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Torah cover closes family circle across the seas



When Etz Chaim Shul in Berea, Johannesburg, closed its doors several decades ago, Lily and Bernard Neuhaus bought various items from the congregation, including a beautiful Torah cover that in 1972 had been presented to the community by Fritz and Mary Rothschild, dedicated to their grandchildren.

A few years ago, Lily Neuhaus asked their niece, Karen Dodo, to reach out on Facebook’s Joburg Jewish Mommies group to try to find the Rothschild grandchildren so that she could give them the Torah cover, but at the time, they didn’t get any responses. Linda Lurie, their daughter, also tried within her network, but without success.

However, the stars aligned when Lurie and Dodo were visiting the Neuhauses the day before Yom Kippur this year, and Lily once again appealed to them to see if they would try once more to find the Rothschild grandchildren. Knowing how far social media can reach, Dodo said she would try again by reaching out on international Jewish Facebook pages.

This time, the response was “immediate and huge – people from all over the world”, says Dodo. “I got a massive number of responses. People were offering to ask others and share and copy the post. And within about an hour, I got a message saying, ‘Hi, my name is Kevin Rothschild. I’m the grandson of Fritz and Mary.’

“The post reached a friend of mine, now living in Israel, and she gave my number to him. It was quite an emotional phone call.

“Kevin immigrated to Sydney in 2002, and he was touched that we had the Torah cover and wanted to return it to him. It was when Kevin’s sister, Carin, and cousin, Ilan, were born in 1972 in Johannesburg that Mary and Fritz donated this Torah cover to the shul.” Carin now lives in Israel, and Ilan lives in Canada.

Lurie has tried to find out what happened to the Torah that it covered, but hasn’t been able to find it yet. It was probably donated to another shul, or perhaps even buried if it was found to be damaged.

“It was an unbelievable, big surprise,” says Rothschild. Soon after Dodo’s message was posted on Facebook, Rothschild started getting messages from all over the world, asking if he was connected to Fritz and Mary. “Though my grandfather, Fritz, passed away in 1976, some people in Australia knew my grandmother, Mary, and made the connection to me,” says Rothschild. “I got about 30 messages.” No-one in his family had even known of the Torah cover’s existence until then.

Though he’s not on Facebook, Jewish geography again played a role in getting him connected to Dodo, with connections in Israel and Australia playing a part. When Rothschild sent the message, it was a “full-circle” moment for a family that has a bittersweet connection to its South African heritage. “Mary and Fritz had two children, Manfred and Helen,” says Rothschild. “Manfred, my father, was killed in a hijacking in Johannesburg in 1994. Mary also passed away very soon after that. They say she died of a broken heart.” Helen is still alive, and lives in Canada.

The family is spread around the world, but Rothschild feels that this event has showed just how closely Jewish families and communities are connected, no matter where they land up. Dodo will now send the Torah cover to Rothschild, who plans to have it framed and hang it in pride of place as a precious family heirloom. “It’s wonderful to see Jewish geography in action,” he says. “My heritage is a big aspect of my life.”

Dodo says the Jewish community is “exceptional”. “We’re a tribe, a religion, a people, and we beat with a common heart. The South African Jewish community is particularly special. I don’t know why, but we’re unique in that we can be Orthodox without being religious and very proud of it, and if anyone needs help, Jewish or not, it’s in our nature, our DNA, to try to help. I’m grateful to be Jewish and proud to be a South African Jew!”

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Sharon Rubin

    Oct 5, 2023 at 5:13 pm

    My name is Sharon Rubin nee Rafel – I lived next door to Mary and Fritz Rothschild in Johannesburg and was friends with Manfred and Helen. would love to be in touch with Helen again

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