Peter Paul van Broekhuizen: Drawn To Israel By His Roots
“Life in Switzerland was always too organized for me,” says Peter Paul van Broekhuizen, a fifty-seven-year-old Dutch hotelier who opened a hotel in Gluringen, a village situated near the main spring of the River Rhone. The knowledge that his maternal grandfather was Jewish and was killed in Buchenwald in 1941 eventually drew Peter to Israel. He had no problem with the hustle and bustle of Israeli life. But something else did shake him. “I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. I felt like I’d seen it all before, like I was home,” says Peter. Today, he works at ALEH, Israel’s largest network of facilities for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities at ALEH’s Negev-based rehabilitative village.
Peter’s parents had told him about his Jewish grandfather and already during his childhood he began to research his family history. He found that his grandfather, Joseph Jacques van Straaten (literally “the street”) had lived in Dordrecht (southern Holland) and Rotterdam where his father, Jacques Joseph van Straaten (Peter’s great-grandfather), had founded a shul and a school. This great-grandfather’s grave is in Scheveningen, Holland. “Thanks to Napoleon, who in 1811, ordered every Dutch family to choose a family name, I can trace my roots back to 1750,” says Peter with pride. Very interested in his roots, Peter came to Israel in 2013 and toured Israel for a week. That was when he felt he’d come home.
Volunteering in ALEH
Back in Switzerland, Peter immediately began to look for a way to return to Israel. Networking to find a place where he could volunteer led Peter to Shraga Evers at ALEH Jerusalem who told him about a pilot project that he wanted to start for volunteers from Holland. Dutch himself, Evers has a good understanding of what motivates Dutch Christians. “There are many Dutch Christians who do not believe in the replacement theory held by the Catholic Church and many Protestant groups. These people are genuinely pro-Israel and want what is good for Israel. They are willing to come to show their support for Israel and be part of God’s plan for the Jewish people,” he says. Peter’s family gave him the time to invest in his search and he arrived at ALEH Negev for five weeks in the spring of 2014 as the first volunteer in this new project. “After the coldness of life in Switzerland, the warm Israeli lifestyle felt like a comforting blanket. Everyone welcomed me. Even the severely disabled residents seemed eager to adopt me,” says Peter. Aside from once giving a one-year swimming instruction course to a group of people with Down syndrome, Peter hadn’t had much exposure to the special- needs community. However, he was a veteran teacher with twenty years of teaching experience before he had become a hotelier. That, combined with his warm personality and enthusiasm, meant he quickly and easily bonded with the ALEH residents. “ALEH is a paradise that gives the residents the best life possible and motivates them to never give up,” says Peter. During this first stay at ALEH, living through Shabbat and Pesach heightened Peter’s interest in Jewish life. Always ready for new experiences, Peter traveled north to Haifa to spend Shabbat with the family of a Sherut Leumi volunteer who was also working at ALEH. “They spoke very little English, but we spent an impressive Shabbat together and I understood that I was now a member of their family,” says Peter.
In Touch with Nature
Born in 1958 in Arnhem, a thickly forested region in the middle of Holland, Peter and his younger brother Aart-Jan had what Peter calls a secure childhood. Shadows of World War II, however, were certainly there. “Rotterdam, my mother’s home city, was almost completely destroyed in the Rotterdam Blitz. Since her father was Jewish, they had to spend the war in hiding. My father, living in Arnhem, also experienced the bombing. They rarely spoke about their experiences,” says Peter. With both parents working as forest engineers, it’s no surprise that Peter chose to study agriculture and gardening engineering at Wageningen University. For the next twenty years, from 1985 to 2006, he taught twelve- to sixteen year- olds. Over time, teaching methods changed. Instead of teaching by giving hands-on work that lead to theory, Peter was expected to focus on the theory and then head to practical work. The new methodology didn’t sit well with Peter. As two of his four sons were asthma sufferers, Peter and his family had often vacationed in the Swiss mountains. So opening a hotel in the mountains didn’t seem like a far-fetched idea. “Although the Swiss had initially seemed welcoming, things changed when we immigrated. My sons, then aged between eight and sixteen, made very few friends. We always remained foreigners,” says Peter. Six years later, with his marriage under strain, Peter began to think seriously about a move to Israel. The Law of Return, passed in July of 1950, gives Jews the right to live in Israel and to gain Israeli citizenship. In 1970, these rights were extended to people with a Jewish father or grandparent, or people married to a Jew, even though they themselves wouldn’t be considered Jewish according to halacha. By volunteering at ALEH in the spring of 2014, Peter began to get a feel for life in Israel. “At my age, I cannot take risks,” says Peter. “I needed to move step by step to cancel out the risks. I had to check if I could cope with the lifestyle and even the climate,” he says. This methodical approach may be the only Swiss trait that Peter has!
Back Again and Again
After Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, Peter’s longing to return to Israel was sharpened. Now he had to show his support. There were many other Dutch Christians who felt the same. Peter’s extensive managerial skills made him the perfect candidate to guide the new volunteers. Accommodations were arranged on the nearby Moshav Maslul, whose name (way) is taken from the Book of Isaiah 35:8: And a highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called the way of holiness… Volunteers can help ALEH residents in many ways because they simply have more time available than the regular caretakers. “Volunteers can take the residents for walks in ALEH’s magnificent gardens. At mealtimes, we motivate residents to eat by themselves. These are ways of upgrading their lives,” says Peter. After three months at ALEH, Peter was even more convinced that he belonged in Israel. However, he returned to Switzerland to help out at his hotel with the winter tourist season. The stay was bittersweet. “My wife understood how much I love Israel. She told me that I should go back,” Peter says. Peter began to prepare for a permanent move to Israel. The secretary of the rabbi of Rotterdam helped him collect the necessary documentation to prove his Jewish roots. He also began to research his employment options in Israel. “Finding a job in Israel is easier than in other places,” he says. “Here people look at what you really can do, not what you were trained to do.” Peter did a lot of research, made many contacts and always made sure to ask for a second opinion. “You have to be motivated if you want to come to Israel,” he says. “Don’t think that other people will solve your problems.” September 2015 found Peter in Israel once again volunteering in ALEH. As far as his family situation goes, Peter says, “It’s complicated. We need to think about how to move on… but I don’t see a life for myself with my family in Switzerland.”
Teudat Zehut (Identity Card) by Miracle
Two months later, in November, the Jewish Agency advised Peter to make aliyah from within Israel. Peter began the process, but by the beginning of December, he found out that the clerk who was taking care of his file was ill and there was no teudat zehut in sight. With his volunteering visa expiring on December 22, Peter began making plans to leave Israel. “Four days before I was due to fly, I received a phone call telling me to go to the desk of a specific clerk at the Ministry of Interior on Sunday morning… the day before my flight,” recalls Peter. Twenty-four hours before he was due to leave, Peter received his teudat zehut. “I believe that Hashem sees a future for me here in Israel. Taking care of the residents of ALEH and motivating them,” says Peter.
Learning about Being Jewish
As far as becoming a Jew goes, like everything else he had done, Peter is taking things step by step. “I no longer pray to the Christian god, but to Hashem. I’m very interested in the Jewish religion. I try to live a Jewish life more and more and I want to live the life that my great-grandparents lived,” says Peter. “But I need to take things slowly. First I will finish ulpan. Then I will find a rabbi to teach me how the Jewish religion works. I want to understand the prayers, why we dance in front of the moon, why we make kiddush. At the moment, I don’t have enough information to make a decision. I’m very grateful for all that Hashem is doing for me and I want to honor Hashem. But I must be honest with myself and the whole system; I don’t want to be a fake. When the former director at ALEH heard that I had never worked with residents, she told me, ‘Be yourself. Follow your heart and great things will happen.’ I have learned that Hashem’s hand is guiding me. My prayer is: Please Hashem, open my eyes so that I can see which way I should go.”