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JNF WIRE: Finding Each Other, Finding Our Roots

December 2, 2016
Adam H. Brill, Director of Communications
212-879-9305 x222
By:Aubrey Isaacs
Core Educator, Alexander Muss High School in Israel

   Aubrey Isaacs 2.jpg

Aubrey Isaacs.jpgI shall begin this story at the end. On a cold snowy November afternoon in 2016, in north eastern Poland, a few miles from the Poland-Lithuanian border, a bus full of students from AMHSI-JNF, the Alexander Muss High School in Israel semester program, makes its way south as part of the students' journey through sites of Jewish heritage in Poland. The morning has been spent in the beautiful village of Tycochin, learning about shtetl life in pre-war Europe and then coming face-to-face with the horrific massacre that, in a single day, ended 400 years of Jewish life in Tycochin.

Inside the bus it is warm and pleasant and the students sat quietly pensive, absorbing the experiences and lessons of the morning. At the front of the bus, two AMHSI-JNF educators, Benjy Behrman and I sit together, utilizing the travel time to study Pirkei Avot, the Mishna tractate entitled Ethics of the Fathers – that wonderfully deep compendium of Jewish values and morals compiled by Rabbi Yehuda the Prince at the end of the 2nd century.

That is the end of the story. So where did it begin? It had two starting points. The first was in 1884, not far away, just over the Lithuanian border in a small shtetl called Krotingen in the Kovno district. The other starting point was on a Friday morning in the spring of 2015 in the Kazimierz square in the heart of what was once the Jewish district of Cracow.

That Friday, I was guiding the AMHSI-JNF Spring 2015 semester students on a tour of Jewish Cracow when we walked past another group of Jewish students, sitting in front of the famous "Altshul," listening intently to their tour guide. As I walked past, the tour guide looked vaguely familiar to me and I nodded at him politely as we passed. But a minute later he had stopped his lecture and came running over to me saying, "You are Aubrey, right?" 

Pleading guilty to this accusation the guide identified himself as Benjy Behrman, great grandson of my grandfather's brother and thus my “second cousin once removed.” But time was short and I had to keep my group moving. My students were curious – as AMHSI students usually are – who was the young man I had stopped to talk to and they were astonished at my telling them that actually he is a distant relative of mine, whom I knew only vaguely. I heard many clichéd remarks about "Jewish geography" and "small world" but I was too busy teaching and guiding to give much attention to these comments.

Next morning was Shabbat and while many of my students enjoyed a lie in to recover from the exhaustion of the week in Poland, I attended services at the beautiful Kuppa Synagogue, one of the few remaining active synagogues in Cracow. On entering the shul I saw my long-lost new-found cousin and sat down beside him. I am afraid that that morning we both did a lot more chatting than praying as we discovered we had many interests in common. By the end of our conversation I was already thinking that Benjy could be a superb addition to the AMHSI teaching faculty.

The next day dawned grey and misty and in a somber mood we boarded our bus for the journey to visit Auschwitz–Birkenau. At one of the most shocking sites of Birkenau, the prisoners' barracks in the women's' camp, I again came across Benjy. He met me with a sad look and quietly said "Baruch Dayan Ha'Emet" (Blessed be the True Judge), the traditional pronouncement said when hearing or announcing bad news. During those very hours that Benjy and I had spent in shul chatting and forming a connection, his grandfather, my mother's first cousin, had passed away at a ripe old age.

I interrupt the story for some explanatory family background. The Behrmans of Krotingen were a respectable family that proudly claimed descent from the family of the Gaon of Vilna, the 18th century leader of Lithuanian Jewry. Our ancestor first moved to the shtetl of Krotingen in 1656, where my grandfather Abe Behrman, whose name I carry, was born in 1884, the seventh child to his parents. A year later the youngest child was born, a son Julius – Benjy's great-grandfather. Tragically orphaned at a very young age, the two boys grew up together and became intimate close friends.

These were hard years for the Jews in the Russian Empire. Government sponsored pogroms spread throughout the country. The cantonist laws reinstituted by the anti-semitic Tzar Alexander III enabled the abduction of Jewish children for 25 years of service in the Russian military. 

Widowed very young, our great-grandmother bravely sent her sons away, first to study in yeshiva and then out of the country altogether, in order to save them from the prospect of forced induction into the hated Tzar's army. Abe and Julius bid farewell to their mother and set off. They migrated to Great Britain, ending up in the fair town of Sunderland in northeast England, while Abe's journeys eventually took him to settle a hundred miles away in Glasgow, Scotland. Yet, the physical distance never interrupted the close bond between the brothers who often used to visit each other. Abe's love for Julius was so great that before his death in 1959 his last wish was to be buried in Sunderland next to his beloved brother.

We return to our story. Benjy, saddened by the loss of his grandfather, travelled from Poland to Sunderland to participate in the funeral. When I made a condolence phone call a few days later I was moved and touched to hear that while in the Jewish cemetery in Sunderland he had seen the two adjacent graves of Abe and Julius and placed a stone on each grave.

It seemed to us that we were meant to find each other, as if Benjy's grandfather had waited for us to meet up and he chose that moment to depart this world. I recommended Benjy to apply to work as an educator at AMHSI-JNF. He applied and was immediately accepted and I had the privilege to help with his training and integration into the Muss family.

The crux of our story came a year later when Benjy and I were working together, team teaching the AMHSI-JNF Fall 2016 semester.  A letter suddenly arrived from a mutual relative with recollections and information about the two Behrman brothers. It was a document written many years ago by an elderly aunt who had penned stories about my grandfather and his brother. She described their mutual love and their shared devotion to Torah study. She described how they would particularly focus on Pirkei Avot as a source of wisdom and guidance in their lives. Benjy and I shared these stories with relish and this led to a conversation about the snippets of family information that had reached us about our grandfather and great grandfather respectively.

Then, almost casually, Benjy remarked, "Do you know I have a volume of the Mishna Tractate Nezikin in my home that has come down to me as an inheritance from my great grandfather." 

He then told me of an ancient leather-bound book printed on thick yellow paper, published in Russia in 1857. The book has pride of place in his home. Strangely however on the front page of the book are two signatures, in two handwritings, Julius Behrman – Benjy's great grandfather and Abe Behrman – my grandfather.

I think I turned a strange shade of green. Ever since I was a small child, my mother of blessed memory, kept in our home what seemed like her most precious possession, an ancient set of the Mishna, inherited from her father. Since of all her children I carry her father's Hebrew name, I was promised that one day I would inherit this Mishna. However when that day of inheritance came I realized that this beautiful set was missing one volume and so although the Passover song "Echad Mi Yode'a" tells of the "shisha sidrei Mishna" – the six tractates of the Mishna, I have been aware all my adult life that my inherited set of five volumes was inexplicably missing one volume.

Now in trepidation I called home. At my request my wife climbed to the top of the bookshelf and ascertained that the missing volume was "Nezikin," which includes the Mishna tractate of Pirkei Avot. My remaining five volumes also contained the signatures of both brothers. The mystery of the missing volume had been solved! 

Meantime, checking through his volume Benjy discovered handwritten notes inserted in the text with comments and quotes of favourite texts from Pirkei Avot. It now only required a little logic and detective work to work out what had happened. 

The Mishna was jointly owned by the two brothers. Once they established their homes in different cities, they must have somehow agreed that the books will belong to my grandfather Abe. Back in the 1940s or early 1950s Abe had travelled to Sunderland to visit his brother and took with him his precious book, carefully selecting the volume containing Pirkei Avot so that they might study together. The book had been accidentally forgotten in Sunderland and never returned. The two brothers passed away in the 1950s and nobody in the world knew of the Mishna volume missing from my home or of the source of the single volume that Benjy inherited.

It had taken nearly 70 years, a chance encounter in Cracow, a new appointment to AMHSI-JNF and another Muss heritage trip to Poland but things had come full circle. Krotingen, our home shtetl, met the same fate as Tycochin and our remaining relatives were murdered there at the hands of the Nazi Einzatsgruppen. But as the bus, full of our tired students made its way through the countryside of northern Poland, Benjy and I sat studying Pirkei Avot together. I think our grandparents and great grandparents would have been very proud.

Born and bred in bonny Scotland, Aubrey made aliya as soon as he finished high school. He studied in yeshivot in Jerusalem and in Gush Etzion, served in the tank corps of the IDF, received a BA in Jewish History and at Bar Ilan University, rabbinical qualifications and an MA in Jewish Thought from Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva. Aubrey served as Director of Jewish Education in Glasgow, Scotland and then for 11 years as Rabbi and then, Director of the WUJS Institute in Arad. Aubrey joined AMHSI as an educator in 2004 and in 2011 became director of the school’s new Negev Campus at Eshel HaNassi. Aubrey has a special love for the desert and lives in the northern Negev town of Arad.

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JEWISH NATIONAL FUND (JNF) began in 1901 as a dream and vision to reestablish a homeland in Israel for Jewish people everywhere. Jews the world over collected coins in iconic JNF Blue Boxes, purchasing land and planting trees until ultimately, their dream of a Jewish homeland was a reality. JNF gives all generations of Jews a unique voice in building a prosperous future for the land of Israel and its people.

JNF embodies both heart and action; our work is varied in scope but singular in benefit. We strive to bring an enhanced quality of life to all of Israel’s residents, and translate these advancements to the world beyond. JNF is greening the desert with millions of trees, building thousands of parks, creating new communities and cities for generations of Israelis to call home, bolstering Israel’s water supply, helping develop innovative arid-agriculture techniques, and educating both young and old about the founding and importance of Israel and Zionism.

JNF is a registered 501(c)(3) organization and United Nations NGO, which continuously earns top ratings from charity overseers.

For more information on JNF, call 888-JNF-0099 or visit


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