Father Daniel (Oswald) Rufeisen Carm, founder of the kehilla in Haifa, was born in 1922 in Zadziele in Poland to a Jewish family.
His parents were not religious and in his youth Oswald belonged to a secular Zionist youth movement, where he learnt some Hebrew. Separated from his parents after the Nazi invasion of Poland, Oswald travelled into the Soviet Union with his brother, Aryeh. His parents were later deported and perished in the death camps. Aryeh received a visa to emigrate to Palestine whereas Oswald stayed behind, registered as a student in Vilna. Living in clandestinity, spending a time in prison, pretending to be a non-Jew, Oswald, whose German was fluent, was finally offered the job of German tutor to a Polish police officer, collaborater with the Nazis, who invited him to Mir in Belarus. It was in Mir, that Oswald, pretending to be a non-Jewish German speaker and collaborator with the police, was able to help save about three hundred Jews interned in the ghetto in the town. Warning them of the impending liquidation of the ghetto, those who were able bodied could escape. The tale of the escape from Mir Ghetto and the role Oswald played is retold in a documentary in the Yad VaShem Museum.
The aid to the Jews of Mir led to Oswald being exposed as a Jew, put in prison and having to flee for his life. He found refuge in a convent of the Sisters of the Resurrection. It was in the convent that he began to read the New Testament and came to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Messiah and Savior and he was baptized. At the end of 1943, he had to flee once again and this time found refuge among the partisans in the forests. There he remained until the Soviet army liberation and with them he returned to Mir as a policeman once again.
Relieved of his duties in Mir, he decided to return to Poland and there sought out the Carmelites. He entered the monastery in 1945 and took the habit in 1946, taking the name of Brother Daniel. In 1952, he was ordained a priest and the prayer cards printed for the occasion were in both Polish and Hebrew. Daniel insisted that his Christian faith was not in any rupture with his Jewish identity.
With the rise in anti-Semitism in Poland in 1956 and the departure of many Jews for Israel, Daniel began the process of planning his own aliyah (his ascent to Zion). He insisted that he had always been a Zionist. Renouncing his Polish citizenship as a Jew leaving Poland, Daniel was refused citizenship as a Jew in Israel. For the Israeli authorities, he was a Christian, a monk and a priest and thus not a Jew. Daniel took his case to the Israeli Supreme Court and lost. As a consequence, the Law of Return, which guaranteed automatic citizenship in Israel to all Jews who asked for it, was ammended so that it excluded Jews who belonged to a religion other than Judaism. Daniel became a citizen of Israel through naturalization shortly after the end of the trial.
In Israel, Daniel lived in the Carmelite monastery in Haifa, Stella Maris and maintained close contact with his brother and his family as well as other Jewish friends. He was a natural address for the many Poles married to Jews or those who had some Jewish heritage. He associated himself with the Oeuvre de Saint Jacques which had as its goal the pastoral care of Hebrew-speaking Catholics as well as dialogue with the Jewish people. In 1965, Daniel founded the community in Haifa which he served faithfully, aided by his pastoral assistant, Ms. Elisheva Hemker, until he died in 1998. In addition to his pastoral care of Poles and Jews and many others, Daniel was a creative thinker who insisted that Christianity should not be severed from its Jewish roots. He was convinced of the importance and necessity of refounding a Christian community of Jewish and Hebrew expression.
See Nehama Tec, In the Lion’s Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen (London, Oxford Uni Press, 1990)
Oswald Rufeisen as a young man in Poland
Father Daniel with Elisheva Hemker in the Haifa community house
Daniel Rufeisen in the Kinneret
Daniel Rufeisen talking with the survivors from Mir ghetto