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A broken family tree repaired
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A broken family tree repaired

Elizabeth day school teacher learns her twin students are long-lost cousins

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rebecca Ertel with JEC students, 7-year-old twins Shaya and Nili Elstein, who turned out to be her cousins. Photos by Johanna Ginsberg
Rebecca Ertel with JEC students, 7-year-old twins Shaya and Nili Elstein, who turned out to be her cousins. Photos by Johanna Ginsberg

When teacher Rebecca Ertel saw Richard Sobin’s name listed as a sponsor of Grandparents’ Day at the Jewish Educational Center (JEC) in Elizabeth, she had to ask: Were they related?

The daughter of a Christian minister, Ertel, whose maiden name is Sobin, left her home state of Florida and found Judaism when she was a student at Rutgers University. She converted and eventually became Orthodox with her boyfriend at the time, now husband, Jason. Her paternal grandfather was Jewish, but her father left her mother when she was just 3. She has little family and no Jewish relatives, and the possibility of discovering long-lost relatives meant a great deal to her.

Though she teaches Sobin’s 7-year-old twin grandchildren at JEC, their last name is Elstein, so it wasn’t until Sobin’s name appeared on the sponsors list that she made the connection. At that point she got in touch with Sobin through his daughter, Tami Elstein of Hillside, the twins’ mother.

Sobin of West Orange, a member of the Orthodox Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David (AABJ&D), was curious himself and arranged to speak with Rebecca. But as she ticked through her relatives’ names, nothing clicked for Sobin — until she mentioned that her grandfather, Jack Sobin, had been married previously before marrying her grandmother, Lilly, who was not Jewish. Rebecca also knew that Jack’s first wife’s name was Rose and they had a son, Larry.

That was all the information Sobin needed: Larry is his father, and Jack and Rose were his grandparents, which meant that Richard and Rebecca were first cousins.

“I was bowled over,” he told NJJN. “Just to make a family connection — because on my dad’s side, there’s nothing, no family. I have no cousins.” Larry had a younger brother who never married and died years ago, and a half-sister who lost touch with the family.

Stephen, at left, Debby, and Daniel Sobin, at right, meet Rebecca Ertel, second from right, at the family reunion in West Orange.

Similarly, because Ertel’s father left when she was a toddler, she had no family on her father’s side. Now that’s changed.

On May 19, Rebecca and Jason Ertel, along with five of their six children, came to a Sobin family reunion of sorts. On the back deck of Richard and Dori Sobin’s West Orange home, the “gantze mishpocha,” the entire extended family, had gathered to welcome their new cousins. The Sobin clan included Richard and two of his three siblings (the third, a sister, was at her daughter’s graduation from Brandeis University), their spouses, grown children, and grandchildren, along with Sobin’s parents, Maurine and Larry.

When Ertel walked in she made a beeline for Larry, now 90. “I want to meet my new uncle first,” she said.

The whole crowd was not only Jewish, but also Orthodox, like her.

“It’s emotional. It’s amazing. It’s incredible to think that the grandfather that we share who was so willing to just throw away his Judaism has now an entire deck filled with family members that embrace it,” she said. “And I think that’s a really powerful message … It’s amazing to come and see that even though there was heartbreak, you can build a beautiful family; and now it’s two beautiful families are coming together into one, and that’s amazing.”

Larry Sobin, now 90, recalled meeting Ertel’s father, his half-brother Roger, briefly, about 30 years ago. Sobin was a chaplain in the Air Force and they met at Kennedy Airport while Roger was awaiting a flight to Germany.

“We just met and talked,” said Larry. “It was interesting.” He called the recent turn of events “unusual.” His father, Jack, Rebecca’s grandfather, left one day when Larry was 7, but he said he had no anger or resentment toward Roger for Jack’s leaving. “Why should I?” he said.

Having been left by their respective fathers, both Rebecca and Larry acknowledged making a point of building successful family lives. Ertel and her husband have been married 22 years; Larry and his wife have been married for 66.

When Rebecca and Richard met before the May reunion, she showed him a photograph of his grandfather holding her as a baby. “I had never seen a photo of my grandfather,” he said.

“It’s so ironic that it was a Grandparents’ Day that brought out the connection that we share a grandparent,” said Rebecca.

Maurine and Larry Sobin, at left, meet niece Rebecca Ertel, center, who connected with Richard Sobin, at right, a grandparent of Rebecca’s students at JEC.

Yirmy Ertel, Rebecca’s 20-year-old son, was the first of the Ertels to arrive at the reunion. “It’s amazing. It’s beautiful. And you know, something that you never really thought [would happen],” he said.

When Richard’s brother, Stephen, met Yirmy, he said, “This is all from the hand of God!” Speaking to NJJN, Stephen added, “It’s very odd. It’s like … you know, you’re digging, you’re digging somewhere. And all of a sudden you strike something and you don’t know what to think. It’s…it’s profound.”

Dina Ertel, 16, arrived, looked around, and said, “It’s a little crazy. I thought I only had two sets of cousins. But now there’s more!”

They all chatted in small groups, getting to know one another, and for the Sobin side, catching up with other cousins and siblings. Richard and Dori brought out platter after platter of bagels and spreads, fruit, drinks, and an umbrella for some shade. And just like that, a family that had been severed two generations earlier made an unexpected, and unlikely, repair.

Rebecca’s eldest, Leah, who came with her husband, said, “I always felt like something was missing. And then once we found this, it just clicked — it just made sense. And now it’s really exciting, because I get to share with all of our family’s simchas in the future.”

jginsberg@njjewishnews.com

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