Tag Archives: Aliyah

Jew of the Week: Renata Reisfeld

The Renowned Chemist Who Survived the Holocaust—and Entebbe

Renata Sobel (b. 1930) was born in Chelm, Poland. Orphaned at a young age, she was raised by her grandparents. When the Nazis occupied Poland, the family managed to escape and spent the war years in the harsh conditions of Siberia. Young Renata was unable to receive a formal education. After the war, she was engaged to Eliezer Reisfeld—on the condition that he allow her to pursue an education. As a child, Renata was inspired by a biography of Marie Curie and wished to become a scientist, too. The young family made aliyah to Israel in 1950 and settled in Jerusalem. There, Renata Reisfeld took up studies at the Hebrew University. Despite having no knowledge of Hebrew or English, she was the first to complete the entrance exam into the prestigious chemistry program that had only 23 spots. Reisfeld earned her Ph.D, then went to Oregon State University for post-doctoral work. One of Reisfeld’s main areas of research has been photovoltaic cells, and she played a big role in helping to bring down the cost of solar panels to make renewable solar energy possible on a large scale. She is also an expert on nanotechnology and solid state lasers. By 1975, Reisfeld had become the head of the chemistry department at Hebrew University. The following year, she was invited to speak at a conference in Paris. Her flight from Tel-Aviv made a stop in Athens, where Palestinian and German hijackers took control of the plane and diverted it to Entebbe, Uganda. Because she was one of the few hostages that spoke English, she represented the group of 102 passengers, and spoke with Idi Amin. The dictator took a liking to her, and when she asked him to take the hostages out on a tour of Uganda, Amin agreed! Eventually, the hostages were rescued in a daring raid by Israeli commandoes (which took the life of Yoni Netanyahu, brother of Benjamin Netanyahu). All in all, Reisfeld has published a whopping 532 scientific papers, together with four books, and her work has been cited over 30,000 times, making her among the world’s most prolific and renowned chemists. She has been awarded multiple honorary doctorates and scientific medals from around the world. Although officially retired, and now in her 90s, Reisfeld is still coming up with new inventions, the most recent being her fluorescent-transparent glass.

Words of the Week

Sometimes things happen about which the leaders of the generation remain silent. This does not mean that nothing is to be done… On the contrary: when aware that you are able to do something about it, you are obligated to do so.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Jew of the Week: Chaim Arlozorov

The Jew Who Negotiated with the Nazis—and Saved Thousands

Chaim Vitaly Arlozorov (1899-1933) was born in what is today Ukraine to a traditional Russian-Jewish family. His grandfather was a renowned rabbi and Talmud commentator. When Arlozorov was six years old, his town of Romny experienced a terrible pogrom, causing his family to flee to Germany. He went on to study economics at the University of Berlin and became a socialist, though he rejected and opposed both Marxism and Communism. During that time Arlozorov become involved with HaPoel HaTzair, the Zionist-socialist youth organization. He worked tirelessly on behalf of the Zionist movement to re-establish an independent state for the Jewish people. Arlozorov argued such a state should be based on socialism so that all Jews could equally own a piece of the Holy Land, thereby also allowing a return to fulfilling the Sabbatical (shemittah) and Jubilee (yovel) years as mandated by the Torah. While many Ashkenazi Zionists wanted Yiddish to become the official language of the future state, Arlozorov played a key role in ensuring it would be Hebrew. In 1921, he participated in the defence of the Jewish town of Neve Shalom when it was attacked by Arab mobs. This inspired him to work towards establishing a peaceful relationship between Jews and Arabs. In 1933, he organized a conference at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem between Zionist and Arab leaders—possibly the first of what would be many future “peace talks” throughout the Arab-Israeli conflict. Back in 1930, it was Arlozorov who initiated the merger between the two big Zionist-socialist parties, forming Mapai (which later became Israel’s Labour Party). In 1931, he was appointed political director of the Jewish Agency and oversaw Jewish immigration to the Holy Land. When the Nazis came to power and began instituting their anti-Jewish policies, Arlozorov sought to save Germany’s Jews by bringing them Israel. In a deeply controversial move, he started negotiations with the Nazis and eventually prevailed with the Ha’avara Agreement where German Jews could make aliyah provided that they use all of their money to buy only German goods that would be exported to Israel. Over the next several years, the agreement brought 60,000 German Jews to Israel—saving their lives—as well as some $100 million in resources and goods. These resources allowed for countless other Jews to make aliyah as well, and to develop the infrastructure of the future state. Unfortunately, not everyone was thrilled with the Ha’avara Agreement—both in the Jewish world and within the Nazi party. Two days after returning from the negotiations, Arlozorov was assassinated while taking a Shabbat-evening walk on a Tel-Aviv beach with his wife. To this day, it is a mystery who was behind the assassination, some blaming right-wing Zionists, others finding connections to Nazi agents, or to Arab thugs, or even to the Soviets. His funeral was presided by as many as 100,000 people. It is widely agreed that had he been alive, Arlozorov would have become Israel’s first prime minister. Among other honours, nearly every major town in Israel today has an “Arlozorov Street” or neighbourhood named after him.

Words of the Week

A return to Jewishness is an absolute condition for a return to the Land of Israel.
Theodor Herzl

Arlozorov (centre, seated) with Weizmann on his right and other political leaders at the 1933 King David Hotel Conference

Jews of the Week: Israel and Nisan Bak

Israel’s First Printers – and Farmers

Page from a Zohar printed by Bak in Jerusalem

Israel Bak (1797-1874) was born in Berdichev, Ukraine to a Hasidic family of printers. He took over the business at the age of 18, and over the next seven years printed thirty books. Unfortunately, the family printing press was shut down, and over the next decade Bak unsuccessfully tried to rebuild the business. In 1831, he made aliyah and settled in Tzfat. He established a new printing press, and Jewish books began to be printed in Tzfat again for the first time since the 1600s, when the previous printing press was shut down. Meanwhile, Bak also purchased a plot of land near Mt. Meron and started the first Jewish agricultural colony. Some credit him as being the first modern Jewish farmer in Israel. It was he that inspired (former Jew of the Week) Sir Moses Montefiore to start investing in more Jewish settlement and agricultural development of the Holy Land—a seminal event upon which the later Zionist movement was built. Sadly, Bak lost everything in the Tzfat earthquake of 1837 and the Druze Revolt of 1838. He relocated with his family to Jerusalem, there establishing the holy city’s first-ever printing press. From there he printed 130 books, as well as the second Hebrew newspaper in Israel’s history, Havatzelet.

Kirya Ne’emana in 1925

After he passed away, his son Nisan Bak (1815-1889) took over the printing business. Nisan sold the press in 1883, deciding to focus all of his efforts on rebuilding Jewish life in the Holy Land. Back in 1843, he had prevented the Russians from purchasing a coveted plot of land near the Western Wall where they intended to build a church and monastery. He was able to procure vast sums of money (with the help of the Ruzhiner Rebbe) to secure the area for the Jews, and there built the illustrious Tiferet Israel Synagogue (also known as Beit Knesset Nisan Bak, and the Hurva, “Ruin”, because it was destroyed by the Arabs in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, before being rebuilt and reopened in 2010). In 1875, Bak founded one of the first modern Jewish towns in Israel, just outside Jerusalem’s walls, called Kirya Ne’emana. He built 30 homes for the Hasidic community, and distributed the remaining plots to large numbers of Iraqi, Syrian, and Persian Jews. In 1884, he co-founded (with his brother-in-law, Israel Dov Frumkin) the Ezrat Niddahim Society to stop Christian missionaries from targeting Jews. The society also established a Yemenite Jewish quarter in Jerusalem, and raised funds to support and educate Jerusalem’s impoverished.

Top left: the Hurva Synagogue in 1930; bottom left: the ruins in 1967; right: the Hurva today (photo credit: Chesdovi). Sir Moses Montefiore paid for much of the early construction. More than half of the money came from the wealthy Iraqi-Jewish family of Ezekiel Reuben. The synagogue was completed in 1864 and originally called Beit Yakov in honour of Edmond James (Yakov) de Rothschild. It was considered the most beautiful building in Jerusalem, and nicknamed “the glory of the Old City”.

Words of the Week

I see Israel, and never mind saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land almost can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.