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Collector: Writer's World

Devorah Ben-David treasures the people and places she’s visited.

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It begins at her door. A mezuzah in the form of the Western Hemisphere’s oldest synagogue, Mikveh Israel-Emanuel, is her touchstone for protection. The synagogue, on the Caribbean island of Curacao, reminds her of her work uncovering history on the island. An inscription is the first thing one sees when entering: “What does God expect of you? Only to do justly, And to love mercy, And to walk humbly With thy God.“ “That’s what we remind ourselves of when we come into this house,” she says.

These are not empty gestures, but examples of her spiritual commitment. “I will not do a project without doing good in the world,” she says, “because I want to be part of the helping chain.” She gets, in her words, a spiritual buzz connecting people who can make things happen, whether funding museums, restoring monuments or preserving heritage. She is co-founder of the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond, and recalls as one of the greatest moments of her life the day in 1997 when she presented to the museum a Torah from the Czech Memorial Scroll Society. She keeps a photograph of the ceremony on her mantel, near a flag from the Israeli Embassy and a Portuguese plate emblazoned with the Star of David.

There is not a corner of the house where Ben-David’s interests in Judaica, family and travel are not displayed.

Ritual objects from Jewish tradition are important to her collections and to her observances of the faith. These include chanukiot from Spain and Israel, which are similar to menorahs but have places for eight candles. Ben-David and her grown children say a blessing as each candle is lit for Hanukkah; the first blessing is called Shehecheyanu.

She is teaching her first grandchild, Madison, about Jewish traditions, and has written a children’s book that she describes as a gentle introduction to the Holocaust. “It all begins with the children,” Ben-David says, “ and to introduce them is fundamental.”

Madison has a nursery in the home that is decorated with Jewish objects and images. A lithograph of Moses in the bull rushes hangs by the door, looking over a bed draped in a vintage quilt stitched by her great-grandmother.

On walls throughout the rambling house, photographs and paintings recall history and travel, and Ben-David reels off tales of the places she’s visited: Shanghai, the Caribbean where she’s creating a series of 12 guidebooks about Jewish history and heritage, Israel, Russia, Australia and India. That’s only a partial list. She travels so much for her work in national and international magazines that she says it’s been odd to be at sea level for the past several weeks, finishing the Caribbean guidebooks and preparing them for publication. Hindu, Christian and Jewish sponsors are backing the project, and Ben-David says 10 percent of the profits will go toward helping preserve Jewish heritage on the islands she researches. She also designs and leads cultural tours to the islands. “I have a global view of the world and I see the beauty in people and cultures. I see tourism as a diplomatic tool to world peace. Nothing gets better without dialogue and helping people focus on their accomplishments.”

Her interest in travel began early. “I would ask my mother to take me to the airport,” she recalls of childhood, “just so I could watch the people come and go.” Now she climbs dormant volcanoes, dives in oceans, rafts on whitewater and rides in hot-air balloons, all in search of experiences she can write about to touch others and open their eyes to a wider world.

Ben-David is warm, humorous and a consummate learner as evidenced by her library, her stacks of periodicals and even her 900 cookbooks. A former caterer, she delights in hosting international gatherings of friends for dinner parties. At Thanksgiving, she honored a Russian couple to whom she taught English. They have become U.S. citizens, and Ben-David planned a surprise red-white-and-blue celebration for them and their neighbors. “I love walking into people’s worlds and learning about them,” she says.

And she welcomes others into hers with a zest that’s informative and captivating. HS

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