By Fran Kritz
There was a slight chill the morning that Howard Rosen and a few dozen of his friends hiked through the Sataf Forest near Jerusalem. They passed cypress and eucalyptus trees, pistachio, carob and grapevines and shared lunch before parting.
Like Rosen, most members of the group on this Passover day were former Washingtonians and former members of Kesher Israel in Georgetown, who had made aliyah sometime over the decades. But this was the first time they had met in person as a group, which they call Kesher East.
“Since we represented several different years and even decades at Kesher, we didn’t start the day knowing everyone” said Linda Ostrow Schlessinger, who made aliyah with her husband, David. “But we all got a chance to both meet and catch up with old friends during the walk and lunch.”
Rosen started a WhatsApp group to connect the group for memorial observances this year, and it continues to be used to alert Kesher East members to group news and events. Many who made aliyah decades ago still maintain close ties.
“We’ve always been a tight group — longstanding Kesherites and the ones who are newly arrived,” said Rosen. “The WhatsApp group makes connecting with each other even easier.”Members recently received notification of the funeral and shivah for the mother of Ari Weiss, who now lives in Israel and once served as a senior staffer to the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill.
Kesher East has long been the source of support — and provided the minyan at the cemetery and shivah houses — for those who have made aliyah and those who remain in the United States but come to Israel to bury family members.
Washington and Israel present similar challenges, Rosen said, which helps explain the persistence of Kesher East. Orthodox Jews who come to the Washington area for school, work or to raise a family rarely have relatives in the area. That makes the relationships formed through the synagogue strong and vital.
“Israel, where family can be so far away and especially during the coronavirus, just makes those special relationships even more critical,” said Rosen.
Journalist Linda Gradstein began attending Kesher Israel in 1980 when she was a freshman at Georgetown University. “The community warmly welcomed me,” she recalled. “I was invited almost every Shabbat for a meal.”
She made aliyah in her mid-20s. “There is something special about friends who knew me when I was younger,” she said. “Some of us in Kesher East are in regular contact, even if we’re dispersed around the country. Yet we make an effort to come to each other’s smachot, and on sad occasions as well. Most of us will think nothing of driving several hours to attend a simchah and see our Kesher friends.”
A few weeks after the hike, Gradstein was one of a dozen Kesher East women who met for brunch at Piccolino, an Italian dairy restaurant in Jerusalem. There, in the uncovered courtyard, the group welcomed Ellen Finkelman, a longtime Kesher Israel member, who recently made aliyah with her husband.
Rabbi Avidan Milevsky, who led Kesher Israel from 2015 to 2019, also made aliyah recently. He joined the hikers during Passover.
“It’s amazing to see how former congregants are still attached to Kesher years later. It is also fascinating seeing people who don’t necessarily know each other come together and enjoy Kesher East events based on that one unifying similarity of having been part of Kesher at some time in the past.”
Rosen said he would like the Kesher East network to serve as a support system for new olim as they navigate the Israeli bureaucracy. In addition to planning events and keeping an ear out for any member in need, the group also reaches out to “Kesher children” studying in Israel for the year, or just starting their lives in Israel.
The WhatsApp group grew out of a gathering of former Kesher Israel members who gathered annually to observe the yahrzeit of Kesher Israel Rabbi Philip Rabinowitz, who was murdered in his home in 1984. (The murder was never solved.) Rabbi Rabinowitz is buried in Beit Shemesh, Israel, alongside other rabbis from the Washington area.
And the recent yahrzeit of former Kesher Israel member Rivka Goli was co-led by Milevsky from the cemetery in Jerusalem, and Rabbi Hyim Shafner, the current rabbi of Kesher Israel, from Washington.
Just a few months ago the WhatsApp group was used to notify people when Bernardo Hirschman, a former president of the synagogue, passed away, with the app serving as a venue for the group to share memories. And until they stopped traveling several years ago, former Kesher President Michael Gelfand and his wife, Edith, would spend time during their trips to Israel catching up with the many couples from Kesher whose marriages and baby celebrations they attended.
Shafner is also a member of the Kesher East WhatsApp group. Many Israeli Kesherites know him through the synagogue emails and newsletters many still receive. Shafner, who said he sees himself as rabbi “for all of Kesher’s alumni,” thinks a key reason for the strong feeling of connectedness is that so many people originally come to the synagogue in their formative years.
“I continue to read Kesher emails and feel proud of the work Rabbi Shafner is doing,” said Renee Garfinkel, who made aliyah with her husband, Jay, several years ago.
Shafner reached out to the Garfinkels after they made aliyah, when their son Elon died. Renee called Shafner “a real mensch who reached out to us in our time of great sorrow even though he came to Kesher after we had already made aliyah. We will always be grateful to him for that.”
Rabbi Shafner thinks it’s a natural outgrowth of what the synagogue stands for that so many members have made, and continue to make, aliyah.
“Modern Orthodoxy and religious Zionism are intrinsically related,” said Shafner. “I think that Kesher is a shul which sees itself as both deeply committed to and at the same time highly values being part of the world and changing it for the better. It makes sense that moving to Israel, where in many ways the destiny of the Jewish people on the stage of the world is lived, is a value.”
“A connection to the shul? How could we not have one,” said Jeffrey Rashba, who made aliyah almost 30 years ago, and brought his 12-year-old daughter, Anaelle, to the hike. “I remember sitting in Kesher one Shabbat night in the winter of 2019 to attend a bar mitzvah and marveling at the place, how truly beautiful it is and how many wonderful memories we have there. The Kesher East group is a great way to access all those great memories.”
Fran Kritz, together with her husband Neil, splits her time between Jerusalem and Silver Spring.