In the fall of 1985, shy of six months after we married, my wife and I put our belongings into storage and went to Israel.
We were enrolled in a language and culture immersion program for post-graduate age, English-speaking young adults, based in what Israel called a “development town” in the Negev Desert, not far from the Dead Sea.
Before leaving the United States, I had been given the names and phone number of Israeli relatives, about whom I knew nothing. About two weeks after we arrived, with the help of an Israeli in our program’s office, I called them.
Are you coming to the mesiba? they asked, using the Hebrew word for a “party.” There was to be a Schechter family gathering that coming weekend.
“Sure, we’ll try to attend,” I replied, without knowing how we would get there or what we were getting ourselves into.
We traveled by bus for a few hours, to Be’er Sheva and from there to Tel Aviv and finally to a small city located just inside the “green line,” the somewhat artificial dividing line between Israel proper and territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.
With an address in hand, we walked to a nice-looking house on the outskirts of this city and, on arrival, haltingly introduced ourselves. We were astonished to find about 150 people present. Oh, this is nothing, we were told, there are another 300 who could not make it.
An elderly woman, probably in her 80s, was brought to us. Without saying a word, she placed one hand over my mouth and her other on my forehead. Looking into my eyes, she declared in Hebrew, “You’re a Schechter.” In photographs, there is a resemblance in my eyes to those of my father, and his father, and his father’s father.
My great-grandfather, who was born in Romania, was given the name Shneur Zalman at birth, but over the course of his life, as he steadily moved west, eventually to England and the United States, that became Solomon.
His twin brother, Yisrael (Israel), took a different path, in the late 1800s moving to Palestine, where he was one of the founders of the city of Zichron Ya’akov. Israel married twice and had 11 children, which explains why, in 1985, there were some 450 Schechter descendants in the country. The number no doubt is far greater now.
Which brings us to the Hamas attacks inside Israel.
Beginning early on Oct. 7, as I read journalist reports and watched television, I assumed that, given that large number of Schechter descendants in Israel, there likely were some who lived in the areas suffering rocket fire, or worse, the terrorist attacks.
The answer came in a text from my nephew to his mother (my sister), about a message he had received from a third cousin, thrice removed, in Haifa, whom he’d met on his travels. She wanted him to know that a couple of the relatives were among those missing, possibly kidnapped and taken to Gaza.
It later turned out that upwards of 10 relatives were missing and believed to have been kidnapped, from two communities in southern Israel, close to Gaza. Among them were young children and the elderly, families, and individuals.
I am not including their names or where they live, though some of this has been reported in the Israeli press. This is a terrifying period for their extended family throughout Israel. We, the several times removed family members in the United States, are bystanders to this tragedy.
At that family gathering in 1985 a family tree, a few dozen pages stapled together, was distributed. That document is evidence of the inter-connectedness of the world’s relatively small number of Jews. This crisis attests to what anyone who has lived in Israel knows: In a country that small, when something happens, if it does not directly involve your family, it likely touches a friend, a neighbor, or a co-worker.
The degrees of separation in such instances can be quite small.
Many Jewish Americans have family and friends in Israel and have been reaching out to check on their welfare. These personal connections, some with exceptionally long histories, exist across national borders.
As I digested a considerable amount of information about the Hamas attacks in Israel, I read the names of these distant relatives and about the horrors in their communities without knowing that they were descended from my great-grandfather’s twin brother.
I do not know whether I met any of them at that family gathering those many years ago. I do know that it adds a distinctly personal angle to what is happening in Israel.