At this time, I cannot help but remember a comment made by Rav Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky, the Steipler Gaon zt”l Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach zt”l, at the conclusion of a different Israeli election. Rav Shach had fought valiantly for a certain issue and ultimately had not been successful. His failure weighed heavily on him. The Steipler quoted the posuk of “And Avrohom returned to his place,” which appears in the Torah after Avrohom Avinu’s failure to save the people of Sedom from destruction. The Steipler pointed out that these words seem superfluous, but he explained that the Torah’s intent is to teach us that Avrohom was not broken or crushed by his failure. Avrohom knew that his obligation was to do whatever he needed to do, and when he had completed his task, he “returned to his place” – he returned to his life’s work.
Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin learned from Rav Shach and Avrohom Avinu. He has “returned to his place.” But Rabbi Sorotzkin has no reason to feel deflated. True, the Yahadut HaTorah party had high hopes of receiving seven mandates in the Knesset, or perhaps even eight, which would have earned Rabbi Sorotzkin himself a seat, while it emerged from the election with no more than six. But considering the circumstances, that is a victory. Moreover, in the present situation, it seems that with its six mandates, the party will be able to achieve what it could not have accomplished even with seven or eight seats in a different political constellation. The overall picture is what determines how a government is formed, and now six seats is a significant number. It is more than Avigdor Lieberman’s party has, and almost as much as Shas and Bayit Yehudi have.
Moreover, Rabbi Sorotzkin certainly has no reason to feel a sense of failure. It is clear that he was responsible for the last mandate. If not for his efforts and those of the people of Lev L’Achim, Yahadut Hatorah would not have earned even six mandates. That has been clearly demonstrated by the results of the elections. The numbers speak for themselves. The sixth member of the party owes his seat to Lev L’Achim.
As one of the leading political pundits in the State of Israel wrote, the “big winners” in this election were first and foremost Binyamin Netanyahu; followed by Moshe Kachlon, who does not seem to face any obstacles in obtaining the treasury portfolio; then Aryeh Deri, who managed to win seven mandates despite the beating that he and the Shas party took; and Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin, who promised to bring in tens of thousands of additional votes for Yahadut HaTorah and who managed to make good on that promise. Today, everyone knows what Lev L’Achim is, and the entire country is in awe of the organization’s power.
Throughout the past few weeks, Rabbi Sorotzkin hardly slept. His voice is still hoarse. I asked him to share some insights and analyses of the events that have just taken place, and he got right down to dissecting the numbers.
“Let’s talk about the results,” Rabbi Sorotzkin says. “In the previous elections, Yahadut HaTorah received 196,000 votes, and this time we received 212,000 votes in total. That points to a growth of 16,000 votes. But we must add to that number the votes that we know the party lost since the last election, which adds up to about 25,000.”
Why is that?
Rabbi Sorotzkin doesn’t want to go into details, but he tells me in general terms, “Some of those voters are members of the Yerushalmi faction, who refrained from voting for us this time, and thousands of others are Lubavitcher chassidim, who voted for Yahadut HaTorah in the previous elections and now supported Yachad, probably because of Baruch Marzel. Let’s take Kfar Chabad as an example. In the previous elections, half of the votes from there went to Yahadut HaTorah. This time, the majority of the residents supported Marzel; he received 2,000 votes there, while Yahadut HaTorah received only 200. And the same was true of Lod. This time, only three people voted for Yahadut HaTorah in the Chabad stronghold there. The same pattern can be seen in every place where there is a prominent concentration of Chabad chassidim, such as Netanya.”
One minute. We lost votes in Netanya, your own city?
“All in all, we actually made impressive gains in Netanya. In the previous elections, Yahadut HaTorah received 2,300 votes there, and this time we went up to 3,000. But you must add approximately 200 votes from the chassidim of Chabad, who voted for other parties this time. That means that it was a growth of about 1,000 votes in total. That is very significant. And the same was true in other places. So when I say that Yahadut HaTorah gained an additional 16,000 votes, the truth is that we actually brought in many more votes, but we also lost tens of thousands of votes that we had in previous elections. I believe that we lost a total of about 25,000 votes across the country, so we would have actually received 170,000 instead of 196,000 if not for the new supporters we attracted.”
Those losses are attributed to the votes that went to Yachad and the thousands who abstained. What else?
“There was also the fact that some people felt at the last minute that they needed to save Bibi, and they did save him. These were people who had voted Gimmel in the past and who still planned on voting Gimmel, but at the last minute they were swept away with the current of support for Bibi and the Likud. Netanyahu managed to create hysteria over the prospect of the state falling into the hands of the left and the Arabs, who were coming out in droves to vote.
“I don’t want to sound as if I am criticizing anyone,” Rabbi Sorotzkin adds. “I am simply describing the reality. And when you take all these facts and statistics into account, you can see that the fact that we grew by 16,000 votes actually means that we brought in about 40,000 new voters, which is about 20 percent of the total number of votes the party received.”
There is also natural growth.
“That is true. It is generally calculated that from one election to the next – meaning over a period of four or five years, which is the amount of time a government is supposed to last – there is a natural growth of 20 percent. Since the outgoing government lasted for only half a term, the growth rate should have been ten percent. But considering the number of voters we lost, we still brought in 30,000 votes more than our natural growth would have provided us. And that is a laudable accomplishment by any standards.”
Do you believe that all of that was due to the activities of Lev L’Achim?
“No. But much of it can be attributed to them. We can’t ignore the sense of unity and enthusiasm that was generated at the last minute after the huge rally in Bnei Brak, but that accounts for only part of our success. In Bnei Brak, the voting rate in the previous elections was 81 percent, and it remained at 81 percent. That is also an accomplishment. But that doesn’t bring about great growth; it simply prevents a decline.
On the other hand, if we look at what happened in the communities on the periphery, we will see that the statistics indicate that wherever Lev L’Achim is regularly involved in kiruv, it translated into additional votes in the ballot boxes and we realized a growth of about 400 percent. Take a city like Tel Aviv, for example: During the last elections, 2,200 people in Tel Aviv voted for Yahadut HaTorah. This time, due to the flight of the chareidim from Tel Aviv and the knowledge that Chabad supporters would not be voting for us, the expectation was that we would receive 1,800 votes there. That was the estimate made by the deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Naftali Lobert, who is part of Yahadut HaTorah. In the end, however, we received 2,900 votes. The Lev L’Achim operatives set up a strong council in southern Tel Aviv, and they worked in all the areas where we conduct our regular activities – our school registration campaigns, our shiurim, and our work with families. All their efforts paid off. You can see that in the results from the individual polling stations in the southern Tel Aviv neighborhoods, where Yahadut HaTorah has always been very weak.
In our previous conversations, you always spoke about the Kiryot, and about Tirah and Atlit. You were confident that Lev L’Achim’s efforts would bring in many more votes for Yahadut HaTorah in those cities. Is that what happened?
“Let’s look at Kiryat Bialik as an example. In the previous elections, Yahadut HaTorah received 61 votes there. This time, it was 370. It was clear to me all along that that would happen, since Lev L’Achim operates there extensively, and there are midrashot for the youth there. Now let’s look at Atlit. We received only four votes there in the last elections. This time, seventy people voted for us. I don’t even know how to calculate that in percentage points. If you look at a map of the country, you will see that this was the case in every place where Lev L’Achim is active – not only in the cities on the periphery, but also in peripheral neighborhoods. Just look at Yerushalayim and the surrounding areas. Look at the growth we experienced in Gilo, Armon Hanetziv, and Pisgat Zev. In all these places, the growth rate was very high.”
But surely you must still be distressed by the results.
“My feeling is that I was called upon by the gedolei Yisroel to do my part, and boruch Hashem I put in all of my efforts and succeeded in bringing in many more votes. Believe me, it gives me a sense of great satisfaction.”
Yet you were hoping to secure an eighth seat for the party and you didn’t even get seven.
“That is true, but there is nothing we can do about it. It is a function of the high voter turnout on Election Day. In the previous elections, the voting rate was only 67 percent of the country. Due to widespread apathy, it was predicted that the voter turnout in this election would drop to 65 percent, while in actuality it increased to 73 percent. Had the rest of the country’s turnout been only about 65 or 67 percent, we would have earned eight seats.”
Did Eli Yishai also cost you a mandate?
Eli Yishai’s Yachad party failed to pass the electoral threshold, resulting in the discarding of 125,000 votes. At least some of those votes certainly would have gone to Yahadut HaTorah. Rabbi Sorotzkin remarks, “The high voter turnout cost us the eighth mandate, and it is virtually certain that Eli Yishai and the Yerushalmi faction cost us the seventh. If not for the Chabad votes and the others that went to someone else, and if not for all the people who refrained from voting altogether, and if not for the increase in voter turnout, we would have come very close to nine mandates. I must point out that the right-wing hysteria on Election Day, especially the prime minister’s warning that the government was about to fall into the hands of the Arabs and the left, worked to our detriment. Within an hour, the voter turnout rate grew by ten percent. That is also what prevented Eli Yishai from crossing the threshold, and it also cost Shas its eighth or ninth mandate, as well as costing us the seventh or eighth.”
I understand that you went to speak with Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman the day after the elections.
“Yes, and at that time it wasn’t yet clear whether we had received a seventh mandate. The first question he asked was how many more votes we had received. When we told him that our supporters had grown by 15,000, despite the various sectors that didn’t vote for us in these elections, he said, ‘It is a kiddush Hashem that more Jews are voting for the Torah.’ Then he added, ‘You don’t have to worry about the turnout rate. Your job was to get more people to declare their loyalty to Hashem, and you have accomplished that.’ The voting rate was min haShomayim. Hashem runs the world.”
Last week, you mentioned that you were going to send a message by phone, when the polls closed, to all the Lev L’Achim workers. Did you do that?
“Yes, and last night we also held a melava malka for all our coordinators, who had worked hard during the election campaign. It was held in a hall in Netanya, and there were 120 men there. I said to them, ‘You are the real 120 elected representatives of the Jewish people. You are the emissaries of Klal Yisroel.’ I also told them that from the perspective of Lev L’Achim, our victory was immeasurable. Our entire purpose is to act as emissaries of the gedolim, to serve as their agents in being mekarev people who are thirsting for the Word of Hashem. We do this all year long, and we did it with the greatest passion and enthusiasm during the election campaign. We now have an incredible opportunity. Everyone is now praising Lev L’Achim for what it accomplished, and we feel that many people would like to join our efforts. We can ride on that widespread admiration to double the scope of our activities. Before the elections, we had a ‘double the vote’ campaign, during which everyone was asked to get someone else to vote Gimmel. We might soon introduce a ‘double the kiruv’ campaign, working on the same basis. Just as every Torah-observant Jew was asked to bring in another vote for Gimmel, we will now ask everyone to work with the same fervor to bring another Jew back to Yiddishkeit. Just as kollel yungerleit knew how to convince a chiloni to vote for Yahadut HaTorah, they can convince another Jew to learn Mishnayos once a week. We will give support and guidance to these avreichim. We will direct them. From our vantage point, we want there to be a tremendous awakening for kiruv.”
I understand that you are not personally disappointed by the fact that you didn’t make it into the Knesset – or, to be more precise, by the fact that you have remained exclusively dedicated to Lev L’Achim. But is it a disappointment for all of your activists in Lev L’Achim?
“We did our job with all our might,” Rabbi Sorotzkin replies. “I might have expected the Lev L’Achim activists to be discouraged, but last night I saw the exact opposite reaction. There was an atmosphere of great elevation. Rav Avrohom Zeivald, one of the senior figures in Lev L’Achim, declared in his speech, ‘We have won! We made a kiddush Hashem, and Rav Sorotzkin stayed with Lev L’Achim.’”
Are the Knesset members who were elected grateful to you?
“This isn’t a personal issue and I am not expecting their gratitude. I am confident that those who will be serving in the Knesset will view themselves as obligated to support the causes that I promised to represent, such as kiruv schools. The members of the Knesset from Degel HaTorah have already told me that they feel obligated to pursue the matter, as we have requested.”
Have you managed to sleep at all?
“Not very much. The day after the elections, I had a few urgent meetings at Lev L’Achim. You must remember that we are in the middle of school registration season and it is almost Pesach. The midrashot are now distributing Haggados that we have published. It is our responsibility to provide guidance for families who are making a Seder for the first time. Sometimes, we need to teach children how to observe yom tov together with their parents. You may not believe this, but in some families, there are parents who ask the Mah Nishtanah, while their children, who are learning in Torah schools, answer the questions and explain the story to them. We are also in the middle of making arrangements for our major annual kinnus, which takes place every year after Pesach.”
If Yahadut HaTorah enters the coalition, what will it receive?
“First of all, we must be thankful to Hashem for the situation that has been created, in which the prime minister needs the support of both Yahadut HaTorah and Shas. We could have received more mandates in the election, but if they didn’t need us, what good would it do? You saw what happened in the previous term, when Yahadut HaTorah had seven mandates and Shas had eleven. I hope that the first thing we will accomplish is to restore everything that has been taken from us. I am referring to all the budget cuts that affected the Torah world and yeshiva students, and, of course, the draft law. The tremendous injustice of declaring yeshiva students to be criminals must be rectified. I don’t believe that it will happen overnight, but even though it took two years for the situation to deteriorate to this point, it can be rectified in much less time.”
Maybe Lev L’Achim will begin receiving government funding.
“The reason we haven’t been funded by the government until now is because they object to our activities, and I can’t imagine them funding us in the future. It is difficult to expect the government to fund something that they view as a societal blight. We take children away from public schools and enroll them in religious schools. This enrages the Ministry of Education, as well as the mayors of the cities where we work. We also establish midrashot, where young people become baalei teshuvah. Do you expect the government to pay for that? I am certain that if I had been elected, every allocation I supported would have been scrutinized closely in order to make sure that it would provide no benefit – even an indirect one – to Lev L’Achim.
Do you have any thoughts on the unusual experience you have been through?
“There is one thing I have said over and over, on many occasions: I discovered that the activists of Lev L’Achim are a very special group. I saw how hard they worked, simply because the gedolei Yisroel asked them to. They didn’t receive a cent for their efforts, and they are not party workers. I saw how they convinced people with heartfelt words. I saw tremendous power.”