Category Archives: Extraordinary Individuals

Unique Jews In a Category of Their Own

Jews of the Week: Belkinds and Hankins

Israel’s Great Pioneers

Israel Belkind (1861-1929) was born near Minsk, Belarus. After a Hebrew elementary school education, he enrolled at a Russian gymnasium and planned to study in university. However, the terrible 1881 pogroms turned him into a passionate Zionist, and the rest of his life was dedicated to saving the plight of diaspora Jews. He founded an organization called BILU (an acronym of Beit Yaakov Lechu v’Nelcha, from an End of Days prophecy in Isaiah 2:5, where the Biblical prophet encourages Jews to get up and take possession of their land). In the summer of 1882, Belkind led the first group of Biluim to the Holy Land. After several years of working on Jewish agricultural settlements, he decided to focus on education instead. He taught at a school in Jaffa, and then in Jerusalem. In 1904, Belkind started his own school for children orphaned by the devastating Kishinev Pogrom. Meanwhile, Belkind wrote several important Zionist texts, and was also a noted anthropologist. Intriguingly, he did a great deal of research among the local Arab population and came to the conclusion that they must be the descendants of Jews who had been forcibly converted to Islam! He noted how the locals did not even refer to themselves as “Arabs”, but only “Muslims” (they called the Bedouins “Arabs”), and many of them knew about their Hebrew ancestors. They had various customs that resembled Jewish ones, used an Arabic dialect peppered with old Jewish terms, and venerated the same Biblical figures as the Jews. His dream was thus to open Hebrew schools for the Palestinians, and slowly return them to the Jewish fold. (Later, thanks to the opportunities created by the Zionist movement, a massive influx of non-indigenous Arab immigrants came from neighbouring areas, particularly Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon.)

Yehoshua and Olga Hankin in 1910

Belkind’s older sister was Olga Hankin (1852-1943). She studied in St. Petersburg to become a midwife. Olga joined her brother in the Holy Land during the First Aliyah of 1886, making her the first professional midwife in the region. She soon became the most famous midwife in the land, and was sought out by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. She made a name for herself as being the only woman to ride alone on horseback—even at night—and became something of a feminist icon. Olga married Yehoshua Hankin (1864-1945), originally from Russia. Hankin was well-respected by local Arabs, and was able to negotiate a purchase of a massive plot of land on behalf of the Zionist movement in 1890. This land became what is today the city of Rehovot, a name proposed by Israel Belkind based on a verse in Genesis. In 1891, using donations from diaspora Jews, the Hankins purchased what is today Hadera (the neighbourhood of Givat Olga in Hadera is named after Olga Hankin). In 1908, Yehoshua Hankin joined the Palestine Land Development Company and became its number-one real estate agent in the Holy Land. His most famous deal was the Sursock Purchase, acquiring Haifa Bay and the Jezreel Valley from the Sursocks (an Orthodox Christian family who had purchased the land from the Ottomans decades earlier). Hankin’s work secured hundreds of thousands of dunams of land for the Jewish cause, and he is credited with being the top negotiator of land purchases in Israel’s history.

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Words of the Week

We are worth what we are willing to share with others.
Sir Moses Montefiore

Jew of the Week: Temerl Sonnenberg Bergson

Europe’s Greatest Jewish Businesswoman

Tamar “Temerl” bat Avraham of Opoczno (c. 1765-1830) was born in Poland to a wealthy and deeply religious Jewish family. She married young, but her first husband tragically died soon after. She got remarried to a young businessman named Dov Ber (“Berek”) Zbytkower. He went on to become immensely wealthy, and supplied the Polish and Russian armies. He took on the last name “Sonnenberg”, and was nicknamed the “Polish Rothschild”. Meanwhile, besides being a devoted mother of six children, Temerl was busy supporting the nascent Hasidic movement, founded just a few decades earlier by the Baal Shem Tov. Temerl played a huge role in bringing Hasidism to Poland. In fact, she financed the construction of Warsaw’s first Hasidic synagogue. She paid the salaries of numerous Hasidic rabbis in Poland (along with non-Hasidic rabbis), including the great Simcha Bunim of Peshischa. Temerl was a huge philanthropist and gave to all kinds of other causes as well. In 1818 alone, she donated some 54,000 rubles to Polish charities. After her husband passed away, Temerl took over his business. (In honour of their father, her children changed their last name to “Berekson”, or “Bergson”, which is why she came to be known as Temerl Bergson, too.) She also founded her own new bank. Temerl was one of the top businesswomen in all of Europe at the time. She was so influential that the Russian government gave her special permission to buy an estate, making her only the third Jew to own property outside the ghettos. She continued to do everything she could to assist the plight of the Jews. In 1824, she used her influence to rescind a government decree against Jewish pilgrimages. In fact, some Hasidic leaders came to refer to her as Reb Temerl! (A title traditionally reserved for men.) In her will, she left 300,000 zlotys to charity. Temerl was called the “Polish Hasidah”, and her tombstone states: “To her nation she was a protector against oppression—a helper during distress. To the poor she was a mother. She was a virtuous woman, powerful and famous.” The renowned philosopher and Nobel laureate Henri Bergson was her great-grandson.

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Words of the Week

The Sabbath is the day we focus on the things that have value but not a price, when we neither work nor employ others to do our work, when we neither buy nor sell, in which all manipulation of nature for creative ends is forbidden and all hierarchies of power or wealth are suspended.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Jews of the Week: Sarah of Yemen and Qasmuna bint Ismail

Great Arabic Poets

The single surviving poem of Sarah of Yemen

Sarah (fl. 6th-7th century) was born to the Jewish Banu Qurayza clan of the Arabian Peninsula, in the pre-Islamic era when much of the peninsula was inhabited by Jews. Her family originally hailed from what is today Yemen. They lived in Yathrib, the flourishing oasis of the Banu Qurayza Jews. In 622, Muhammad entered the city, and in 627 he annihilated the Banu Qurayza tribe (and renamed the city “Medina”, making it the first capital of the Islamic empire). Sarah was a poet, and one of her poems describing the devastation of Yathrib has survived. It was first printed in a 10th-century anthology of Arabic poems called Kitab al-Aghani. She wrote: “By my life, there is a people not long in Du Hurud; obliterated by the wind. Men of Qurayza destroyed by Khazraji swords and lances; We have lost, and our loss is so grave…” According to legend, she fought in the battle against Muhammad and was killed. (In a little-known quirk of history, Muhammad actually took two of the Jewish captives for himself as wives, and one of them is even considered a “mother of Islam”!) Incredibly, Sarah of Yemen may be history’s oldest and first known Arabic poet.

Another famous Jewish-Arab poet was Qasmuna bint Ismail (fl. 11th-12th century), who lived in Andalusia (today’s Spain). She was the child of a wealthy and well-educated Jew, who made sure his daughter was literate and taught her the art of poetry. Qasmuna is the only Sephardic Jewish female poet whose work has survived. Three of her poems were published in a 15th century anthology. In one of her poems she wrote: “Always grazing, here in this garden; I’m dark-eyed just like you, and lonely; We both live far from friends, forsaken; patiently bearing our fate’s decree.” In another she describes reaching the age of marriage and the struggle of finding the right partner: “I see an orchard, Where the time has come; For harvesting, But I do not see; A gardener reaching out a hand, Towards its fruits; Youth goes, vanishing; I wait alone, For somebody I do not wish to name.” She has also been referred to as “Qasmuna the Jewess” and “Xemone”.

The Guardian Angels of Israel

Back When Palestinians Insisted There’s No Such Thing as Palestine

Words of the Week

In Judaism the word for “education” (chinukh) is the same as for “consecration”. Is your child being consecrated for a life of beneficence for Israel and humanity?
Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz, former Chief Rabbi of Britain