At the start of Chabad of Rego Park’s recent Yom Kippur eve services, Rabbi Eli Blokh asked two men to hold the Torah scrolls in front of the ark as a visiting chazzan chanted Kol Nidre.
Beaming, the men sitting side-by-side in one row of seats stood up and walked to the ark; 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, Rabbi 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 Shoah.
Their story, though particularly dramatic, is typical of Jewish families separated by the corrosive effects of Nazism and Communism.
“It’s a microcosm,” says Rabbi Blokh, a native of Moscow, of his community’s “search to find living connections.”
Now mishpoche 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.
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 St. 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. Which frustrates Solomon. “The more I learn about my family, the more questions I have,” he says. “Nobody can answer them.”
Last year, Boris Kayzerman, cousin of Solomon, 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. For 15 minutes. Bingo. He 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.
What were 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.
A few days before Kayzerman made the connection, Solomon, thinking that he would never see his brother and that his brother was no longer living, had attended the bris of his first grandson, who was given the middle name Meir in Jakubovski’s memory. Ashkenazi Jews traditionally do not name children for living relatives, but since it was not known then that Jakubovski was still alive, the grandson can keep the name Meir, a rabbi ruled.
The Solomons decided to visit Israel. Jakubovski brought his extended family to the airport. Everyone cried again, Mrs. Solomon says.
The meeting made the news. Israel’s Channel 2, learning serendipitously about the reunion, covered it, as did the Russian-language Novosti newspaper, with the headline, “Emotional Discovery.”
This time, the Jakubovskis came to Queens. The couples have gone touring and fishing together, visiting Washington and Canada and Ellis Island.
And they went together to Kol Nidre, where Rabbi Blokh unexpectedly asked them to hold the sifrei Torah.
“We didn’t expect such treatment,” Jakubovski says.
“I used Kol Nidrei” — a spiritual highlight for many Jews — “as an opportunity to highlight their story,” says Rabbi Blokh, who reaches out to the émigré community through his Russian Jewish Community Center of Queens. The whole congregation, he says, “became participants” in the Kol Nidre symbolism “instead of passive observers.”
“People were touched by the story,” the rabbi says. Many Jews with roots in the Soviet Union, he says, experienced similar — though rarely so lengthy — separations because of the Communists’ decades of anti-Semitic policies, going back nearly a century, and because of the Nazis’ Final Solution. Yom Kippur “added a sense of poignancy.”
The brothers’ reunion, says Rabbi Blokh, is a tangible sign of Soviet Jews’ “yearning for family … for their past.”
In the Solomons’ Forest Hills apartment, lined with family photographs, the brothers show a visitor the personal gifts they have exchanged: an engraved ring for Jakubovski, an expensive watch for Solomon.
In the coming years, the brothers say, they plan to attend each other’s simchas.
“We missed out on so much,” and intend to make up the lost time together, Mrs. Solomon says.
The best part of the reunion, Jakubovski says, is “I found my brother.” He grew up with no blood relatives other than his mother. “Now I have a family.”