Bringing Lost Jews Home

In advance of the fundraising campaign for Shuvu, the members of Shuvu’s administration gathered at the home of Rav Chaim Walkin in Yerushalayim to hear fascinating stories about the organization’s accomplishments and to plan for its future.

It was motzoei Shabbos. In the neighborhood of Bayit Vegan, like everywhere else in Yerushalayim, there was a distinct chill in the nighttime air. But in the home of the mashgiach Rav Chaim Walkin, there was a burning intensity in the atmosphere. There was a general sense that everyone present was witnessing a historic occasion. It isn’t every day that such a gathering convenes in the renowned mashgiach’s home. The living room was brightly lit, as the picture of Rav Walkin’s father, one of the close talmidim of the Chofetz Chaim, seemed to gaze at all the participants from its place on the wall. The walls were largely lined with shelves laden with seforim; the room almost seemed like a miniature library.

Rav Chaim Walkin recently agreed to accept a position as the president of the Shuvu network. It was a decision that was made neither easily nor quickly. He first visited several of the network’s schools, met the talmidim, and learned about its activities. Only then did he decide to become a partner in Shuvu’s work. Today, Shuvu is the largest kiruv organization in Eretz Yisroel. Its dozens of schools cater to tens of thousands of boys and girls, ranging from preschoolers to high school students. Families are generally drawn to the schools because of the network’s high scholastic level, but the parents also know that there is a “price” that they will have to be: The quality academic instruction comes along with heaping doses of Yiddishkeit. Moreover, the parents are well aware that the spiritual transformations that will overcome their children will eventually encompass them, as well. But they are willing to accept that, as long as their children can benefit from the high level of instruction offered by Shuvu.

Next to Rav Chaim Walkin sat the other members of the presidium of Shuvu: Rav Benzion Hakohen Kook, the head of the Bais Horaah Haklali in Yerushalayim; Rav Binyomin Finkel, the mashgiach of the Mir yeshiva; Rav Shlomo Basso, the grandson of the Baba Sali and head of the Knesses Yisrael network; and the mashpia Rav Nachman Biderman of Lelov.

This meeting of the presidium was a bit different from their standard conferences, due to the issue that had brought the group together. The rabbonim had met to discuss launching an emergency fundraising campaign on behalf of Shuvu, which is facing financial hardships that are threatening its very existence, not to mention hindering its development and growth. Over the course of the meeting, the members of the administration, including Rabbi Chaim Michoel Gutterman, the director-general of Shuvu in Israel, and Rav Nissan Kaplan, would present a detailed picture of the network’s current situation to its presidium, along with their plans for further development – provided that the fundraising campaign achieves its goals. The educational staff also discussed a number of hashkafic questions that they have encountered in the course of their work for the Shuvu school network, but it was clear that the fundraising campaign was the major focus of the meeting.

The Power of a Good Word

Rav Chaim Walkin spoke in his characteristic gentle, unhurried manner. “I would like to begin with a story that I heard from my father, Rav Shmuel Dovid Walkin zt”l,” he said. “My father was fortunate enough to be very close to the Chofetz Chaim, and I heard from him that the Chofetz Chaim used to summon bochurim from the yeshiva in Radin and ask them if they had been blessed with a talent for communicating. When a bochur would respond in the affirmative, the Chofetz Chaim would sternly reprimand him, ‘Then what are you waiting for? Go out and bring lost souls back to their Father in Heaven!’ The Chofetz Chaim maintained that anyone who is capable of it is required to work to guide lost Jews back to their roots.

“I also remember that my rebbi, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l, used to dedicate a special tefillah on Yom Kippur for the ‘Russian Yidden’ to be able to lead proper Jewish lives,” he added. “These examples should give us a new perspective on the concept of kiruv and its pivotal importance.”

Shuvu, as you know, was founded by Rav Avrohom Pam to benefit immigrants from Russia. Since that time, Shuvu has also begun serving immigrants from France and other countries, as well as natives of Israel.

Rav Benzion Kook also dedicated a few words to expounding on the importance of kiruv, emphasizing that it does not even have to be a difficult task. “Today, there is no need even to speak about observing Shabbos and other mitzvos,” he asserted. “A simple ‘good morning’ can often work wonders. The reality today is that many people’s hearts are receptive to positive influence. Let me tell you a story that I heard from my uncle, Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l.” Rav Wolbe was the son-in-law of Rav Avrohom Grodzinsky, the mashgiach of Slabodka; Rav Avrohom’s son, Rav Yitzchok Grodzinsky, is the grandfather of Rav Benzion’s wife, Rebbetzin Chasya Kook. “The mashgiach used to enjoy hearing from baalei teshuvah about what had led them to turn their lives around,” Rav Benzion continued. “He once had such a conversation with a young man who had graduated from the Technion in Haifa. This man attested that he didn’t have a single family member or neighbor who was religious; the person who had influenced him to become a baal teshuvah was a Jew whose name he didn’t even know. ‘The Technion, where I studied,’ he related, ‘was only one block away from my house. There is an intersection between the two streets, with a crosswalk and a traffic light. This is a very busy intersection, where people are constantly coming and going. I would always cross the street at the same time every morning on my way to the Technion, along with many other people. One of those people also appeared there every day at the exactly the same time. He was a man who wore a yarmulke and had the appearance of a religious Jew, and he was also the only person who wished me a good morning every day, without even being acquainted with me. After some time, I begin to wonder why it was specifically this man, out of all the people who passed through that intersection every day, who greeted me so warmly. I had the distinct sense that it had something to do with his yarmulke…. This eventually led me to a yeshiva for baalei teshuvah, and here I am today….”

Rav Binyomin Hatzaddik added his own thoughts to the discussion: “We have no idea what it does to our brethren simply to look at us, to see bnei Torah and to observe their refinement and noble behavior. That is something that has the ability to influence irreligious Jews and to motivate them to draw close to the Torah. I know a certain family who became baalei teshuvah at a certain point in their lives. One of their daughters enrolled in a well-known seminary, but unfortunately didn’t maintain her commitment to Yiddishkeit. Her father, who was deeply distressed by the issue, once saw a group of bnei yeshivos who were involved in kiruv, and he exclaimed, ‘If only we had seen these boys a few years earlier, we could have prevented our daughter’s fall!’ The tremendous power of the impression created by a person who learns Torah is part and parcel of the work of kiruv.”

Rav Elyashiv’s Uncertainty

Everyone in the room was already familiar with the dedicated work of the Shuvu network. Nevertheless, the rabbonim felt the need to impress on the participants the fact that every individual is obligated to seek to influence irreligious Jews. Rav Benzion Kook, who was a close student of Rav Elyashiv for many years, related, “The rebbi [Rav Elyashiv] said many times that every yungerman has an obligation to dedicate some of his time to kiruv. And we must remember that he had very high standards of hasmodah! Every second of his daily schedule was painstakingly maximized for Torah learning, and he had a certain degree of criticism for various phenomena that detracted from other people’s learning. There were many pursuits that he did not consider appropriate for bnei Torah. Yet he, of all people, made it very clear that the obligation of kiruv is incumbent on everyone.”

Rav Biderman added, “Many people are familiar with the mosdos of Rav Yitzchok Dovid Grossman of Migdal Ha’emek, who is heavily involved in kiruv. He was guided in all of his activities by my illustrious grandfather, the Lelover Rebbe, who instructed him to open those institutions and advised him on every detail of their development.”

The Lelover Rebbe, according to his grandson, also played an active role in kiruv. “My grandfather had a very special order of avodah on Shabbos. His tefillos and tishen were exalted experiences. At the same time, when the institutions in Migdal Ha’emek were opened, he went there to spend an entire Shabbos with those youths, to encourage them and offer them chizuk. That was how important he considered Rav Grossman’s work to be!”

The speakers reached a unanimous conclusion: Today, kiruv work is tantamount to pidyon shvuyim. Rav Binyomin Hatzaddik recalled that during the period of the “yeshivos la’am,” when bnei yeshivos would travel to communities on the periphery of the country, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz and Rav Nochum Partzovitz used to encourage them in their work. “Not only did those bochurim not suffer from their efforts,” he added, “but they actually grew from them. And it wasn’t only bochurim from Eretz Yisroel; in fact, American bochurim specifically tended to join us.”

Easy Mitzvos

The discussion then turned to the subject of other matters involved in Shuvu’s activities. One question that was raised was the subject of which halachos should be taught first to the students in Shuvu schools: Should the instructors focus on “easier” halachos, such as the laws of brachos, tefillah, tzitzis, and the like, which are easier to implement but involve less serious transgressions, or should they focus on the laws of Shabbos, which are relatively more complicated to observe but tend to involve more serious aveiros.

The mashgiach was asked to be the first to respond. “We have to remember,” he said, “that for Jews who are first becoming religious, the halachos of Shabbos may represent a struggle. They will find themselves immediately facing the conflict between their desire to do something and a halacha that prevents them from doing it, and that conflict on its own may hamper their continued growth. Therefore, it is better to begin with simpler halachos, which they can observe comfortably and with joy, and they can move on from there to a full understanding of Shabbos.”

Rav Benzion Kook spoke next. “It is said that Rav Yisroel Salanter once came to Kenigsberg, which was under German control at the time, and wished to exhort the community to observe the mitzvos. He wanted to speak about the halachos of Shabbos, but he first asked if there were any guests from Lithuania or Poland who were present. When he heard that there were such guests, he spoke about other things instead. It was only on his third Shabbos in the community, when he had made certain that there were no Polish or Lithuanian visitors present, that he announced, ‘I can’t ask you to close your stores on Shabbos at this point; I understand that it is hard for you. But I ask you to please reduce the amount of writing that you do; allow your non-Jewish servants to write for you.’ His next step was to ask them to begin carrying their keys in an unusual fashion, with a shinui, and thus he slowly led them to begin observing Shabbos properly. Later on, he explained why he had refused to discuss the subject in the presence of visitors from Poland or Lithuania: ‘Those people, who are not aware of the magnitude of the situation here, might emerge from the shmuess and claim that Rav Yisroel Salanter permitted opening stores on Shabbos.’”

The shailos that were discussed at the meeting are an illustration of the enormous impact of the Shuvu schools’ work. For instance, there was a question that had been asked by a young girl, below the age of bas mitzvah, whose parents had begun observing Shabbos and had remembered one Shabbos that they hadn’t turned on a specific light in their home. Having taken the first faltering steps on their journey toward religious observance, they had decided that it was preferable for their daughter to turn on the light, but they told her that if she refused to do so, they would turn it on themselves.

The rabbonim recalled that a young girl had once been a guest at a chareidi family’s home on Shabbos, when the honking of a car horn from the street below suddenly interrupted the conversation toward the end of the meal. The young guest’s face reddened in embarrassment as she informed her hosts that she had to leave. Nevertheless, when the hosts peeked through the window after she had left their home, they were treated to a sight that was a pure kiddush Hashem: The girl, who was unwilling to violate the halachos of Shabbos, was walking home on foot, as her dedicated parents drove at a snail’s pace alongside her. The rabbonim were asked, however, if the girl had been correct to walk alongside the car, or if she had thereby caused her parents to prolong their chillul Shabbos by forcing them to slow the car’s pace. Such questions are regular occurrences in the Shuvu network.

Why Were Rabbi Akiva’s Talmidim Punished?

Another question was raised: A young man had competed his studies in a Shuvu school and had made great strides in his religious growth, to the point that he felt that his rightful place was in a particular yeshiva, where the level of learning and ruchniyus was intense. The Shuvu staff felt that he wasn’t yet ready for such a yeshiva, but they feared that it would be heartbreaking to him if he were told to give up his dream. What should they do?

Rav Biderman said, “If it is so important to him to learn in that yeshiva, then he should be encouraged to go there. Chazal teach us that a person learns only in the place that his heart desires. But the mechanchim are obligated to provide him with a personal tutor who will help him acquire the tools, the knowledge, and the abilities that he needs in order to succeed in his yeshiva. The tutor must also monitor his progress and report to his parents and to the faculty. That is the only way that he can be sent to the yeshiva he desires.”

Rav Binyomin Finkel, who has copious experience offering encouragement to yeshiva bochurim, was uncertain. “We have heard of many cases in which it was specifically in the most prominent yeshivos that bochurim of a high caliber experienced a decline, for all sorts of reasons. When a talmid finishes learning in one place and moves on to another, his rabbeim have a sacred obligation to examine the situation very carefully and to make sure that they are placing him in the best possible hands!”

The fundraising campaign also entered the discussion, albeit indirectly. Someone pointed out that halacha identifies several different causes for which one may give maaser money: for Torah learning, for the poor and needy, and for kiruv. The question was whether a donation to Shuvu may be considered a fulfillment of all three categories.

Rav Chaim Michoel Gutterman, the director-general of Shuvu, attested that Rav Elyashiv had ruled that a contribution to Shuvu is indeed considered a fulfillment of all three forms of tzedakah. That, it seemed, was the final word on the subject.

Rav Chaim Walkin finally brought the meeting to a close. “This is the time of mourning for the talmidim of Rabbi Akiva,” he said. “We all know the question: Why were these holy Tannaim punished with such a severe plague that took so many lives? The sefer Bris Halevi, by Rav Shlomo Alkabetz, explains this as follows: Rabbi Akiva was the greatest link in the chain of transmission of the Torah, to the point that Moshe Rabbeinu claimed to Hashem that Rabbi Akiva was fit to be the person through whom the Torah should be given to Bnei Yisroel. Continuing the transmission of the Torah was his tafkid and defined his very essence. But mutual respect is the key to continuing the Torah’s transmission. Without mutual respect, it is impossible for anyone to become a receptacle for the Torah. When the talmidim of Rabbi Akiva failed to show respect for each other, they lost their ability to absorb the Torah of their rebbi. And without talmidim, there can be no Rabbi Akiva, whose very essence lay in his giving over the Torah to the next generation. That was the reason they were punished so severely.”

The message was clear. “We must all recognize our responsibility,” he declared. “The Shuvu schools are a critical link in the chain of transmitting the Torah to the next generation. They are responsible for teaching the Torah to an entire generation that doesn’t even know its Father in Heaven. Shuvu is returning their lost heritage to them; it is giving them the Torah. That is why it is so important to show love, dedication, and kindness to these students; these things are tools for the transmission of the Torah!”

A Compliment for Rav Shach

Rav Chaim Walkin scanned the faces of his audience and concluded with a story involving an encounter with Rav Shach. “This took place at the time when Rav Shach delivered his famous speech in Tel Aviv, in which he demanded, ‘What makes you Jewish?’” he related. “That speech captured the attention of the entire world, quite literally, and sparked numerous discussions and debates.

“I was a young married man at the time, and I was living in Petach Tikvah. One day, I had occasion to visit Rav Shach in his home, and during our conversation, I brought up the subject of his speech. ‘Rosh yeshiva,’ I said, ‘the speech was mamash moiradik!’ Imagine this: Rav Shach was the leader of chareidi Jewry, and an ordinary yungerman was complimenting him on his speech. But listen to how he reacted. He actually blushed in response to my sincere praise, and he asked me in Yiddish, with an expression of wonder, ‘Takkeh? Takkeh?’ All the more so, a compliment or a word of encouragement can be unimaginably powerful when it is given to an ordinary child who shows you a note attesting to his good behavior at home.”

The meeting concluded with an unequivocal message: Shuvu has dedicated itself to the cause of bringing irreligious Jews back to Yiddishkeit with true warmth and genuine love. Today, the network is facing a major challenge, and all of us must rise to the occasion. There must not be a single locale in all of Israel that doesn’t have a Shuvu school! The professionals are ready, the network is prepared to do its work, and all that remains to be done is to provide the resources it needs to carry out its heroic task.