Something Borrowed and Found Via Sar-El

When my husband Jeff and I arrived in Israel to volunteer on Sar-El, I knew that we would feel at home. After all, we had volunteered for Sar-El before, and we were ready to work hard and meet new people. I never dreamed that I would reconnect with part of my past.

Our group of volunteers met at the airport and received our base assignments. Ours was Netafim in the Galilee. As the nine of us stood in line for our bus, everyone started chatting. A woman named Irene Bortnick introduced herself to me. I heard a familiar South African accent and asked if she too was from South Africa. Irene was indeed South African – in fact, we grew up in Johannesburg suburbs that were a few minutes from each other!

We settled into the base after we arrived, receiving our uniforms and making ourselves at home in our rooms. Once we unpacked, Irene and I went for a walk around the base. We learned that we were both born in the same year, a funny coincidence. Then, we began playing Jewish Geography. “I have cousins in Johannesburg named Rieback,” I mentioned.

“I have family by that name in Israel,” Irene responded. “What family do you have in Israel?” I asked. “I have family in Israel, too!” Irene explained that her parents have cousins in Israel named Issy and Alice Rieback. Her mother and the late Alice were cousins. “Issy Rieback is my uncle!” I exclaimed. We were both excited about this discovery, but the connection between us would reveal itself further as the conversation went on.

Irene lived in Israel when she was younger. When she first moved to the country, she stayed with Issy and Alice. This was another thing we had in common; Jeff and I lived in Israel for a few years in the mid ‘70s. Irene and I actually lived in Israel at the same time, though we didn’t meet until we volunteered together on Sar-El. Irene met her husband, an American oleh, in Israel, and later moved with him to the US. The couple now lives in Anchorage, AK.

Gillian and Jeff.

My conversation with Irene spurred Jeff to remember something – he recalled that my late mother asked me if she could send my wedding dress from South Africa to Israel for another bride to use. I told my mother yes, though I never found out who the bride was. Irene had mentioned that her wedding was in June 1976, which was after my mother had asked me about lending out my wedding dress. Could it be, I wondered, that Irene received my dress? “Was your wedding dress borrowed, by any chance?” I asked. “Yes, it was,” Irene answered.

Alex and Irene.

Neither of us could believe it. After over 40 years, I might have found the woman who wore my wedding dress! However, Irene and I wanted to make sure. The next weekend, Irene’s youngest daughter sent her a picture from her wedding. When we came back to the base on Sunday morning, she showed me one of her wedding pictures on her cellphone. There it was! Irene and I were so overwhelmed by the discovery, we almost started crying.

The coincidence doesn’t end there, though. On the last night, all of the volunteers passed around cards to thank our madrichot for all of their hard work. Irene and I talked about signing our names in Hebrew… which is when we discovered our Hebrew names are both Yocheved!

By the end of the trip, Irene and I were calling each other “Cuz” (short for “cousin”). Thanks to Sar-El, I found a new friend with whom I’ve kept in touch since the trip ended. But more than that, I found a link to my past. My husband and I are looking forward to volunteering on Sar-El again – who knows who else we will meet?

By Gillian Sarfin, as told to Rachel Levy Sarfin

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