A Model of Cooperation

Erev Tisha B’Av seems like the ideal time to share a story of Jews working together for a common cause, for if the Bais Hamikdash is to be rebuilt, we must first be metakein the sinas chinom for which it was destroyed.

Shortly before Pesach, Rabbi Aharon Pam received a call from the Kalover Rebbe of Williamsburg, Rabbi Moshe Taub. The rebbe knew that Rabbi Pam was actively involved in Shuvu, the school system first established for children of immigrant families from the former Soviet Union (FSU), at the insistence of his father, Rabbi Avrohom Hakohein Pam, the late rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaath. It was about Shuvu that the Kalover Rebbe wished to speak.

Rabbi Pam called Mr. Yosef Hoch, the co-chairman of Shuvu, and asked him to join him at a meeting with the rebbe. (The other co-chairman, Mr. Avrohom Biderman, was out of town.) Also present at the meeting were the rebbe’s son, Rabbi Yissochar Dov Taub, and the latter’s son-in-law, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Horowitz, grandson of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe of Monsey.

For decades, the Kalover Rebbe has focused his main energies on children from traditional or non-religious backgrounds learning in religious frameworks, in schools created for Russian or Bukharian Jewish children in the New York area or those studying in the large Otzar HaTorah system in France. He has travelled to France numerous times to give chizuk to Jewish children in the Otzar HaTorah network.

Though the rebbe can no longer travel to France or even Queens because he is in the grip of a terrible degenerative disease, his concern for these Jewish children has not waned. The reason he summoned Rabbi Pam was due to reports that French children from traditional Jewish backgrounds who had been in religious educational frameworks in France were rapidly losing their religious identity after moving to Israel. He realized that the Shuvu school system would be the preferred solution for most of the French Jewish children from traditional backgrounds.

In a letter written on January 5, 2015, Rabbi Ariel Amoyelle, long-time director of the Otzar HaTorah network in France, which has over 4,000 students enrolled, described three different groups of French Jews making aliyah. The smallest are the completely secular, who could be expected to send their children to the regular state system. The middle are the fully observant. In most cases, those parents would send their children to the local Chinuch Atzmai schools, though those schools would need assistance to accommodate the French-speaking students.

By far the largest group consists of traditional Jews across a wide spectrum of observance. Rabbi Amoyelle expressed his view that Shuvu’s model of religious studies combined with a high level of secular studies, originally designed to attract children from Russian-speaking homes, would offer the best hope of attracting French Jewish children from traditional backgrounds and inspiring them once they are enrolled. He encouraged those students to enroll in Shuvu or Nesivos Moshe schools where available.

AFTER PESACH, the Kalover Rebbe initiated the Keren LeYaldei Tzorfas/The French Childrens’ Fund to preserve and uplift the religious level of the new French olim, who have arrived in Israel at the rate of approximately 10,000 per year over the last two years. Of those 10,000, around 2,000 per year have been school-age children. Last year, about 1,350 children entered the state religious school system, 350 entered traditional chareidi institutions or chareidi-affiliated school systems, and another 300 have gone to non-religious state schools.

These immigrants are not like the immigrants from the FSU of the 1990s, the overwhelming majority of whom had no religious education and a very low level of religious observance (at least those from the European parts of the FSU). Nor are they comparable to the Yemenite Jews who came to Israel in the early 1950s, most of whom were fully observant. They are familiar with basic Jewish practices and preserve them with widely varying degrees of dikduk bemitzvos.

Many are quite naïve about the religious situation of the country to which they are moving. They tend to equate the state of Israel with Judaism, and assume that virtually everything in Israel is kosher to one degree or another. Thus, if they are told at a Jewish Agency aliyah fair that their children will be best-suited in the state religious school system, they are likely to accept that claim at face value.

There is a huge difference between the state religious school system, in which there is a wide variation in the quality of schools, and the schools created by Shuvu and more recently, Nesivos Moshe: the mesirus nefesh of the teachers.

Over the years, I have visited a dozen or more Shuvu schools. I once had the pleasure of visiting the Nesivos Moshe school in Kadima with Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin, then the head of Lev L’Achim and today the director of the entire Chinuch Atzmai system, under whose umbrella the Nesivos Moshe and Shuvu school systems operate. What stands out in all these schools is the purity and dedication of the teachers. A child exposed at an early age to teachers who are aflame with passion for Torah and dedicated to their students cannot help but be affected and gain a new feeling for Torah.

A Ger chassidiste who teaches in the Shuvu school in Beit Shemesh was recently offered a higher-paying job. Her husband, a yungerman, wanted her to take the job. But she told him, “How can we give up the heightened ruchniyus in our home that comes from hosting my students for Shabbos on a weekly basis?” She remained teaching.

Around fifteen years ago, on my visit to the Nesivos Moshe school in Kadima, I heard the principal, a veteran Bnei Brak mechaneches, say that she had never before felt so excited about what she was doing. After the visit, she invited me to meet the father of three daughters in the school. He began by asking me whether I had ever heard of Tzoran.

I replied that I had not only heard of Tzoran, but written numerous articles about the situation there. Three years earlier, a first-grade, with 25 students, had opened in Tzoran, a town near Netanya so secular that the city plan allocated no land for shuls. For weeks after the opening of the school, there were demonstrations outside. Many of the demonstrators brought with them large dogs to make themselves even more terrifying to the school children. Rocks were thrown at the building, forcing the children to learn with the windows closed, and the building and playground were repeatedly vandalized during the year.

The father in question then shocked me. “I was the leader of the demonstrations in Tzoran,” he said. “Today I have three daughters in this school in Kadima [near Tzoran].” He explained that at some point during the year, he watched the young Bais Yaakov-trained teachers lead their young charges past the screaming mob, and he asked himself what kind of person would he want teaching his daughters. He realized that these young women were precisely the teachers he would choose. He captured exactly what I have felt on every visit to a Shuvu or Nesivos Moshe school.

PERHAPS BECAUSE of the mesirus nefesh of the Kalover Rebbe despite the difficult medical condition that has left him totally immobile, the Keren has garnered enthusiastic support across a broad cross-section of the chareidi world, from the Satmar Rebbe of Williamsburg, Rabbi Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, to Rabbi Malkiel Kotler, rosh yeshiva of Bais Medrash Govoah.

No less remarkable is the way that all the organizations working with the French aliyah have joined together, without competition or strife, to work for the benefit of the French olim.

The new Keren has received generous support in its initial fundraising campaign and has the potential to make a significant impact on the absorption of French Jewish children. The aliyah fairs organized by the Jewish Agency in France have excluded the chareidi-affiliated school systems from participating. To overcome that exclusion, the Keren has been conducting its own campaigns among those interested in making aliyah.

In Israel, the Keren is offering crucial support to all the organizations working to absorb French immigrants. It should be emphasized that each of the veteran organizations involved accepted upon itself additional burdens to meet the challenge of the French aliyah even before the Keren came into existence. Lev L’Achim, which for nearly two decades has been active in registering children in Torah schools, enlisted French-speaking yungeleit to lead the registration of the new French olim.

The Nesivos Moshe schools in Ranaana and Kadima have registered approximately 170 French-speaking students for this coming school year, and Chinuch Atzmai eagerly made room for children seeking a traditional chareidi education, with all the burdens entailed in absorbing non-native Hebrew speaking children.

By the time that the Kalover Rebbe met with Rabbi Pam and Mr. Hoch, Shuvu had already purchased four caravans in Netanya to create additional classrooms for 160 new immigrant children and established a Hebrew-language ulpan for them. Another fifty French-speaking Jewish children enrolled in other Shuvu schools around the country. Shuvu anticipates 250 French-speaking students in Netanya, 40% of the total school population, for the opening of the coming school year based on current registration figures.

With the resources of the Keren LeYaldei Tzorfas now available, all these school systems will be able to redouble their efforts, add necessary classrooms, provide the extra assistance that the new immigrants require, and conduct public relations campaigns in the French-language media and in areas where there are high concentrations of French olim, such as Netanya.

Despite the differences between the immigrants from the FSU in the 1990s and decades following and those coming from France at present, some of the models created to assist the former have applicability to the latter as well. For instance, many of the French olim have had difficulty finding a livelihood to replace what was left behind in France, and as a consequence many of the fathers are travelling each week back to France. Some of the programs developed by Shuvu can be adjusted for the French children whose fathers are absent a good deal of the time.

In general, the rabbis of the French Jewish community have elected to remain in France to continue to serve the majority of the community that has not yet made aliyah. That means that the new French immigrants have fewer shuls and less rabbinic guidance available to them than they had in France. Here too, models developed by Shuvu to involve the entire family of students on a weekly basis can be adapted for the French-speaking immigrants.

Hopefully, the cooperation of all the Torah school systems and the generous outpouring of support of Jews abroad for the new Keren will result in deepening the spiritual roots of the new French immigrants to Eretz Yisroel.

If we are successful in that endeavor, we can then turn our attention to the far larger number of native-born Jewish children in Eretz Yisroel currently lacking any Torah education. The tens of thousands who have been registered in Torah schools by Lev L’Achim over the last fifteen years and the entire school systems – Nesivos Moshe, Shuvu – that have been created from whole cloth over the last quarter century make clear that even the vastly larger project can become a reality. (Today 25-30% of students in Shuvu schools are from native Israeli families.)

We can anticipate the mourning of Tisha B’Av transformed into a day of rejoicing.