Tag Archives: Jerusalem

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.

14 Myths and Facts About Kosher Food

97-Year Old Holocaust Survivor and Doctor Still Receiving Patients

Remembering Elie Cohen, the Beloved Rabbi-Mathematician 

The Man From Africa Who Saved Jewish Orphans

Rates of Parkinson’s Are Exploding; A Common Chemical May Be to Blame

How mRNA Technology Can Upend the Drug Industry

Parashat Shemini & the Kosher Animal Song

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: Ramban

Mystic, Physician, Defender of Judaism

Painting of the Ramban from the walls of the Akko Auditorium

Moshe “Bonastruc” ben Nachman (1194-1270) was born in Gerona (present-day Spain) to a deeply religious Sephardic Jewish family. From a young age he studied with some of the great Sephardic sages of the day, and by the time he was 16 was already recognized as a wise scholar in his own right. He also studied medicine and became a sought-after physician. He was soon the chief rabbi of Catalonia and published several highly-acclaimed works, including glosses on the Talmud and several legal texts. Rabbi Moshe would become known as the Ramban, based on the initials of his name, and also as Nahmanides to the wider world. (The Ramban should not be confused with the Rambam. In fact, the Ramban helped to settle a philosophical dispute that first began with the Rambam in the previous century.) In 1263, Ramban was summoned to publicly debate a group of Dominican friars, before King James I, to settle whether Christianity or Judaism was the true faith. Rabbi Moshe tried his best to avoid the debate, which he knew would be a setup where Judaism could never be shown to win. The king conferred royal protection to him, promising no retribution of any kind. The Ramban gently tore down all the arguments of the Christians, and expertly defended Judaism, later publishing a written account of this famous “Disputation of Barcelona”. As he predicted, the failed friars sought to have him executed for “blasphemy”. The king, however, proved wise and fair, decreeing only a two-year’s exile, and gave the Ramban a gift of 300 gold solidi. (The friars then took their cause to the pope, unsuccessfully.) The Ramban journeyed to the Holy Land and settled in Jerusalem. When he arrived, he found just two Jews left there, following the ravages of the Crusades. He resolved to reinvigorate Jewish life in the Eternal City, building a small synagogue (which still stands today) and re-establishing a vibrant Jewish presence. Henceforth, a Jewish community has never ceased from Jerusalem. The Ramban spent his last days in Acre, where he similarly rebuilt the Jewish community. While there, he wrote his most famous work, the Commentary on the Torah. The commentary is among the first to feature mystical interpretations, since the Ramban was also a renowned Kabbalist. He is considered among the greatest rabbis of all time. Tomorrow, the 11th of Nissan, is his yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

We must believe in freedom of will, we have no choice.
– Isaac Bashevis Singer

Interior of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City

Jew of the Week: Daniel

The Secret Hero of Purim

‘Daniel Interpreting the Writing on the Wall’ by Gustav Doré

Daniel (c. 6th-5th century BCE) was born in Jerusalem to a noble family of scribes and scholars. In the third year of King Yehoyachin’s reign, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon subdued the Kingdom of Judah and made it a tributary of the Babylonian Empire. Nebuchadnezzar took a number of noble Jewish families with him back to Babylon, including young Daniel. Together with his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, Daniel was raised in the royal palace and trained by the Babylonian wise men. The four were given new names: Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Beltshazzar. However, the Jewish youths held on to their faith, and refused to eat the non-kosher food of the Babylonians. God blessed them to be wiser than all the greatest sages of Babylon. Daniel grew up to become one of the trusted advisors of Nebuchadnezzar and his successors. Daniel also served as an important leader of the exiled Jewish community in Babylon. His prophecies were later collected by the Knesset HaGedolah (“the Men of the Great Assembly”) and make up the Biblical Book of Daniel. In one famous episode, we read how envious ministers in King Darius’ court passed a law to forbid praying to any deity except the king. They then accused Daniel of praying to his God—which he did and did not deny. Daniel was punished by being thrown into a lions’ den, from which he was miraculously saved. The envious ministers were themselves consumed by the lions. King Darius and his court were then convinced of the existence and supremacy of God: “I make a decree, that in all the dominion of my kingdom men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel; for He is the living God, and steadfast forever, and His kingdom is that which shall not be destroyed…” (Daniel 6:27) The Talmud points out that Daniel is the same person referred to as Hatach in the Book of Esther. It was he who took care of Esther in the royal palace and communicated between her and Mordechai. And so, Daniel was also the secret hero of the Purim story!

Words of the Week

Purim and Chanukah are both about antisemitism. There is one obvious difference between them: Haman, of the Purim story, wanted to kill Jews. Antiochus, of the Chanukah story, wanted to kill Judaism. It was the difference between Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks 

Tomb of Daniel in Shush (Susa), Iran.