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Synagogue Service Highlights Curious Reunion of Long Lost Brothers

Synagogue Service Highlights Curious Reunion of Long Lost Brothers

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Gregory Solomon, left, and Meir Jakubovski are half-brothers who were separated by the Iron Curtain.
Gregory Solomon, left, and Meir Jakubovski are half-brothers who were separated by the Iron Curtain.

At the start of Chabad-Lubavitch of Rego Park’s recent Yom Kippur evening services, Rabbi Eli Blokh asked two men to hold the Torah scrolls in front of the ark as a visiting cantor chanted Kol Nidre.

Beaming, the men sitting side-by-side in one row of seats stood up and walked to the front of the Queens, N.Y., synagogue; across from each other, they hugged the scrolls to their chests.

One of the men receiving the honor was a familiar face in the congregation, many of whose members are émigrés from the former Soviet Union. Gregory Solomon, a native of Ukraine who moved to the United States three decades ago, attends many Chabad activities.

The other man was a stranger.

The two, Blokh said in a brief introduction, are brothers who had recently been reunited after some 60 years apart.

Technically, Solomon and Meir Jakubovski are half-brothers, born to the same father and different mothers; and they were not reunited, since they had never known each other before coming together for the first time last year.

Before that, they were strangers to each other.

Jakubovski lives in Israel, where he made a new life after World War II. Both lost many relatives in the Holocaust.

Their story, though particularly dramatic, is typical of Jewish families separated by the corrosive effects of Nazism and Communism.

“It’s a microcosm,” says Blokh, a native of Moscow, of his community’s “search to find living connections.”

Now family again — Solomon is 67, Jakubovski, 73, both self-described “traditional” Jews — the men have kept in constant contact since finding each other with an Israeli cousin’s help. They talk on Skype once a week, and Solomon and his wife Sima went to Israel for 18 days in May.

Jakubovski and his wife Yehudit are staying with the Solomons in Forest Hills, Queens, on a two-month-long vacation. Like old friends, the men banter in Russian and English, Hebrew and Yiddish, interrupting one another and finishing each other’s sentences. At a wall-mounted collage of combined family photographs, they point to decades-old pictures of each other that show a great physical resemblance.

Jakubovski sounds just like the father of whom he has no memory, Solomon says.

Ships Passing

Growing up in a Ukrainian shtetl, Solomon – his original family name was Solomovich – did not know of his older half-brother’s existence until, at 12, he overheard a conversation between his parents. His father, drafted into the Soviet Army during World War II, had been wounded; moving from base to base, he was unable to keep in touch with his wife back home. Hearing no word and thinking her husband dead, the wife married another man, Avram Jakubovski, a Polish Jew who adopted their son, Meir, and settled in 1949 in Israel.

Eventually, Solomon’s father discovered this, but he didn’t know his remarried wife or son’s new family name, where exactly they were or how to reach them. He remarried and had Solomon.

Intrigued upon learning of his lost brother, Solomon, now a heating technician at S. John’s University, wanted to meet him, but the Iron Curtain blocked contact with the West. After leaving the Soviet Union in 1979, Solomon did some research about his older brother’s fate, but came to a dead end. He wrote to Yad Vashem, stating, “I just want to find my brother and give him a hug.”

Jakubovski, who moved around Europe with his mother and stepfather before settling in Israel, grew up unaware of the existence of his younger half-brother, until he was 21, and an uncle mentioned the fact, in passing, at a wedding. He wanted to meet this younger brother and did some research. Nothing turned up.

One problem: Solomon’s family had taken the Russian-sounding name Zelenyuk; he did not start using the present, shortened version of Solomovich until coming to this country. And Jakubovski lived under his stepfather’s name, rather than Solomovich.

Without these vital identifying facts, neither could discover the other brother’s whereabouts.

Solomon kept trying. “I am a digger,” he says. When the Internet made genealogy accessible, he turned to it. Still, no luck.

All their parents are long gone, and no mutual kin could help.

“The more I learn about my family, the more questions I have,” he says. “Nobody can answer them.”

Last year, Boris Kayzerman, a cousin of Solomon and a successful dentist who lives in Bat Yam, an Israeli city on the Mediterranean, tried one more lead, tracing another relative’s name that Solomon happened to mention.

Kayzerman went online. In 15 minutes, he had what he was looking for and called Solomon.

“Gregory,” he said, “sit down. I found your brother.”

Then Kayzerman called Jakubovski, a retired bookkeeper, breaking the good news.

The next day, at 1:30 a.m. Israeli time, Kayzerman in his office made a Skype connection, Jakubovski and his wife at his side. Solomon and his wife were at their son’s house in Stamford, Conn.

Neither remembers their first words to each other.

“We cried,” Jakubovski says. “I couldn’t see anything.”

It turns out that Jakubovski’s wife’s sister lives in Forest Hills, a few blocks from the Solomons. The Jakubovskis had come for many visits – the brothers may have passed each other on the street over the years without knowing it.

The Solomons decided to visit Israel. Jakubovski brought his extended family to the airport, and everyone cried again. The meeting even made the news, with Israel’s Channel 2 television station covering the event and the Russian-language Novosti newspaper devoting a feature story to the occasion.

When the Jakubovskis came recently to Queens, the couples went touring and fishing together, visiting Washington, D.C., Canada and Ellis Island.

Blokh’s Kol Nidre invitation took the brothers by surprise.

“We didn’t expect such treatment,” Jakubovski says.

“I used Kol Nidrei, [a spiritual height for many Jews], as an opportunity to highlight their story,” says Blokh, who caters to the émigré community through his Russian Jewish Community Center of Queens. The whole congregation “became participants, instead of passive observers.”

A version of this article first appeared in The Jewish Week.



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