At the top of my list was Lev L’Achim, the outreach organization founded by gedolei Yisroel and run on a day-to-day basis by Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin, assisted by Rav Avrohom Zeivald and many other renowned askonim. The backbone of Lev L’Achim includes such luminaries as Rav Tzvi Eliach, Rav Boruch Schapira and the legendary Rav Uri Zohar.
“If you only have time to see one organization up close,” I was told by those in the know, “Lev L’Achim is the place for you.”
Rav Avrohom Zeivald, who oversees Lev L’Achim operations in Yerushalayim, graciously picked me up and took me to Bnei Brak. Due to the blizzard, buses were not running. During our trip he fielded one phone call after another from askonim, families whose children were newly enrolled in Torah schools, and of course the “p’eylim,” the hundreds of Lev L’Achim staff members who are the mainstays of this nationwide phenomenon.
Since my Hebrew is rather rudimentary, I could only grasp parts of the conversations. Yet the sheer volume of the calls and the range of issues being addressed gave me an idea of the immense reach of this organization. The dedication and commitment didn’t have to be spelled out to be sensed.
We arrived in Bnei Brak at the Eli Stern National Operations Center of Lev L’Achim on Rechov Zechariah. Formerly the headquarters of the ZAI party, the four story building was expanded and renovated and today serves as the operations hub of Lev L’Achim. Within moments I was enthusiastically welcomed by the extended Lev L’Achim family, the dedicated women who are the heart and soul of the divisions dealing with women and girls. These warm, motherly madrichot and role models spend their days and nights reaching out to their Jewish sisters, drawing them close with incredible concern.
I was given a seat, served delicious pastries, and introduced to the heads of every division, who proceeded to give me a rundown of the breadth and scope of their divisions.
The roles of Lev L’Achim full-time employees varies. I spoke with some who run the Midrashot Shalhevet, which are localized evening programs for secular Israeli young women from ages 18 — 30. These 37 walk-in centers, strategically located all across the country, are where the transformation from the typical Israeli (nightclub-going, jeans wearing) teen begins. But they don’t just begin the process; they accompany the girls throughout their lifelong journey.
Located in most of the large (and some smaller) cities, including Tel Aviv, Netanya, Afula, Haifa, Be’er Sheva, and Nahariya, the midrashot serve as home-away-from-home for many of these girls. They have passed the typical age of enrollment enrolled in Torah-true high schools, yet they are flowers in full bloom. At the midrashot they find camaraderie, direction and a sense of purpose in life.
“These girls come in looking like this,” says Mrs. Kahan, (names have been changed) an effusive, bubbly grandmother type, as she opened an album showing me a picture of garishly dressed Ronit, who was a singer on the Israeli nightlife scene.
I turned the page, and saw a beautiful bride, dressed in a modest white gown, her face radiating purity and commitment. “Who is this?” I asked.
“That’s Ronit at her wedding.”
“What?” I was shocked. Even the features didn’t resemble the earlier picture. Upon second glance, though, the resemblance was unmistakable. This was Ronit, true, but a completely different version of the same girl.
Yet more surprises were in store. Subsequent pictures portrayed Ronit with her avreich husband, bearded, wearing a suit and black hat, and their three small children. Ronit is wearing a Yerushalmi tichel, and her face is glowing; she is infinitely more attractive than she was in her earlier ‘glamorous’ photos.
I spent nearly three hours at the Lev L’Achim headquarters meeting the heroines on the front lines, absorbing their experiences and sensing the urgency in their mission.
There was something so poignant and real about these women. This was not just a shpiel for the cameras. Drawing their girls close, opening their eyes to the beauty of Torah and holding their hands throughout the process consumes the lives of these noshim tzidkoniyos.
Not surprisingly, none of the women allowed me to use their real names. They abhor the notion of fame and glory; their focus is solely on tachlis.
One of the midrashah heads, Rabbanit Sofer, whom other women described as “a second Rebbetzin Kanievsky,” lives in the same building as the Kanievsky family. Throughout the past fifteen years, her girls from the Midrasha had become, by default, the Rebbetzin’s daughters as well.
During Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky’s lifetime, every kallah spent her wedding day at RabbanitSofer’s house, where she donned her beautiful wedding gown, and went to Rebbetzin Kanievsky for a heartfelt brochah. “Today, the Rebbetzin’s daughter has inherited this role,” Rabbanit Sofer explained.
At the Bnei Brak center, I learned about the highly acclaimed chavrusa phone program, which matches young chareidi women with secular woman around their age. The initial contact with these girls and woman is made by trained Lev L’Achim workers in the course of their daily work. They make contact following the home visitations of the thousands of volunteer Kollel yungeleit of Project Door-to-Door; through questionnaires distributed by Lev L’Achim rallies, from the call-ins to Rav Uri Zohar’s radio programs and more.
In Yerushalayim, there are Lev Hakotel staff members engaging secular visitors to the Kosel in friendly conversation. They offer an opportunity to learn more about Judaism and take cell-phone numbers. Within days, no matter where in Israel the visitor lives, a local Lev L’Achim operative makes contact to initiate learning sessions, inviting yet another searching soul into a program that will lead the way back to full observance.
A typical conversation goes something like this:
“Shalom. My name is Aviva. I must tell you, your baby is adorable. It’s really special to be here at the Kotelwhere the shechinah has never left the Jewish people…” If the initial greeting seems to have found a receptive listener, the Lev Hakotel representative will continue the conversation and offer the opportunity to learn more. Thousands of new contacts are made each year just at the Kosel! The majority of them end up in one of Lev L’achim’s programs as they advance in their discovery of our mesorah.
At times the women approached will prove to be uninterested, and they are left alone. More often than not, however, the young women and girls warm up quickly, because “a heart feels a heart.” Members of the Lev L’Achim staff are genuinely caring and loving. They are not out to get anyone or snatch souls, and their genuineness can be sensed.
Outreach is conducted in a low-key manner, without any pressure. Sometimes the women won’t be ready when a local Lev L’Achim person calls them the first time. “Months can go by and we won’t hear from these women, and then, out of the blue, they’ll call. Often they’ll hear our advertisement on the radio and recall that they met us,” said one of the program’s supervising coordinators.
“Sometimes they’ll be going through a difficult time and need some chizuk. When we get that phone call, we spring into action immediately. These women are pleading for help, and we try our best to provide it. Our chavrusa program matches a caring, dedicated chareidi woman with a chiloni woman, whom she takes under her wing. They learn together, or the volunteer just listens and tries to help however she can. Sometimes we connect them with other organizations who can provide physical assistance with the children or help in paying medical bills. This is not a 1-2-3 quick fix program. It’s a lifelong process.”
The busiest season for the Lev L’Achim chavrusa program is during the month of Elul, when even the most jaded Jewish soul feels stirrings of regret and yearning. Yet the program coordinators and dedicated volunteers are busy all year. There’s never an off day at the organization.
I was amazed to learn that there is a separate office in Lev L’Achim’s Bnei Brak center dedicated solely to finding suitable shidduchim for the many girls who come of age in the Midrashot Shalhevet and other programs. Lev L’Achim staff across the country refer single maleba’alei teshuvah to the office, where they are interviewed and put in to the system. Hundreds of successful matches have been made by this office. They maintain bulging loose leafs full of invitations from all the weddings brought about by their help.
With so much emphasis on getting younger girls in to Torah schools and older girls in to midrashot, I was wondering what a high school aged girl might find in Lev L’Achim. This question led me to yet another program of Lev L’Achim: Irgun Bogrot.
It seems that just attending a Bais Yaakov is no guarantee for a girl to stay on the Torah path. When her family is not yet fully observant, it can be very hard on a young girl. Imagine what it’s like when her family gets in to the car on Shabbos for a fun day at the beach, while she opts to stay home alone. Eventually, even the most stalwart young girl can lose her drive.
Irgun Bogrot is a girls’ club for teens and those newly graduated from high school. They meet on Shabbos for lectures and oneg parties. There are group trips to mekomos hakedoshim and yom tov related gatherings. Above all, there are mentors who guide the girls and encourage them on their path in life.
I saw pictures from one memorable Chanukah gathering, where hundreds of Lev L’achim girls mingled with their mentors and volunteers, enjoying delicious food, lively entertainment, and an inspiring lecture.
The final interview of the afternoon was both heartwarming and shocking, a sobering wake-up call.
Lev Shomea is the arm of Lev L’Achim that deals with what our community has dubbed “kids-at-risk.” Yes, Lev L’Achim is reaching out to our own youth, as well as those of the secular world. With trained psychologists and guidance counselors manning the telephone lines, the calls come pouring in.
Lev Shomea advertises in publications and places they know will be seen by those in need of spiritual first-aid. With a guarantee of anonymity, the callers find themselves unburdening themselves over the phone. As recorded in the logs, nearly all of the calls end up with the arrangement of personal meetings and a continued relationship with their newfound mentors.
I was told that Rav Elyashiv zt”l deemed Lev Shomea “lifesaving,” and not only because of the children. Rav Elyashiv was referring to the toll these situations take on families, and the pain and suffering of the parents. By helping a wayward child reconcile with his or her family, the fabric of an entiremishpochah can be salvaged.
After nearly four hours spent in the nerve center of Lev L’achim, I parted from my newfound friends and left. I had a wedding to attend in Netanya, and a full schedule the following day. As I mulled over all I had seen, I was filled with a sense of appreciation and awe.
In truth, we have much to be thankful for in our Torah community: the limud haTorah and ceaseless chesed, the dedication and commitment to others, and above all, the sense of sipuk, of simchas hachaim.
Now that I’d seen it firsthand, I realized that all the hype out there doesn’t come close to the truth. Kudos to those on the front lines who do the hard work, and to those who write the checks that make it all possible. Ashreichem Yisroel!