This is not the beginning of a romance novel.
Take my word for it. It really happened. And the story continues to unfold, day by day, minute by minute.
A few months ago, a torn piece of jagged-edged paper, written in my mother’s unmistakable handwriting, flitted to the floor of my little office in New Jersey. It was probably inserted in Mom’s notebook, which had, perhaps, been moved, dislodging the note. Whatever, it suddenly appeared on the floor and easily could have been tossed out without a backward glance.
Luckily, it wasn’t. In a moment of revelation, I picked it up and realized that it was a short list of unfamiliar family names and places in Israel. I didn’t know who these people were, but I certainly recognized one of the places, Kibbutz Shefayim, a mere two miles from the Herzliya town line. That was a place where my parents had lived for 18 years, where my sister still lives more than 50 years later, and where we were part-time citizens for more than 22 years. If we had family on nearby Shefayim, one of Israel’s most successful kibbutzim, wouldn’t we know it? Definitely not!
Mom, being long gone, could shed no light, but would it be too mystical to feel that she arranged for the note to land in my path? Indeed it would, but how else to explain such a phenomenon? Serendipity? Fate?
And then there’s the Amy connection. Our daughter Amy has worked for Camp Ramah for a long, long time. She is now director of the National Ramah Commission, a job she loves and imbues with her deep felt passion for Ramah and Jewish camping. Every spring, Amy spends several days at Kibbutz Shefayim, in a program shared with the Jewish Agency for Israel, to bring hundreds of Israeli young adults, known as Mishlachat, to Ramah camps in North America. These young people are guided by representatives of all the Ramah camps and work together to learn camp philosophy, practice, and routines. In a warm and embracing environment they become enthusiastic, dynamic, and dedicated staff at Ramah.
It is a formative period for the Mishlachat, bringing closeness between the Israelis and the Americans. Ultimately, it becomes an outstanding part of Ramah camping, when the Israelis meet up with their campers to form a cohesive Jewish community across North America, and to bring the spirit and vibrancy of Israel to these North American Jewish youngsters.
How was it even possible that Amy had been going to this program for many years without ever discovering that family members, hers and ours, were part of the founding members of the kibbutz, remaining there to this day? Do any of us, you or I, pass by a relative without a hint of recognition? How do we know who is on the same family tree? Clearly we don’t — and this is quite possibly a frequent event. Surely that was the case at Shefayim.
We Jews have had many pivotal times in the past century. These include some of the most profound events in our long history, the Shoah and the rebuilding of the State of Israel. It was a long struggle to stay alive. Keeping in touch with even the closest family members was a challenge, often not knowing if they lived or not. Disseminated like seeds into the powerful wind, our formerly close-knit families often became unknown to one another as time quickly passed. And even the great migration to America often brought changes of name as well as addresses.
We became lost to one another. The Shoah devastated our people as never before.
But there were remarkable survival stories. In the Ashrei story of Mark and Edith, which I shared with you a few months ago, I am reminded of their dispersal, and each one’s certainty that the other was murdered by the Nazis. Already married before the war, somehow after war’s end they miraculously found each other and made their way to New Jersey, living witnesses to the horrors of their old lives, but fiercely committed to building their new lives.
And so I gave Mom’s little paper to Amy. It was a missive from her long-gone, deeply loved savta, Grandma Ida. Amy soon would be on her way to Shefayim again, this time with an added mission, to find Tamar.
Naturally, after all these years Amy is well known to many of the kibbutz members, and she asked if anyone knew the name on the old note, which revealed only the first name, Tamar, of the perhaps-unknown relative. Yes! Of course. The family was a founding member of the kibbutz and until this very day, Tamar is the kibbutz archivist! She is the mother of four adult children, two of whom live on the kibbutz.
She regaled Amy with links and stories of shared family members, including close, long-gone relatives. She had pictures of life in Augustow, the charming Polish resort town, embedded with lovely canals, where my maternal grandmother, Peshka, had been raised, and which my husband and I visited years ago. Our family had no survivors left in the quaint old town. Many were killed by the Nazis, and others found their way to the fledgling state of Israel, or, as our branch had, before the winds of war, to New York and New Jersey to start anew.
The Jewish world and its six degrees of separation! What was the likelihood of this meeting between branches of the same family separated by time and distance, and without the knowledge needed to bring a relationship back to life? One would have to say extremely unlikely! But yet….
Thus, at the end of a long and busy day, Amy spent several hours with Tamar, who excitedly shared family photos from Europe as well as stories of connections throughout the world. She recognized our family names and shed light on some mysteries, while adding information and anecdotes. Her family is, indeed, our family. We cannot regain the years wasted, but we must rejoice at this incredible discovery. And so we shall!
Within the next few days my sister will make the short trip to the kibbutz to meet our newly found family. I, already back in New Jersey, will need to wait for a return trip to Israel, continuing to wonder at the powerful forces that made this story come to life, wondering whether there are more tangled relationships out there amongst all of us.
For sure there are!
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!