Tag Archives: Uganda

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.

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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: Gershom Sizomu

First Jew in Uganda’s Parliament

Gershom Sizomu (b. 1972) was born in Uganda in a village of the Abayudaya, a group of Ugandans who had converted to Judaism a century ago under the leadership of (former Jew of the WeekSemei Kakungulu. Unfortunately, in recent decades many rabbis, including the Israeli Rabbinate, did not accept their conversion, especially because many Abayudaya were forcibly converted to Christianity, while others went into hiding during the violent regime of Idi Amin. Sizomu invited a group of American Conservative rabbis to do a formal conversion in 2003. Some 300 Abayudaya converted, though many more refused to participate in the ceremony since they considered themselves fully Jewish already. Sizomu affirmed that it was only a formality, stating “We’re already Jewish.” He said in the ceremony “I was born Jewish, and I’d like to stay Jewish.” Following this, Sizomu headed to the US to study at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. After five years, he was ordained a Conservative Rabbi. Upon his return to Africa, Sizomu converted another 250 people from Uganda, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. In 2016, Sizomu ran in the Ugandan parliamentary elections and won a seat, beating seven other candidates. This makes him the first rabbi (and the first Jew!) in Uganda’s parliament. He has been working diligently to reduce government waste, alleviate poverty, and improve the country’s water and electrical networks. Sizomu is still the spiritual leader of 2000 Abayudaya Jews, and oversees seven synagogues, two Jewish schools, and a mikveh. Last year, he organized the first Birthright trip for a group of 40 Abayudaya youths. While the Jewish Agency for Israel has officially recognized the Abayudaya, the Israeli Interior Ministry still hasn’t. Sizomu is currently working towards changing that, and is very hopeful. He has said: “We are not Jewish for purposes of immigration. We are Jewish because that is who we are, and we will never change that…” and that “If the Arab world declared war on Israel, we would fight and die to protect it.”

Words of the Week

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.
– Friedrich Nietzsche

Jews of the Week: Nathan, Benzion and Yoni Netanyahu

Nathan Mileikowsky (1879-1935) was born in what is now Belarus to an Orthodox Jewish family descended from the great Vilna Gaon. When he was ten, he joined the famous Volozhin yeshiva and after eight years of diligent study was ordained as a rabbi. During this time he became drawn to Zionism and soon dedicated his time to the Zionist cause. He traveled across Europe, Russia, and later the United States to raise support for Zionism – becoming one of the world’s most popular Zionist speakers – as well as to raise money for the Jewish National Fund. In 1920, Mileikowsky made aliyah to Israel. He headed a school in Rosh Pina, promoted settlement of the Galilee, and wrote articles for the Hebrew press – often under the pen name “Netanyahu”. He continued to tour globally, at one point giving over 700 lectures in under 9 months, and publishing some of these talks in a popular book. Towards the end of his life, Mileikowsky settled in Herzliya and established a farm.

Benzion Netanyahu

Benzion Netanyahu

His son, Benzion Mileikowsky (1910-2012), was born in Warsaw while Nathan was head of its Hebrew Gymnasium. Growing up in Israel, he adopted his father’s pen name “Netanyahu”. Benzion studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, taking on a more hard-line approach to Zionism. He became editor of a number of Zionist newspapers, and later the chief editor of the Encyclopaedia Hebraica. In 1940, Benzion moved to New York to build American support for the Jewish state, serving as executive director of an American Zionist group. Later on, he became a professor of Judaic studies and medieval history at Cornell University. Benzion published five books on Jewish history, and edited a number of others. His three sons are: Iddo, a doctor and author; Benjamin, Israel’s current prime minister; and Yoni, the eldest son.

Last known photograph of Yoni Netanyahu

Last known photograph of Yoni Netanyahu

Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu (1946-1976) was born in New York, went to high school in Pennsylvania, and studied at Harvard. He first enlisted in the IDF in 1964, and fought in the Six-Day War, getting wounded while rescuing a soldier behind enemy lines. A few years later, he joined Israel’s special forces unit, Sayeret Matkal, and by 1972 became its deputy commander. For his heroic service during the 1973 Yom Kippur War he was awarded a distinguished medal. In 1976, now commander of Sayeret Matkal, Yoni led Operation Entebbe, successfully rescuing over 100 Israeli hostages held in Uganda. Sadly, Yoni was the mission’s sole casualty, and passed away during the flight back home. In 1980, his personal letters were published, and were described as a “remarkable work of literature”. Both a film and play have recently been made about his life.

Words of the Week

God treats a person the same way they treat their children.
– Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin