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Finding my Jewish Soul in Jerusalem

Nathalie Kamkhagi

Nathalie Kamkhagi

I am so grateful to so many people—my parents, my family, my friends, rabanim-- who played a role in my life and taught me so many wonderful things. I regard each as a precious stone that I have collected along the way.  

But I must give special mention to my beloved Rebbetzin Weinberg (May HaShem grant long life and great health to her, together with her family) who gave me the chance of my life, the opportunity to study Torah, to learn what it means to be a Jew, and what I was meant to do in this world.

These were questions that I had been seeking answers to all my life. I couldn't understand a world that I perceived as crazy and without any rules. I had no Jewish education, and my soul was thirsty for something. I did not know what that something was for a long time and, because of this thirst, I ended up having some difficult experiences. Finally, I realized that, although I always knew that HaShem existed, I didn't know that He knew I existed. From this realization, my connection with HaShem began: I discovered my place in the universe as a Jewish woman, and I started doing the things that I knew a Jew should do, such as eating kosher food and lighting Shabbat candles.

I always knew that HaShem existed, but I didn’t know that
He knew I existed.

Several "coincidences" occurred that convinced me that HaShem was directing everything. I finally went on a trip to Jerusalem and attended a class at Eyaht, the midrasha (religious seminary for women) of Rebbetzin Weinberg. At the time, I didn’t even know what a midrasha was!

During a class, the rebbetzin asked some questions and she liked my answers.  Because I was able to extend my plane ticket by a few more months and was able to stay at the home of some relatives, I decided to stay and continued to study. Every day, I attended classes at Eyaht, and then moved into the dormitory there.

But the story of how this all happened is incredible! On the last day of the trip, when my three-month ticket extension was up, I went to the Kotel to say goodbye and asked Hashem, "what should I do?”

As I left the Kotel, my cell phone rang. A friend was calling to tell me that the rebbetzin wanted to see me. I boarded the bus and made my way over to her house to say goodbye.

I felt the Torah entering my pores, transforming me...

Once there, Rebbetzin Weinberg invited me to stay in Israel and study and live at Eyaht.  I thanked her profusely for everything she had done for me, but explained that my ticket was about to expire, my bags were packed, and I was ready to go home.

She insisted, I repeated, she insisted again, I repeated again ...

Then she said, “Go to the Kotel and ask Hashem what you should do.” But I had just come from the Kotel asking exactly that, I told her. She looked at me and smiled knowingly. She already knew this, and this was the answer!

I stayed, settled in the midrasha, and b”H it was the best choice I ever made in my life. I am forever grateful for the opportunity that the rebbetzin provided me. The time I spent at Eyaht learning, I felt the Torah entering through my pores, transforming me, reshaping, reforming and reconnecting me. I became my true self. I learned from the best teachers and mentors, and Hashem was very generous to me.

Each and every one of the actions we do through our community groups, such as Guisheft, G’mach Brasil, Tzanuah é linda (Tzanuah-It´s beautiful), Alô Mitzva (Hello Mitzvah) is all in thanks to Hashem.

In my life, I feel so privileged to have met Rebbitzin Weinberg and to have had the opportunity to learn in her midrasha Eyaht, in Jerusalem. I am thankful for that experience and to her every day.

Toda L’Hashem!

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A Friendship that has Enriched My Life

David Herail

David Herail

Who has really been a source of inspiration in my life? It is difficult to answer this question offhand, since so many people have crossed my path. Life itself often inspires us through the mornings it offers us and the tomorrows it promises. And then, it punctuates with its days the circumstances that influence our existence. Choices are made, relationships are established. Ties are loosened, others are strengthened.

To have many friends
is a nightmare; but a friend is more
faithful than a brother– (Proverbs) chapter 18:24

My friendship with Zachar is a perfect fulfillment of this proverb. And this is not unrelated to the orientation that has been coming to me for some time through various activities. We have known each other for twenty-two years. My support for Israel is a result not only of my faith, which goes back to my childhood, but also of a proven friendship.

It is in the ordeal that a true friendship is revealed. I was going through terrible times when I was expelled from a club and Zachar was able to support me, not without risk, in the face of the injustice of a jury. He knew, furthermore, how to welcome me to his people in the isolation I was suffering.

We have traveled many different paths, but our mutual experiences, drawn from our journeys, fill in some of the gaps in each other's lives. 

In short, our friendship is one that surprises, that questions, that enriches, that moves, and that opens horizons that I was not able to conceive at the time of departure.

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Changes for the Better - A Journey

Stephan Fichtner

Stephan and Annina Fichtner

In these particular days, when – instead of meeting with friends – you start to clean up your apartment, you become a sort of time traveller. While going through some old stuff you usually hide in boxes, things appear that normally would not have been exposed to the sunlight. And it is important to observe that those items identified as “stuff,” have the power to remind you of certain moments in your life. The variety of the objects is as extensive as the term “stuff” itself is unspecific: ballpoint pens, ribbons, stickers, mugs, little notes, tags from conferences etc. Of course, I have a box labelled “Israel Bonds.”

“Michael, with his commitment to support the State of Israel, with his frankness and energy, changed my life.”

The Bonds experience changed my life, primarily because of the people I have met in the past four years, since Director of Israel Bonds Germany, Michael Grauss, asked me to become a lay leader. Michael, with his commitment to support the State of Israel, with his frankness and energy, changed my life in a way only a few people have before.

Then, at the very first Bootcamp for Young Leadership, I met Israel Maimon, incumbent president and CEO of the DCI. With all his experience and wisdom, he brought new perspectives in my life. So did Arnon Perlman, International Director of Israel Bonds in Europe. I am glad that I met them and am deeply thankful for the trust every one of these men have put in me. There are many others to mention whom I have met during my journey with Israel Bonds over the past few years: Jason Schwartz, Jason Jason Langsner, Albert Rubinsky, Sara Friedman, Aliza Fagen, Jennifer Diamond, Benyamin and Albert, the Vladimirs, Teri Herbstman, Israel Steckler, Jordan Greenberg, Jenny Meyers, Rachel Fertel and of course Sebastian, Ole, Tristan, Lena, David and Gerald – to name only a few. I met them in Austin, Tel Aviv, Berlin, Frankfurt, or Krakow.

Every person on every Israel Bonds trip I participated in changed my life for the better. But of course, there is one person who changed my life the most: my wonderful wife, Annina. During the time I became more involved with Bonds, I began to meet more young professionals. I had met Annina before and knew she would be a perfect candidate to support our campaign to get in touch with other young people. We both had decided to participate in the delegation Israel Bonds had organized to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel.

“There is one person who changed my life the most: my wonderful wife, Annina”

Since she was still a student and I just graduated, we tried to cut our expenses by traveling the same way as the rest of the delegation but choosing less expensive accommodation. What a wonderful Idea this turned out to be, since we discovered many hidden corners of the cities we visited. Looking back, it was a sort of rehearsal for what would follow. We began this delegation as friends, united in our goal to support Medinat Israel. But during this trip to the Holy Land, we were often asked what the status of our relationship would be. I remember Jordan Greenberg jokingly quoting Theodor Herzl, alluding to the seemingly obvious affection I had for Annina: “You know, we’re in Israel now … If we really want it, it is no longer a tale.”

About one and a half years later, in July of 2019, Annina and I took off from Berlin as a couple to visit Israel again. On July the 4th, I asked her to become my wife. When she said yes, I knew that from that very moment, we would start a new journey, and we would be together for the rest of our lives. We married in August 2020.

Photo credit: Chiko Photography

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Two Inspiring Holocaust Heroes Who Changed My Life

Scott Saunders
United Kingdom

Scott Saunders

It seems so long ago now that it’s hard to believe I actually worked in the financial service industry for almost thirty years. Throughout that period, I had the honour and privilege to work on Wall Street, in Tokyo and in Hong Kong.

I grew up in Northwest London in a fairly secular Jewish environment. I never went to a Jewish school, I played sports on most Saturdays and had friends from all backgrounds. My parents, too, came from very secular backgrounds; my mother is fifth generation English.

I was moderately successful in the financial industry and realistically, if allowed, could have stayed until full retirement age. So, what happened?

Many people change paths or direction throughout their lives; some of these changes are forced upon them and some not. For me, my directional change was more something that happened over a period of time, part by chance and part by design. What I could never have realized was the total impact it would have on me and on those around me.

In 1993, I was working in Tokyo, running an equity trading book for a large American banking firm. My wife was involved with the small Jewish community center there, a life-saver for a young Jewish expat’s wife. We used to go the attached synagogue most weeks, and most of our non-work-related friends were met through the center. During the year, there were many events, from quiz nights to celebrations of Jewish holidays, and various gatherings for us all. One such event was the commemoration of a Japanese diplomat who had saved Jews in Lithuania during the war.

This story of a Japanese diplomat who saved Jews from the Holocaust was not an account I expected to hear.

When I was a child, I had listened to stories of Japanese cruelty toward the Allied soldiers. My father’s neighbour and first cousin had died on the Burma Railway, and my closest friend’s father had been a POW, captured in the fall of Singapore. This story of a Japanese diplomat who saved Jews from the Holocaust was not an account
I expected to hear.

The diplomat’s name was Chiene (Sempo) Sugihara, and, stationed in Kaunas, (Kovno) Lithuania, he had served as the vice-consul to the Japanese Empire. The evening, hosted by the American embassy with Sugihara’s wife present, was for me not only the telling of an amazing story, but perhaps the first time I had really exposed to a Holocaust-related narrative beyond movies or articles I had read. The tale of how a Japanese diplomat -- against the wishes of his government-- had issued visas to Jewish refugees so they could escape the oncoming Nazis was an act almost unheard of in Japanese society. Many of those refugees escaped east through dangerous conditions to get to Japan and eventually were settled into a ghetto in Shanghai. This short description really does not do the story justice. Today, there are many articles and books written about Sugihara. But for me, that inspiring event was just the start of an interest in the Holocaust that would last until today.

The story became a little more personal when, during my time in Tokyo, I used to sit next to an elderly man in synagogue every week. He spoke very little beyond the normal courtesies and, to my shame,
I never really pushed the discussion.

In 1994, he passed away and the rabbi, who was new and transient, like the rest of us, had the duty of presiding at his funeral. But, also like most of us, he knew very little about him. His name was Joseph Shimkin, and he had been a recipient of one of Sugihara’s visas, and so the story was told to us that after Sugihara had left Lithuania, Joseph had learnt how to forge the visas. We will never really know how many he forged, or how many people were saved, but the tale we heard left a profound impact on me--not only the story itself, but the fact that I only heard it after he had died. I had sat next to him for most of a year and had taken very little interest in him, and yet he’d had had an amazing history that I had never accessed.

I used to sit next to an elderly man in synagogue every week…

In 1995, my wife and myself, with two small girls, moved to Hong Kong, where I continued to work in trading for a large firm. We became involved with the synagogue and the JCC there, a considerably larger institution than the one in Tokyo. My interest in the Holocaust and the individual stories I heard continued to grow, and in those early years I started to work with the JCC to bring in speakers and set up Holocaust-related programmes. Indeed, in 2000, we sponsored an exhibition from the Sydney Jewish Museum that was also accompanied by a survivor
who could speak to it.

In 2006, while I sat on the JCC board, a colleague asked me if I would be interested in putting a trip together to Poland. Of course, I was interested, and we proceeded to do our research. It turned out that, as a student in Montreal, she had participated in program called March of the Living, and we reached out to learn more. In 2007, I led a small Hong Kong delegation on this journey. If my personal journey had begun with Sugihara and Shimkin, then the next stage certainly progressed in 2007. Our small group was taken around by a Holocaust survivor named Noach Klieger. His story was quite remarkable – I must add here that all survivor stories are remarkable – but this was my first trip to Poland, and obviously my first time experiencing this type of exposure. To hear about Auschwitz from someone who was there, while standing on the same ground… to hear his story of post- war escape to Palestine aboard The Exodus, and to just be in his presence, with his amazing zest for life, was perhaps one of the most inspirational parts of my own journey.

I took an additional two groups from Hong Kong before leaving. It was during this time that the financial world changed, devastated by the collapse of Lehman Brothers and then the melt-down of markets. I was tired and wanted a new challenge, but when I searched for a transfer away from Asia, I found no opportunity. Finally, I bit the bullet, partially as opportunities for me had dried up and partially because I was mentally checked out of an industry that had changed beyond recognition--not a criticism, more just a point of fact.

To hear about Auschwitz from someone who was there, while standing on the same ground…

In 2010, my family and I moved to London. I couldn’t say I was going home, since I’d been away for nearly twenty-three years, but I felt I was starting a new adventure rather than returning to a familiar situation. I started to explore how to continue my “affair” with March of the Living, and as there was no branch of the organization in the U.K., I was left to try and start one.

That first year, finally, after many no’s, I persuaded UJS (Union Jewish Students) to bring a small group with me. I sponsored them, and along with ten students, embarked on this first U.K. delegation. The pilot was a success, and so I set about starting it as a charity and building collaborative partnerships to construct a program that was based on a strong foundation of education, not just about the Holocaust, but about 1000 years of Jewish history in Eastern Europe.

I look back now, ten years on, to acknowledge that we have taken over 2500 participants on this journey and my entire life has changed. I laugh that I am financially poorer, but mentally much richer. I have had the true pleasure of spending time with inspirational survivors, dynamic community leaders and many young people who, just maybe, because of a six-day journey exploring our collective past, will have been inspired to become tomorrow’s great Jewish leaders.

Photo credit: Sam Churchill Photography  

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The Rabbi who Changed my Life

Isaac Sasson

Isaac Sasson and Rabbi Yitzchak David Grossman

In April 2017, I participated in one of Israel Bonds’ yearly trips to Israel. We were celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s unification, and our entire delegation was preparing for Shabbat at Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria. It was then that my dear friend, David Bar On, told me that, as part of the program, we would attend services at the great synagogue of Jerusalem, and would be accompanied by Rabbi Grossman. Being a very pro-Israel person, a Zionist and a friend of many important rabbis of Israel, I responded that I didn’t know who Rabbi Grossman was.
As I know many people do, I was expecting that if we
were going to meet a rabbi, he would likely be asking for
money-for tzedakah.

We headed to the synagogue and I spotted the rabbi-- with a strong countenance, and clearly big personality-- sitting in the chair of honor at the synagogue. I thought no more about it, but as a group of about twelve of us were walking back to the hotel, we met a group of youngsters from Canada and the U.S. on their high school trip, and when they saw the rabbi, they started shouting “Look, it’s Rabbi Grossman, Rabbi Grossman! And everybody ran toward him to hug him. That’s when I began to wonder exactly who this person was.

When we arrived back at the hotel, the rabbi asked me to sit by his side at the Shabbat dinner table, and I thought to myself, “I’ll have to pay for this,” but then we started a conversation and I experienced a strange feeling; he wasn’t like any rabbi I had ever met and I liked him a lot. When we finished dinner, he told me to step outside and have a smoke. I was surprised-- a rabbi telling me to smoke on Shabbat? Honestly, I was dying to have a smoke! So, I went outside to the patio to smoke and got locked out. I tried to reach my friends without success, but after a while, someone came to get me, saying, “Rabbi Grossman told me to come and find you.” I was astonished! That is the story of my first meeting with Rabbi Yitzchak David Grossman.

I couldn’t understand it, but I realized miracles have no logic

Rabbi Yitzchak David Grossman, Isaac Sasson and David Bar On at Migdal Ohr

A couple of days later, he invited us to a place in the north called Migdal Haemek, where he heads the Migdal Ohr organization. There, my adventure really started; I was impressed with the work he did, a rabbi who dedicated his life to serving others, taking care of homeless children and troubled youngsters. Not only was he providing room and board for them, but he made them part of a family. I understood that this man was different: he respected the way others might think and how they might approach their religion.

When he took us to a women’s school, I was impressed not only by how clean and orderly it seemed, but also by the love demonstrated by the women’s children toward the rabbi. As we were shown the school’s central plaza, he commented that he would like to build a roof there. I was still skeptical and expecting to be asked for a donation, but later, after he’d invited us for dinner and I realized he hadn’t asked for any money, I inquired of his assistant how much the roof would cost and was
given an amount.

I don’t know what happened to me in that moment, but in my heart, I felt our group needed to be part of this project. I began to talk about raising the money from the participants of the delegation.

I learned that life holds much more than our eyes can see

Rabbi Yitzchak David Grossman and Isaac Sasson

I spoke with everybody and we agreed that anybody willing to donate would write his or her name on a piece of paper with the amount they were donating, but only the amounts would be mentioned, without the name. Magic began! Everybody participated-- the delegation, people around the delegation, the photographer, the driver… and, to my surprise, the exact amount of money was raised. Logically, I couldn’t understand it, but I realized miracles have no logic.

At that moment, the rabbi and I developed a special bond and my life changed. Being a forty-year-old single guy, living the life I wanted, I began to understand that life held much more important things for me than material or honorable achievments; I understood there was no bigger satisfaction than helping others, just as Rabbi Grossman does each day.

The close relationship I developed over the next three years with the rabbi truly changed everything in my life; I got married to a beautiful and virtuous woman, who gave me the joy of being a father to two beautiful boys. And I learned that life holds much more than our eyes can see.

I owe my sincere thanks to Israel Bonds. It is because of the organization and the annual delegations they organize that I met Rabbi Yitzchak David Grossman, whose impact on my life has been immeasurable.