Wednesday, November 24, 2021
The handwritten letter, addressed to the “Jewish National Fund” in neat English script and penned on the personal stationary of Ezra S.E. Sassoon, is dated 10th October, 1923.
In the letter Sassoon, a Jewish-Iraqi businessman based in Baghdad and later Manchester, England, noted his donation of £1000 towards the establishment of “Kfar Ezekiel” [Kfar is Hebrew for village], a brand new village being built in the Jezreel Valley.
“I hope I will always do my best to help the fund,” he wrote.
The letter is one of several exchanged between Sassoon and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) during the early 1920’s regarding donations for Kfar Ezekiel.
A common thread running through Ezra’s correspondence is his request to refrain from making public “in any shape or form” his involvement in this patently Zionist endeavor, out of fear of reprisals from the Iraqi government.
And so it was that for the next 100 years, the village’s main benefactor would remain unknown to the public, including, as it would turn out, to some of his descendants. Now, a special project planned for the village aims to change all that.
“I trust the colony required will be erected as soon as possible,” wrote Sassoon in another correspondence from Baghdad, circa 1922, “so that I might be able to visit same on my tour to Palestine in the spring.”
At his behest the moshav was named for his younger brother Ezekiel (Yehezkel), who drowned in the Tigris River in 1910. He died at age 27 with no children to bear his name. Ezra and his brothers, Joseph and Moshi, wanted the village to be the legacy Heskel never got to have.
In total, the Sassoon brothers donated £36,500 for the establishment of what is known today as Kfar Yehezkel.
Founded in 1921, Kfar Yehezkel was the second moshav ovdim (workers’ cooperative agricultural settlement) established in Mandatory Palestine. The moshav’s collective economy was similar to that of a kibbutz, but unlike the latter, the children remained with their parents in a nuclear family structure. At the time of its establishment there were 279 inhabitants in the village, most of whom arrived from Eastern Europe during the 2nd and 3rd waves of Aliyah.
With the support of the Sassoon Family, KKL-JNF provided the infrastructure so critical to a fledgling community - a water pipeline and an access road to the nearest station on the Haifa-Syria-Egypt railway line. They also planted trees and helped prepare the land for farming through the clearing away of stones.
A year later, KKL-JNF undertook the drainage of the swamps in the eastern part of the Jezreel Valley – a massive undertaking that transformed the Valley into the breadbasket of the pre-state Jewish community in Eretz Israel.
In the spring of 1923, Ezra Sassoon, his wife, Masouda and their children, visited Kfar Yehezkel, and spoke with the settlers about their work and the challenges they faced.
The visit was the start of a decades-long connection between the residents of Kfar Yehezkel and the Sassoons, with family members visiting the moshav and being greeted with warmth and affection by its residents.
Nevertheless, Ezra’s contribution remained local moshav lore. In public records, his donation - if mentioned at all – was sometimes erroneously attributed to someone else.
In a particularly interesting twist of events, Tamar Shashua – the youngest grandchild of Ezra’s daughter Regina, who had moved to Brazil – had no idea about her great-grandfather’s connection to Kfar Yehezkel, until she happened to move there in 2012. She first learned about her family’s story from a local guest at her son’s brit.
“Slowly I have begun to realize how amazing it is that we are living here and I understand how there was the hand of God in this. Now I feel a special connection with great-grandfather,” said Tamar.
As Kfar Yehezkel approaches its 100th anniversary, some of Ezra’s descendants are on a mission to enshrine Ezra Sassoon’s legacy in the public annals of the State of Israel once and for all. Coordinating efforts on the ground is David Sassoon, a great-grandson of Ezra’s, who made Aliyah to Jerusalem from his native Johannesburg in 2015.
In response to David’s initial inquiry, KKL-JNF embarked on an archival search for Ezra Sassoon and unearthed letters, documentation, and, on one of the massive pages of KKL-JNF’s 2nd Golden Book, an inscription noting Sassoon’s donation in finely-inked calligraphy.
Contacts were made between KKL-JNF, Kfar Yehezkel officials, and the Sassoon family, and now, they are partners in a special project – a new bike park named after Ezra- ‘Park Ezra’ - which will serve the moshav and surrounding areas. A plaque telling the story of Ezra and his brothers’ donation in the name of Yehezkel will be placed in the park.
The park’s main attraction will be the adventure bike path, which will feature uphill and downhill segments, stone passes, narrow wooden planks, and bridges.
The renewed family connection to Kfar Yehezkel has brought the wider family together; the descendants of Ezra, and those of his brothers Joseph and Moshi, and his sisters Chahla and Khatoun. There is now a family Whatsapp group with over 60 people, where stories and family news are shared.
The whole family is very moved by the bike park project, and from all over the world, donations have been coming in from family members who want to honor Ezra and continue what he started.
“It is very moving,” said David Sassoon. “It is an amazing thing for so many reasons. It is nice to meet family and to connect to our great-grandfather who gave a lot of money to Israel in memory of his brother, and by doing so has given his family reasons to have a focus on Israel.”
The Ezra Sassoon Bike Path is expected to be completed in the coming months. Plans are underway for a special inauguration ceremony to take place in Kfar Yehezkel at around Pesach time in 2022, with the participation of the moshavniks, KKL-JNF officials and, of course, the Sassoon family.
Family members all over the world are excitedly anticipating their first-ever family reunion, COVID-19 permitting, at the very place their ancestor Ezra helped establish 100 years ago.
Tamar Shashua’s eldest daughter Yael is about to celebrate her Bat-Mitzvah at Kfar Yehezkel, and as the other children recount stories of their pioneering grandparents, she now has her own story to tell:
“Suddenly I see her story of an Iraqi Jew - her great-great-grandfather - donating here in an Ashkenazi village, as a very special contribution to the story of the moshav,” Tamar said. “Sometimes people wonder if an outside donation is equal to the pioneering work but suddenly we realize that we all have our role to play and we can stand strong and proud that this was our role and now we are living here in that very same village.”
Devorah (Monica) Fuchs - another great-granddaughter of Ezra Sassoon through his daughter Fahima - who made Aliya from England in 2006, has fond memories of her visits to the moshav as a child.
“We were always excited to see Kfar Yehezkel,” recalled Devorah. “Now this park is a way of promoting unity from all different angles - of Sephardim and Ashkenazim, of Israeli and Diaspora Jews working together. We are very excited to be a part of it and to be seeing this success.”