It was a reunion almost eight decades in the making, except for one thing – the two parties had never actually met each other before. When Sharon Zadik and Laurel Rebenstock came face-to-face with each other for the first time this past summer at Camp Ramah in Utterson, Ont., they were rekindling a bond between their two families that started during the Second World War.
Rebenstock’s father, Dawson Oppenheimer, was an American soldier who was stationed near Newbury, U.K. Zadik’s grandfather, Rabbi Jonah Indech, served as a community rabbi and as a chaplain to the British and American forces that were stationed there. Oppenheimer and Rabbi Indech became close at the time. According to a 1990 article in The CJN, Oppenheimer “considered the Indechs to be his family when he was stationed near Newbury.”
That was the year that Rabbi Indech flew to Toronto to officiate his grandson’s wedding, where, unbeknownst to him, Oppenheimer was waiting to meet him. Rabbi Indech’s son, Michael Indech, had sent a wedding invitation and a hand-written note to the old veteran’s residence in Pasadena, Calif. According to Rabbi Indech, when the two saw each other again after 45 years, they “almost fell into each other’s arms.”
“When I heard him do the Kiddush, I could close my eyes and I heard him back in England,” Oppenheimer said at the time.
Almost 30 years later, another invitation brought the two families back together. Sharon Zadik, Rabbi Indech’s granddaughter, was in Israel with her family over the Passover break, celebrating her son’s bar mitzvah. While there, she received an invitation from the Rebenstocks for their daughter’s bat mitzvah, since both families had children attending Camp Ramah. The very last line of the invitation mentioned the bat mitzvah girl’s “honoured grandparents.”
“I looked at the name and I thought, ‘Wow, that can’t be. He’s got a very unique name, it’s not a very common name.’ Dawson Oppenheimer – that name, it’s stuck in my head,” said Zadik.
Zadik had to decline the invitation, since the Toronto portion of her son’s bar mitzvah fell on the exact same day. But she did send an email asking Rebenstock if her father had lived in Pasadena. The excited emails between the two show just how important the relationship was to both families.
“Wow! … How do you know my dad? I am really, really curious now!” Rebenstock replied. “I can’t wait to hear back from you and to figure out our connection. I haven’t been asked about my dad or Pasadena by anyone in many years, certainly never by any Ramahniks!”
As Rebenstock said in a later phone interview, “That was just the most bizarre thing coming from the Canadian family of a boy I don’t know.”
“OMG! We have never met but I have met your father through my grandfather 30 years ago at my brother’s wedding,” Zadik responded in her next email, before sharing a story about how Rabbi Indech may have saved Oppenheimer’s life.
Oppenheimer had deployed to France in 1944, when his commanding officer unexpectedly told him to return to the U.K. According to Rebenstock, her father was “totally bewildered” at being asked to leave his unit. He landed in London, looked for someone to give him orders, and saw Rabbi Indech.
Oppenheimer’s father had died unexpectedly and Oppenheimer’s mother couldn’t get in touch with her son. So she reached out to Rabbi Indech, asking him to get the news to Oppenheimer. According to Rebenstock, the two had begun corresponding when Oppenheimer asked the rabbi to let his mother know he was doing OK, since she didn’t believe him.
Rabbi Indech sat shivah with Oppenheimer and taught him the Kaddish. According to the 1990 CJN article, Rabbi Indech “mobilized Newbury’s Jewish community, most of whom had been evacuated from London, to come for daily prayers and memorial services.”
As Zadik recounted in her email, Oppenheimer’s unit was sent to France to storm the beaches of Normandy. Without Rabbi Indech, he may have ended up another casualty of D-Day. As it happened, Oppenheimer found himself in Normandy just 12 days after the invasion.
“Yes, yes, yes! I know the story very well! … Over the years, we have welcomed your family to a number of our simchas and vice versa! Rabbi Indech’s acts of courage and kindness during the most challenging time of my dad’s life left an indelible and fond imprint on our entire extended family … for generations!,” Rebenstock wrote, before ending the email by saying, “We definitely need to meet up!”
Rebenstock and Zadik finally met for the first time this summer on July 21 at Camp Ramah. Rebestock said she immediately felt a bond with Zadik.
“Even though I’d never met her, I felt a sense of deep connection, like meeting a long lost cousin,” said Rebenstock. “I also wanted to thank her … for what her family did for my dad during the worst time in his entire life. Rabbi Indech came and he changed our lives. I mean, he made such a powerful impact. The goodness that he put into the world, in caring for my dad, it trickled down multi-generations.”
Zadik was also very moved by the encounter.
“It was just really exciting,” she said. “It was almost surreal, because when you think about it, it was 75 years ago that they met. Then another 45 years (before they saw each other again), and then another 30 (for Zadik and Rebenstock to meet).… What a small world for this to happen.”