on his own, eventually making his fortune from sugar, copper, and railroads. One of his boldest projects was building a Vienna-to-Istanbul rail line. Hirsch settled in Paris where he lived for the remainder of his life, going by the French version of his name, Maurice de Hirsch. In 1860, the Alliance Israélite Universelle (Kol Israel Haverim) organization was founded in Paris to secure human rights and education for Jews around the world. Hirsch became their biggest supporter, essentially bankrolling their operation to the tune of several hundred thousand pounds a year. The organization was most famous for building Jewish schools, including the first schools in pre-State Israel. The Alliance schools were also the first to teach a Hebrew curriculum, playing a key role in the language’s revival. Hirsch also donated countless sums to schools and hospitals across Germany, France, and England. He paid for the renowned Pasteur Institute’s entire biochemistry building. In the last two decades of his life, Hirsch was devoted to easing the plight of Russian Jews. He founded the Jewish Colonization Association in 1891 with a starting budget of £2 million pounds. The money was used to resettle Eastern European Jews in the Americas (particularly in Canada and Argentina), as well as in Ottoman Palestine. Altogether, Hirsch donated £18 million to the organization, the equivalent of about $4 billion today! Needless to say, it played a massive role in getting the Zionist movement off the ground and re-establishing a Jewish state in Israel (though de Hirsch himself didn’t believe it would ever actually happen!) as well as saving countless lives from pogroms and oppression. Maurice de Hirsch is ranked among the most generous philanthropists of all time. His wife, Clara de Hirsch, is also on this list, in her own right. She came from a wealthy banking family, too, and donated another 200 million francs of her own funds. When the couple tragically lost their only son in 1887, Maurice de Hirsch declared: “My son I have lost, but not my heir; humanity is my heir.” For his efforts to launch a mass-exodus and liberation of Jews, he has been called the “Moses of the 19th Century”.

Words of the Week

I suppose I shall spend all my money in this movement. But, after all, what is the use of money unless you do some good with it?
– Baron Maurice de Hirsch

Jew of the Week: Jeff Hoffman

NASA’s First Jewish Astronaut

Jeffrey Alan Hoffman (b. 1944) was born in Brooklyn. He was always fascinated by outer space, and went to study astronomy at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Hoffman went on to get a PhD in astrophysics from Harvard, researching cosmic x-rays and gamma rays. He built one of the first aerial gamma ray telescopes. After this, he did postdoctoral work in the UK, eventually working as a project scientist for the European Space Agency. In 1975, Hoffman returned to the US to work at MIT. His main area of focus was x-ray bursts, and he authored over 20 papers on the subject, becoming the world expert on it. One time, he heard his wife reading a passage in a book saying that there will never be a Jewish astronaut. This inspired Hoffman to pursue just that, and he applied to NASA. In 1978, he was selected for NASA’s astronaut training program, together with Judith Resnik. The two became NASA’s first Jewish astronauts. Hoffman went on his first mission in 1985 aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, during which the crew deployed two satellites and conducted numerous scientific experiments. At this point, Hoffman became just the second Jewish man in space (following Russian cosmonaut Boris Volynov). During his fourth trip to space, Hoffman was responsible for repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. Before that flight, his rabbi asked him if he would take some Judaica with him, and Hoffman happily agreed. He took a mezuzah—which he affixed to his cabin with Velcro—a tallit, as well as a dreidel and mobile menorah, since it was during Chanukah. (Click here to see Hoffman spin a dreidel in space!) On another flight, Hoffman took a Torah with him and made sure to read it while flying over Jerusalem. During his last mission in 1996, Hoffman set a new record, becoming the first astronaut to spend 1000 hours aboard space shuttles. All in all, he spent more than 50 days in space, and logged over 21 million space miles travelled. Since retiring as an astronaut, he has been teaching as a professor at MIT, and visiting professor at the University of Leicester. He has also written a book called An Astronaut’s Diary.

When Jews and Greeks Were Brothers: The Untold Story of Chanukah

Words of the Week

…Science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion.
Albert Einstein

Jew of the Week: Yossi Cohen

The Real James Bond

Yosef Meir Cohen (b. 1961) was born in Jerusalem to a religious-Zionist family with deep roots in the ancient city. He is a 9th-generation Israeli, and his ancestors were among the founders of the Mea Shearim neighbourhood, one of the first outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls. Cohen grew up studying in yeshivas and was a member of the Bnei Akiva religious-Zionist youth movement. After completing his military service in the IDF as a paratrooper, he spent some time studying in London. Returning to Israel in 1982, he joined the Mossad and quickly made a name for himself. He was the only religious officer in the Mossad at the time, and originally worked as a spy recruiter and handler. Over the years, he also led a number of daring spy missions which are, of course, all classified. Cohen was awarded the Israel Defense Prize, given to those distinguished individuals who are recognized for playing an instrumental role in keeping the Jewish State safe. By 2011, Cohen had risen to deputy director of the Mossad. Two years later, he was appointed Netanyahu’s national security advisor. In 2016, he took over Israel’s top spy job, becoming Mossad’s director. His task was to clean up the organization, restore its prestige (after some high-profile failures) and, most importantly, end the threat from Iran. It was Cohen who oversaw the stunning 2018 operation to raid Tehran’s nuclear archives. And it was Cohen who oversaw last week’s devastating assassination of Iran’s nuclear chief. Back in 2016, he similarly took out Hamas’ terror chief in a complex operation in Tunisia. Over the past four years, Cohen has transformed the Mossad into, by some counts, the world’s second-largest intelligence agency (after the CIA). He presides over a network of an estimated 7000 agents. Meanwhile, thanks to Cohen’s diplomatic wisdom and his fluency in English, French, and Arabic, he has also served as Netanyahu’s chief negotiator, and was behind the Abraham Accords that brought peace between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain. He is working to bring more peace agreements with neighbouring countries, including Oman and Saudi Arabia. Last year, The Jerusalem Post ranked Cohen as the most influential Jew in the world. Netanyahu has said that he believes Cohen alone to be capable of leading the nation in the future. Despite being a grandfather, Cohen still runs marathons. All of this, combined with his gracefulness and charm, is the reason he has been described as Israel’s James Bond.

Words of the Week

The thing about smart people is that they seem like crazy people to dumb people.
– Stephen Hawking