Wednesday, Aug 4, 2021

“Baalei Teshuvah Will Be Represented in the Next Knesset”

The Yated follows Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin, The director of Lev L’Achim and the number-eight man on the Yahadut HaTorah list, during the race for the Twentieth Knesset.

Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin makes his final effort in advance of the elections next Tuesday, continuing to crisscross the country to solicit votes. “No longer will kiruv schools be housed in buildings unfit to serve as stables!” he declares. “I believe we will win eight mandates.”

In about a week, Israelis will head to the polls. The tension and suspense are growing. One can discern this in the streets, at intersections, in chareidi newspapers, on the signs, in the public discourse, and also in the voice of the man who might be a member of the Knesset, Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin. As usual, I reached him while he was on the road. His car has already covered countless miles (or, by local standards, kilometers) on the roads of Israel, traveling from north to south, with its stops including, of course, Bnei Brak, Yerushalayim and Netanya, the city where he lives. He hasn’t seen much of his home over the past month.

So, are you calm?

It is a rhetorical question. Of course he isn’t calm. “Everything is on fire,” Rabbi Sorotzkin responds. “You have caught me on my way out of Kiryat Bialik.”

Kiryat Bialik is a city near Haifa, one of several in the area known as “kiryot”: Kiryat Bialik, Kiryat Mutzkin, and Kiryat Atta.

“We had a great conference with our staff. There is a large community of baalei teshuvah there who haven’t been recognized and have nowhere to turn for help. The mayor recently disconnected the water supply of their shul, and they were forced to bring tanks of water and place them on the roof, just as people did during the years of austerity. Imagine the sight: There is a big tank on the roof of the shul, and water flows from there to the sinks. That is how they are living. Despite that – or perhaps because of it – they are coming out in large numbers to strengthen our campaign and to vote for a chareidi who will represent them proudly in the Knesset. I also visited Kiryat Atta, where there is a large group of enthusiastic activists with fire in their eyes. I went to the Ohr Chodosh seminary and met with the faculty to discuss how to reach all the families with whom they had connections in recent years. I am now on my way to Acco, and from there I will be traveling to Tirat Hacarmel for the opening of the electoral council. After that, I will be visiting Atlit.”

I am sorry to remind you of this, but you already told me in one of our previous discussions that you had visited the Kiryot and Acco.

Rabbi Sorotzkin continues speaking excitedly, oblivious to my words. “Then I am going to Zichron Yaakov to deliver a speech at the electoral council there, and I am not certain that the day will be over yet.”

Wait a minute. You have already visited Zichron Yaakov!

“You’re right. This is the third time I am touring the cities in the north. The first time, I met with the Lev L’Achim operatives there and informed them that the gedolei Yisroel had asked me to join the election campaign. I explained to them that not only would the teshuvah movement and Lev L’Achim not be harmed by my involvement in politics, but, on the contrary, it would strengthen us. My second trip was for the purpose of setting up an infrastructure for our activists and an electoral council, and to set up practical guidelines for the campaign efforts. This week, I am visiting the electoral councils now that they are already operating, and I am meeting with people who are still unsure about how they will vote, and I am attending events that have been set up for me to meet with families of baalei teshuvah or people who are on the verge of becoming religious. I am also meeting with Lev L’Achim’s workers to hear about the reactions in the field and to answer any questions they have.”

What have they been reporting?

“The reactions are very enthusiastic. The people of Lev L’Achim have made connections and met with people, and they have heard what the people have to say. Almost all of our worries have been proven unfounded. We arranged a simulation of sorts and set up rules about how to broach the subject of the elections and how to enter into a political discussion. We were always concerned that it might backfire on us, that it might evoke displeasure or even hostility, but it hasn’t had that effect at all. Our activists have listened to the reactions of the people they have met with, and, as it turns out, they have had no need to use the tools we have taught them. They have all been pleasantly surprised. We developed all sorts of persuasive tactics to avoid having a negative impact on the teshuvah movement. We spent a long time considering how to speak and what not to say, but we have found that the people in the field are very excited about the subject. They bring up the topic of the elections on their own, and they don’t feel that we are taking advantage of them or anything of the sort. They understand very well that our efforts to garner votes are also part of Yiddishkeit. Even in our midrashot, the young people are telling the avreichim who learn with them, ‘If Rav Sorotzkin is in the Knesset, he will help the midrashot, so we want to help him get elected!’ That has been the reaction in many homes, and we hope to see it in the elections.”

Are there places where you are going only now to open an electoral council?

“Yes. There has been campaigning everywhere, but the party hasn’t opened a council in every location, and that is what we are doing on this tour. We are now in the final week before the elections, and this is the time to act. Until now, we were more involved in preparing the infrastructure. Our electoral councils will now work on mobilizing volunteers, planning for Election Day itself, and seeing to it that there are signs everywhere. With Hashem’s help, it will all be good.”

His enthusiasm is plainly evident. It is hard to slow him down. But the problem is that the polls aren’t quite as promising. The situation isn’t bad, but it isn’t wonderful either. To Rabbi Sorotzkin’s credit, it should be noted that if there was a concern – and some people are concerned about this – that Yahadut HaTorah might not repeat its previous accomplishment and might drop from seven mandates to six in the current elections, it is likely due to his efforts that the current polls indicate that the party will receive six or seven seats. But very few polls show the party earning eight mandates. It should also be noted that portions of the Litvishe community are threatening not to vote at all. If they do abstain from voting, that might prevent the party from gaining another mandate.

If Yahadut HaTorah receives only seven mandates, who will fulfill all of the hopes that you are giving to the baalei teshuvah? Who will represent them in the Knesset?

“It is my hope that we will get eight mandates. All four representatives of Degel HaTorah – Gafni, Maklev, Yaakov Asher and I – met with Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman this week. We asked a number of shailos that had arisen, and then someone asked the rosh yeshiva to give us a brachah for the eighth man to make it into the Knesset. Rav Shteinman said, ‘Who knows eight? I know eight.’ The same person asked, ‘Does the rosh yeshiva know that the eighth will be in the Knesset or that he won’t?’ And Rav Shteinman replied, ‘I didn’t say that I know seven.’ He didn’t discuss the matter any further. I am confident that he was hinting to us that we now have an opportunity that can lead to a great accomplishment. But if we don’t unite and come together to vote in large numbers, and if we fail to bring in the votes of the baalei teshuvah, then it will be a missed opportunity. But it is clear that we have a great opportunity. I feel it, and so does everyone else. If everyone, from within and without, would throw all their efforts into this, then we would have eight mandates. Incidentally, at that same conference, the rosh yeshiva gave his blessing to hold a large kinnus.”

When will that kinnus take place?

“This Thursday, at the Arena stadium in Yerushalayim.”

What will be the purpose?

“It is the final call of ‘Mi laHashem eilai,’ with all the power and urgency that we can give to that cry. All the gedolim will be there. We are confident that this major rally for kavod haTorah will send the message to everyone to enlist in what we call ‘Mivtza Machpilim – Operation Double.’ We are calling on everyone to get one other person to vote. Even now, we are preparing for a massive rally. The stadium has only 12,000 seats and we are already aware that the demand is even greater than that. Many people want to take part in this historic event, and it will therefore be broadcast live to other communities throughout the country.”

Last night (on Motzoei Shabbos), I was at the main shul in Givat Shaul for an event related to the elections. The neighborhood rabbonim spoke there, as did Rav Brazil from Yeshivas Mir Brachfeld and Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Slabodka in Bnei Brak. The room was packed and there was tremendous enthusiasm.

“There is something very interesting about this,” Rabbi Sorotzkin says. “I must tell you that the special thing about these events is that they have been taking place every day in several different neighborhoods, in several cities, at the same time. It’s amazing. These neighborhood rallies are attended by the most senior roshei yeshivos, and the Knesset members come too. I have also been tapped for these events, and I find myself attending one at 11:00 almost every night. The nice thing is that these events are held on the initiative of avreichim; they are not the party’s initiative. The party is dealing with its target community of voters, while the avreichim are working to ‘gather together and defend their lives,’ as the Jews did in the times of Esther and Mordechai. They are throwing all their energies into this, organizing the events and inviting speakers. They ask us for logistical support, and they receive plenty of it. We give them fliers and sound systems, but the initiative comes from them, and this shows that it is a matter of great importance to them. Not only did they see the government’s decrees against them, they actually felt their impact. They feel a powerful need for strong representatives in the government, and they are heeding the cries of the gedolim with all their might.”

This week, Rabbi Sorotzkin was a sought-after interviewee in the secular media, but this time he was not on the defensive, accused of duping people into becoming religious and “stealing” people from their families. Instead, he was seen as a serious candidate for a position in the Twentieth Knesset.

I saw that you were interviewed in Haaretz. You did well.

“Believe me, I didn’t see it. Did it come out good?” He asks me to send him a copy of the article.

It wasn’t an ordinary interview. The writer brought up all sorts of subjects and you were asked to give your opinion on them.

“Look, when Haaretz writes about you, it can’t be good. If the Haaretz readers like you, it’s not a good sign, but if they don’t like you, it’s also not good. Who reads Haaretz? The readers are people like Shachar Ilan, who said that I am the greatest danger to the State of Israel. Whatever I say, it can’t be good. I tried to speak with sincerity and I hope it went over well.”

One of the questions they asked you was how you feel about negotiating with the Palestinians.

“I told them that as of now, there is no one to talk to.”

No. They wrote that you said, “If they want.”

“Ah, that’s right. That fits with the style of my answers.”

Then if they want to negotiate, you would be in favor?

“First we have to see that they are interested.”

You have learned to be very vague in your responses.

“I did rebuke the interviewer, but he probably omitted it. I said to him, ‘I don’t know you, but you are asking me about women in the Knesset, about the Supreme Court, and about the price of housing, but you haven’t asked a single question about values. Where is this nation going? What happened to our tradition?’ He didn’t even touch on the issues at the core of the Jewish people. He didn’t discuss the values with which we are raising this generation. And do you know what he answered me about that?”

What did he say?

“He said, ‘Mr. Sorotzkin, I am sorry, but that doesn’t interest our readers.’ And I said, ‘That is another reason I am running for the Knesset: to place these issues on the public agenda.”

I saw that he asked you about the Holot Detention Center, where the Sudanese infiltrators are held, and you said that you didn’t know what it is.

“I didn’t mean to say that I was unaware of it. I was trying to tell him that it isn’t an important subject. In truth, I didn’t want to share my opinions on everything.”

But you know what it is.

“Yes, but I avoided the issue. I admit that I don’t have experience in every area and I haven’t dealt with these matters. A person needs to know his place. Furthermore, a party run according to the Torah can’t have predetermined positions on every issue. We have to consult with the gedolim on every issue that comes up, as it arises. I even told him that. I explained that this is the approach of Yahadut HaTorah and of every chareidi Jew. In most cases, our answers are given in accordance with the situation at that moment, and that is why my answers were also general in nature.”

I felt that the hashkafah of Rav Shach was evident in some of your answers. For instance, he asked you about dividing Yerushalayim and you told him that it wasn’t on the table at the moment. You didn’t say that it is our eternal capital and can never be divided. You implied that if it were to be placed on the table, anything is possible.

“True. We have been raised with Rav Shach’s philosophy that the preservation of life is the highest value. There were many issues that he weighed on the scales of pikuach nefesh. It was for good reason that he spoke out against the extreme right and the people who go up to the Har Habayis. This hashkafah has been drilled into us. But why are you making all these subtle inferences in my words, as if it was a Gemara? Go analyze the wording of the Gemara instead…”

You spoke against monopolies. You have become an expert on economics, I see.

“I think that every intelligent person understands that the existence of monopolies causes the cost of living to go up. The cartel is the greatest cause of exorbitant prices. And that is an issue that interests me now, for the Torah is concerned about the Jewish people’s money. There is no reason bread should be so expensive.”

We are approaching the end of this campaign. We share your excitement and we are davening for you. In one week, we will all be going to the polls. I understand that you will squeeze the maximum effort out of yourself this week.

“I am already in Acco. As you are talking to me, people are standing outside the car, waiting for me to finish. I will be late for Tirat Hacarmel, Atlit and Chadera.”

There are many baalei teshuvah in Chadera.

“Yes, there are. There isn’t a chareidi community there, but there are communities of baalei teshuvah that developed on their own. It’s truly astounding. It’s a Lev L’Achim city… I hope that we will see the effects at the polls.”

Are they Sephardim or Ashkenazim?

“Enough. The people are tired of these labels. Today, twenty percent of the people are Sephardim and twenty percent are Ashkenazim. The other sixty percent don’t know what you want when you ask them what they are. We see that among baalei teshuvah, when they ask us what to do on Pesach or other Yomim Tovim and we ask if they are Sephardim or Ashkenazim. Most of them can’t understand what we are asking.”

The most important question is: Lev L’Achim’s post-Pesach event hasn’t been neglected?

“Absolutely not. Everything is ready, including the security guards and the sound system.”

Who will be the guest of honor from America this year?

“I haven’t been able to take care of that yet. All in all, the roshei yeshiva and gedolim of America and Eretz Yisroel alike are unanimous in their support for Lev L’Achim. Do not worry. All the particulars will be resolved in time.”

In conclusion, if Yahadut HaTorah doesn’t receive eight seats, who will make good on your promises to the baalei teshuvah? What will they do without a representative in the Knesset?

“I hope that there will be an eighth mandate. We are all working to make that happen. The problem is that it doesn’t depend only on us. It isn’t like Lev L’Achim’s school registration drives or the establishment of midrashot, with regard to which everything depends on us and the results will be in keeping with our efforts. This time, it is definitely possible that we will lose votes from parts of our own community over which we have no control. So it is possible that you are right and my efforts will bring in an additional mandate, but that it will only be the seventh. I have said in the past that I would consider that worthwhile as well. The gedolei Yisroel want us to have a strong representation, and even if we have prevented a loss of influence, that is also an important accomplishment. But I hope we will have an eighth seat.”

If not, what will be done for the baalei teshuvah?

“All the members of Yahadut HaTorah in the Knesset, especially those from Degel HaTorah, are responsible for them. The fact that I was included on the list was essentially a statement from the gedolei Yisroel that the teshuvah movement is part and parcel of the struggle for Eretz Yisroel. This subject was moved to center stage by the gedolim. Even if I do not make it into the Knesset, I am already part of the group and I will have the opportunity to make sure that things will be taken care of. No longer will kiruv schools be housed in places that are not fit to serve as stables,” he asserts.

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