As told by Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs, head shliach to Holland, Chief Rabbi of the Interprovincial Chief Rabbinate for the Netherlands and president of the Rabbinical Council. The Queen of Holland recently bestowed upon him one of Holland’s highest civilian awards. Rabbi Jacobs is the seventh generation of his family to reside in Holland.
One day in the spring of 1981, Rabbi Jacobs received a message that a vicar from the Protestant church had called him. The vicar, it turned out, was a woman.
After leaving a few messages with each other, they finally connected, and she explained that she needed to meet with him. Overcoming his initial hesitation, the rabbi agreed, and a date was set.
Arriving at her home, he was ushered into a room that felt like and resembled the tropics, humid and filled with willowy palm trees. In the midst of the foliage, sitting on an oversized chair, was a fragile eighty-year-old woman. She asked Rabbi Jacobs to sit down. “Please, you must listen to my story,” she began.
“My name is Baroness Alice van Slingelandt, and I originate from Vienna. My maiden name is Joachim; my parents were members of the Kultusgemeinde (Jewish Community) in Vienna, and I am Jewish.
“At twenty, I was an artist, and as you are undoubtedly aware, artists can be eccentric. I married a wealthy sixty-year-old man. He was from Holland and living in Indonesia, then a Dutch colony. I followed him to Indonesia, where he died four years later. I was soon to learn that he had bequeathed all of his money to the children of his former wife, leaving me penniless.
“Refusing to come back home, face my family and admit failure, I remained in Indonesia homeless, sleeping in the street. To earn some money, I planted flowers—orchids—and after a few years I had created a successful business with a number of employees. It was during that period that I was approached by missionaries and, succumbing to their overtures, converted to Christianity.
“Soon after, I met my second husband, fifty-five-year-old Baron van Slingelandt, and we returned to Holland together. I began studying theology, and eventually became a vicar in the Protestant Church and a professor at the church university. My husband was an active missionary who tried to convert Jews to Christianity.
“Over time, I came to the realization that the New Testament is a distortion of the Torah. In my lectures in the university, I now avoid teaching Christian dogma.
“In my old age, I have come to understand that Judaism is the truth. I need to learn more.”
After that first meeting, Rabbi Jacobs visited the baroness every second week. He taught her about keeping kosher, the holidays and Jewish prayer. Slowly she began to observe Shabbat and other mitzvahs. During this time she maintained her public persona, continuing to teach her religious classes in the town of Driebergen.
A few years later she fell gravely ill, and was hospitalized. Rabbi Jacobs felt it his obligation to ensure that when the time came, she would be buried as a Jew. Naturally, this would require her consent. Despite her commitment to Judaism, Rabbi Jacobs knew that this step would be an extremely difficult one. Before broaching the subject, he wrote a letter to the Rebbe requesting a blessing that he be successful in persuading her.
On his next visit to the hospital, Rabbi Jacobs delicately explained the importance of being buried as a Jew. The baroness listened politely, and responded that this was not possible because she already had a plot reserved in a non-Jewish cemetery next to her husband, who had died seventeen years earlier.
After some time and many words, she conceded, on one condition. She wanted two vicars, her students at the university, to speak at the funeral. Rabbi Jacobs agreed, but stipulated that they were not allowed to say anything religious. They then discussed what would be engraved on her tombstone. Baroness Alice van Slingelandt passed away March 30, 1985, corresponding to the 8th of the Jewish month of Nissan.
Jewish law dictates that at certain times of the year eulogies may not be given, because they are incongruous with the joy occasioned by a festival. One such time is the entire month of Nissan. Rabbi Jacobs was in a bind. He could not, in good conscience, allow the baroness to be eulogized.
A few days before the funeral, Rabbi Jacobs received a phone call from one of the vicars the baroness had chosen to speak. He was shocked to discover that the baroness was Jewish. He told Rabbi Jacobs what he planned to say at the funeral, and Rabbi Jacobs endeavored to explain the law about not giving eulogies during the month of Nissan because of the festival of Passover. The vicar was so incensed that he hung up the phone.
The second vicar, however, had a different reaction. He respectfully expressed compliance with the new developments. At the end of the conversation, he revealed to Rabbi Jacobs that his wife was also Jewish!
In the end, Rabbi Jacobs was the only one to speak at the funeral. He spoke about teshuvah—return. He explained that within every Jew there is a neshamah, a divine spark that remains forever connected to G‑d, no matter how far one has strayed. Teshuvah means simply to return to our true selves, to reconnect to the part of us that is one with G‑d. Little did Rabbi Jacobs know that the wife of the second vicar was hanging onto his every word . . .
In March of 2008, a young man moved from the town of Leiden, on the west coast of Holland, to the neighborhood of Amersfoort, where Rabbi Jacobs lives.
Before leaving his hometown, his Reform rabbi had warned him not to go to Rabbi Jacobs’s shul. He was convinced that Orthodox Jews would not tolerate a Reform Jew in their congregation. Having a curious nature, the young man’s interest was piqued, and he made a point of paying a visit to the shul soon after his arrival. One week led to another, and he became a regular in the shul, often eating the Shabbat meals in the Jacobs’s home.
Six months passed. One Shabbat afternoon, Rabbi Jacobs retired to take a nap after lunch, and the young man found himself opening his heart to the rabbi’s wife, Blouma. He told her that his father was not Jewish. His mother and his maternal grandmother were Jews, but his grandfather on his mother’s side was not. In fact, his grandfather was a Protestant vicar.
Blouma then told the young man that she too had an interesting story. She told the baroness’s story, and to her utter amazement the young man sat up and exclaimed, “I know that story! My grandfather was the second vicar she chose to speak at her funeral!”
The young man proceeded to tell a part of the story that neither Blouma nor her husband knew:
“My grandmother was very moved and inspired by what your husband said at the baroness’s funeral. She felt as though Rabbi Jacobs was talking directly to her, and she decided that the time had come to begin to live her life as a Jewish woman.
“She declared to her daughter, our mother, ‘We are Jewish. Your children are Jewish, and we should live as Jews.’ Although my mother had known that she was a Jew, and had not hidden it from my sister and me, we observed virtually nothing in the way of Jewish life. Now, inspired by my grandmother, my mother began to embrace Jewish observance, and when I was sixteen she sent me to Israel for summer camp. Upon my return, I chose the path of Reform Judaism. That is, until I met you and your husband . . .”
Today, this young man lives a Torah life with his beautiful family in Amersfoort.
Eventually, the story of the young man’s sister came to light as well:
In 1989 she decided to make aliyah. Under the auspices of the Jewish Agency, she was slated to go to a non-religious kibbutz.
Meanwhile, she was working in a shop in the town of Utrecht. One Friday afternoon a few weeks before her departure, a little boy wearing a yarmulka and his bearded father came into the shop. Intrigued, she engaged them in conversation. The father, who was a rabbi, invited her to his home for Shabbat.
She took an immediate liking to the rabbi’s wife, and until her trip to Israel she spent every Shabbat in their home. Inspired by what she saw in the rebbetzin, she altered her plans and decided to spend her time in Israel in a Torah-observant environment. She remained in Israel, married, and together with her husband and children lives as a committed and proud Jew.
Fourth Thread—The Rebbetzin’s Story
One day in 1975, in the middle of the school year, a teenage girl was enrolled in the Jewish Sunday classes Rabbi Jacobs taught. Her parents enrolled her because they hoped that the classes would influence her to move in the right direction. Merely attending classes did not produce the desired results, however. The couple sought Rabbi Jacobs’s guidance, and together they devised a plan.
The Jacobs used to go to London occasionally to visit Blouma’s family, and the rabbi asked the girl if she would join them as a mother’s helper on one of these trips. London sounded exotic, so she accepted the invitation.
A part of the plan was to have her stay at the home of Rabbi Forta, a science teacher in the Lubavitch school there. They hoped that he would have a good influence on this highly intelligent and very confused girl. After many hours of conversation and debate with Rabbi Forta, the girl came to understand the folly of her current ideas and began to explore Jewish values and teachings.
After the trip, she became a frequent guest at the Jacobs’s home on Shabbat. Subsequently, she attended the Chabad Beth Rivkah school in Paris, went on to seminary, and became a Jewish studies teacher. She married an American-born Chabad chassid, had children, and together with her family moved to the town of Utrecht to become shluchim.
It was this girl’s husband and son that the young man’s sister had encountered in the shop that fateful Friday afternoon . . .