Jews of the Week: Sergey Brin and Larry Page

Google!

Sergey Mikhaylovich Brin (b. 1973) was born in Moscow to Russian-Jewish parents. After many long months trying to emigrate from the Soviet Union, the family was finally permitted to leave in the spring of 1979, when Brin was six years old. The family lived in Vienna, then Paris, and finally made it to the US with help from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Brin’s father got a job as a math professor at the University of Maryland, and his mother worked as a researcher for NASA. Following in his parents’ footsteps, Brin studied math and computer science at the University of Maryland. He went on to do graduate studies at Stanford, and there met Larry Page.

Lawrence Edward Page (b. 1973) was born in Michigan. His mother is Jewish, and his grandfather lives in Israel. Page’s parents were both computer scientists, and he grew up immersed in technology. He was also passionate about music, and credits music training with helping to shape his analytical mind. Page studied computer engineering at the University of Michigan before heading over to Stanford. Together with Brin, the two co-authored a paper on “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine”. They then developed a new algorithm that would dramatically improve the capabilities of search engines. Brin and Page used their dorm rooms as office and lab, scrapping together whatever money they could for servers and other parts, and slowly building the infrastructure for their new search engine. (There were a number of other people involved, too, who were instrumental in its development.) The new search engine, originally called BackRub, was launched on the Stanford website in 1996. By the following year, Brin and Page understood that the search engine had the potential to transform the world. They renamed it “Google”, and bought the google.com domain on September 15, 1997 (twenty-three years ago, today). The rest is history.

Last year, Brin and Page both stepped down from Google (and its new parent company, Alphabet) though they are still employees and controlling shareholders. Both are big investors in green technology, space exploration, life extension, and Tesla Motors. They are also noted philanthropists. Among their donations are Brin’s $1 million to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and over $160 million to fight Parkinson’s disease (which his mother suffers from); and Page’s $15 million to fight Ebola and over $20 million to find treatments for vocal cord illnesses, which he suffers from. Brin and Page are currently the 13th– and 14th-richest people in the world.

Words of the Week

You always hear the phrase, “money doesn’t buy you happiness”. But I always, in the back of my mind, figured a lot of money will buy you a little bit of happiness. But it’s not really true.
– Sergey Brin

Google’s first logo, as it appeared on September 15, 1997 when the website was launched.

Jew of the Week: Simcha Bunim of Peshischa

The Polish Nobility’s Hasidic Pharmacist 

A 19th century woodcut engraving of Simcha Bunim of Peshischa

Simcha Bonhomme “Bunim” Bonhart (c. 1765-1827) was born in Vodislav, Poland, the son of a wealthy German-Jewish merchant father (who was also a rabbi and rationalist philosopher) and a mother that came from a long line of rabbis going all the way back to Rashi. After studying at the top yeshivas in Hungary and Czechia, Simcha Bunim went to Leipzig to also get a solid secular education at one of the world’s top universities. He studied science and majored in pharmacology. After marrying, he settled in Peshischa (Przysucha) and opened up his own pharmacy. His concoctions were so potent and famous that he soon served the Polish nobility. He also continued his father’s merchant business, sold exotic woods, and regularly appeared at the Danzig trade fair. Meanwhile, Simcha Bunim joined the local Peshischa Hasidic group, then under the leadership of a rabbi and mystic known simply as HaYid HaKadosh, “the Holy Jew”. When the Holy Jew died in 1813, Simcha Bunim took over as the new leader. Unlike other Hasidic groups, Peshischa was all about enlightenment and rationalism. Their aims were to synthesize science with Judaism, to develop each member’s personal autonomy, and to inspire people to discover who they are and to think critically on their own. They encouraged people to pray when they really felt like it (instead of praying by rote three times a day) and to walk confidently with an upright posture. Instead of wearing the classic Hasidic robes, Simcha Bunim dressed in a regular suit. His internal Hasidic revolution spread like fire across Eastern Europe—causing Simcha Bunim to nearly be excommunicated by other Hasidic rabbis! Simcha Bunim is also credited with being perhaps the first kiruv (“outreach”) rabbi. While other Hasidic groups at the time simply ignored the secular Jewish world, Simcha Bunim went out of his way to bring secular Jews back into the faith. In fact, he would regularly go to theatres on Jewish holidays in the hopes of inspiring Jews there to come with him to the synagogue instead. While the Peshischa Hasidic movement itself died out shortly after Simcha Bunim’s death, it sparked multiple new Hasidic groups, and had a significant impact on the wider Jewish world as well. Today is Rabbi Simcha Bunim’s yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

I know who I am irrespective of how I am perceived by others.
– Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Yitzchak Yaacov Reines

Father of Religious Zionism

Yitzchak Yaacov Reines (1839-1915) was born near what is now Pinsk, Belarus to a long line of rabbis. He studied at the famous Volozhin Yeshiva where he received his rabbinic ordination in 1867. Rabbi Reines became the rabbi of the town of Svintsyan, Lithuania, just north of Vilnius. There, he opened his own yeshiva which, for the first time, included a secular studies curriculum as well. In 1882, a large assembly of rabbis gathered in St. Petersburg to discuss easing the plight of Russian Jewry, then suffering immense persecution and poverty. Reines proposed spreading his successful yeshiva model across Russia, allowing Jews to integrate into mainstream society (and economy) without abandoning their faith and traditions. The assembly rejected his plan, so Reines continued his mission on his own. His Svintsyan Yeshiva created a ten-year program that would give students both rabbinic ordination and a government-approved job. Unfortunately, the yeshiva faced too much opposition and shut down after four years. Meanwhile, Rabbi Reines was an active member of Hovevei Zion. In 1893, together with Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, he proposed that Jews settle in their ancestral Holy Land and organize a mercaz ruhani, “spiritual centre”, that would combine Torah with good-old-fashioned agricultural labour. In 1899, Reines participated in the Third Zionist Congress, following which he kept a regular correspondence with Theodor Herzl. Rabbi Reines worked tirelessly to get more approval and understanding for the Zionist movement among traditional and Ultra-Orthodox Jews. In 1901, he built on his earlier mercaz ruhani model to start a new “religious Zionist” movement, known as Mizrachi. That same year, at the Fifth Zionist Congress, Reines played an instrumental role in preventing Zionism from becoming entirely secular and anti-religious (stopping the radical “Swiss faction” behind it). In 1902, Rabbi Reines published A New Light on Zion, a book that addressed the concerns that Ultra-Orthodox Jews had with Zionism. In it, he debunked many of the myths surrounding Zionism, and also composed a manual for establishing a model Jewish state in Israel that would be both materially and spiritually prosperous. Rabbi Reines assembled a large gathering of rabbis in Vilnius in 1902 to officially launch the religious Zionist movement. It would later gave birth to Israel’s first religious political party, the Mizrachi Party, which established Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, and made sure that the Israeli government would adhere to Sabbath and kashrut observance. Mizrachi also built Israel’s first network of religious schools (which are Zionist and encourage students to serve in the IDF). The youth movement of Mizrachi, called Bnei Akiva, is the largest Jewish youth organization in the world (with 125,000 members in 42 countries) and operates religious Zionist schools around the globe. In 1905, Rabbi Reines resurrected his old vision and opened a new yeshiva in Lida, near Minsk, Belarus, which integrated religious and secular studies. Rabbi Reines also came up with a new Talmud-study system, wrote a commentary on the Midrash, and published a number of other acclaimed books. Today, the religious Zionist movement that he founded remains one of the largest and most influential in Israel. Rabbi Reines’ yahrzeit is this Sunday.

Words of the Week

I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation.
John Adams, second president of the United States