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.
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
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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.
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.
they were strangers to each other.
lives in Israel, where he made a new life after World War II. Both lost many
relatives in the Holocaust.
though particularly dramatic, is typical of Jewish families separated by the
corrosive effects of Nazism and Communism.
microcosm,” says Blokh, a native of Moscow, of his community’s “search to find
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.
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.
sounds just like the father of whom he has no memory, Solomon says.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
vital identifying facts, neither could discover the other brother’s
trying. “I am a digger,” he says. When the Internet made genealogy accessible,
he turned to it. Still, no luck.
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
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.
online. In 15 minutes, he had what he was looking for and called Solomon.
said, “sit down. I found your brother.”
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.
remembers their first words to each other.
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.
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.
Jakubovskis came recently to Queens, the couples went touring and fishing
together, visiting Washington, D.C., Canada and Ellis Island.
Nidre invitation took the brothers by surprise.
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.”
version of this article first appeared in The Jewish Week.