As he waits at the airport to depart for Los Angeles, Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin enthusiastically describes a convention he attended in Kiryat Sefer with about 1,000 kiruv workers in attendance. He speaks about an address delivered there by Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch, rosh yeshiva of Slabodka Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. “The more we show that there are more of us and our circle of supporters is wide, the easier it will be for us to demand our rights from the local and national authorities,” he declares. But how is he able to leave for America in the middle of the campaign?
– – – – –
Rabbi Sorotzkin, the eight candidate on the Yahadut HaTorah list, is still working feverishly to attract votes throughout the country. Last week, he barely slept a wink on Thursday and Friday. Perhaps he invested even more effort than usual because he knew that he would be leaving for chutz la’aretz on Motzoei Shabbos for three days, or perhaps it is simply that as the elections draw nearer, his adrenaline level, which is high even on ordinary days, has risen even more. On Motzoei Shabbos, as well, he did not allow himself to rest at all until he was finally forced to leave for the airport.
This past Sunday, Yahadut HaTorah took a major step forward on its way to the polls, opening its main election council office on Rechov Anne Frank in Petach Tikvah. It was a move that was long in coming. Plenty of people have pointed to the delay as a sign that Yahadut HaTorah is dragging its feet and has been lazy about conducting its affairs. All the other parties, after all, are already in the middle of the election process. There isn’t a single party that has failed to put out at least a few video clips and advertisements, nor is there any other party that has yet to designate its council leaders and campaign managers. It seems that Yahadut HaTorah is lagging far behind.
One thing that has been done – albeit only recently – is the selection of the advertising company that will manage the party’s advertising. But this move, too, has been criticized. The person responsible for the advertisements has been condemned for choosing to hire several chareidi journalists to work alongside him. The primary reason for the criticism is that the journalists, with all their talents, are suited only to write for chareidi society, and in order to influence that sector of the country, there is no need for their work. The chareidi voters, as everyone knows, will follow the kol korei traditionally issued by the Moatzos Gedolei HaTorah, the two councils of gedolim, one associated with Agudas Yisroel and the other with Degel HaTorah, which traditionally issue a joint call just before the elections to vote for the party.
The critics maintain that Yahadut HaTorah must turn its efforts outward, focusing on the masorti sector, where the party can attract additional voters, aside from its regular supporters. Some go even further and argue that the party should attempt to appeal to the chiloni public as well, primarily based on the accomplishments of Moshe Gafni (of Degel HaTorah) and Yaakov Litzman (of Agudas Yisroel), who are both highly respected even in secular circles, as the polls have shown. Litzman, in his position as Deputy Minister of Health, brought great benefit to the entire country, while Gafni demonstrated concern for the periphery, especially in his role as head of the Knesset Finance Committee.
For now, it is Rabbi Sorotzkin who has been working on attracting votes from outside the circles of Yahadut HaTorah’s regular supporters. Rabbi Sorotzkin, together with his own Lev L’Achim organization and the workers from other kiruv organizations that operate alongside it, is capable of reaching much deeper into traditional and secular circles, touching the Jewish spark within many hearts and motivating them to vote “Gimmel.”
– – – – –
I managed to catch up with Rabbi Sorotzkin late on Motzoei Shabbos, after he had checked in for his flight to America. At the end of our conversation, I was certain that I could hear the public address system at Ben Gurion Airport calling his name, insisting that he board his flight immediately. I began by asking what he had done that day.
“I had a wonderful evening,” Rabbi Sorotzkin related. “We had a convention in Kiryat Sefer for avreichim involved in kiruv. I estimate that there were between 800 and 1,000 avreichim there. These were kiruv workers who are involved in the field all year long and who work for all the kiruv organizations: Ayelet Hashachar, Arachim, Lemaan Achai, Yaazoru, Acheinu, and of course Lev L’Achim. The guest of honor and main speaker was Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch, the rosh yeshiva of Slabodka Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. He spoke from the depths of his heart and inspired his entire audience. He spoke about how Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l used to feel great trepidation before every Israeli election. In his mind, voting for a chareidi Knesset list was of incredibly vital importance. And that remains true today, perhaps more than ever.
“Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch spoke about hashkafah,” Rabbi Sorotzkin continued. “He gave us the sense that working for success in the elections is almost the same as working for kiruv. When you talk to a person about what is happening in the country and you manage to convince him to vote for Gimmel, you are actually bringing him closer to Hashem. A vote for Gimmel is a vote for people who fear Hashem, and a person who votes for and partners with yirei Hashem becomes one of them and thereby earns zechuyos. He urged everyone present to work with all their might, literally until Election Day, and to influence as many people as possible.
“Rav Hirsch’s speech was followed by an address from Rav Chizkiyahu Mishkovsky, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman’s close confidant, who spoke about the needs of our generation and the things for which it is crying out. He bemoaned the terrible atmosphere prevailing in the streets today, and he spoke about the cries of those who are thirsting for the Word of Hashem and how we must reach out to them.”
You didn’t speak?
“I did speak, but before I get to that, I want to tell you about Rabbi Moshe Gafni. He spoke very powerfully and very well, as he always does. He explained the great dangers posed to us by the chiloni members of the Knesset, and he emphasized that every vote counts because it demonstrates the size of the chareidi community, and therefore the community’s right to receive whatever it deserves. People don’t understand what is happening. They don’t understand why the chilonim care about what we do, why they fight against us, and why they don’t want to let us live our lives. Gafni exclaimed, ‘It’s all because of you – the kiruv workers! They are afraid of you. You are taking away their schools in Ramle, in Ohr Yehuda, and everywhere else, and they are afraid. That is why there is a struggle. We are fighting over the question of who Eretz Yisroel belongs to.’ He spoke very well,” Rabbi Sorotzkin continues.
What did you say in your speech?
“I shared a vort. Chazal say that at the Yam Suf, the Bnei Yisroel stood with their backs to the sea, and the nation was divided into four different groups, each one with a different idea about how to handle the situation. The Mitzriyim were approaching and the entire Jewish people were terrified, and they split into four groups, each with a different opinion. Some of them said, ‘Let’s jump into the sea.’ That would have been an act of despair. Some suggested surrendering to the Mitzriyim and returning to servitude in Mitzrayim. Another group suggested fighting the Mitzriyim, even though they had no chance of succeeding. And some said, ‘Let us cry out against them’ – meaning to daven. The Medrash goes on to teach that the next posuk conveyed a response to each group. To those who were advocating jumping into the sea, Hashem said, ‘Stand and you will see.’ To those who wanted to return to Mitzrayim, He assured them that they would never be brought back there. Those who wished to fight the Mitzriyim were told, ‘Hashem will fight for you,’ and the fourth group, those who wished to daven, were told, ‘You shall be silent.’
“In the battle against today’s ‘Mitzriyim,’ we have been through all the possibilities. Some have given up, feeling that there was nothing that could be done against Lapid. Some wished to give in, accepting whatever curricula they imposed on us and integrating with them, even including secular studies in the yeshivos. But we have been granted Hashem’s salvation. Not only have we lost nothing, but our Torah education and our teshuvah movement have grown by 30 percent. That is Hashem’s response. He is fighting for us.”
Rabbi Sorotzkin continued: “Let me tell you a story about something that happened three years ago, in 2011. This occurred at the time of the tent protests in Tel Aviv, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest the high prices of cheese and milk. These were middle-class people, the ones who essentially brought about the victory of Yair Lapid and the Yesh Atid party. One morning, I was informed by our people in Ohr Yehuda that the municipality had sent inspectors to our Torani school there, and they had sealed the door so that no one could enter. I went there right away, and I called Moshe Gafni to join me. The children who attended our school were standing there, along with their parents, some of whom didn’t have yarmulkas, and Gafni and I staged a protest. We stood on barrels and we demonstrated. It was all spontaneous, but the media came, and we didn’t know exactly what to say. I told them, ‘This morning in Tel Aviv, the middle class is protesting. They make a decent living, most of them live well, but they are shouting that the people want social justice, and the cause is catching on and gathering strength. Well, we want educational justice!’ Then all the children and their parents, and Gafni and I, began shouting, ‘The children want tzedek chinuchi [educational justice]!’ It was a successful demonstration, and the city gave in and sent its most senior officials to talk to us. But the first thing they did was open the door, so that the children could go inside and learn.
“What were we asking for, after all? Only justice! Why should our children have to go to school in caravans? Why does a secular child have a proper school building and classrooms with computers, which he doesn’t even have to demand, while our children don’t get any of that? And let me add something interesting to that story. That week, one newspaper accused Gafni of ‘cynically taking advantage of the legitimate tent protests to squeeze more money out of the government.’ Do you understand? That is our situation.”
I agree with you that we should not be returning to Mitzrayim or shouting for no reason, but should we really remain silent? Or perhaps we should jump into the sea?
“There needs to be a ‘Nachshon,’ someone who will be the first to leap into the waters, in whose merit a miracle will be performed. That is exactly what we have done in Lev L’Achim. We have opened Torah schools for children from irreligious families. We have opened midrashot for boys and girls, and Arachim has opened its own seminaries and weekend programs. And then there is Ayelet Hashachar, Nefesh Yehudi, and so forth. All of us simply leapt into our efforts, without trying to assess our odds of success. We simply worked tirelessly to achieve our goals.”
Where did you spend this past Wednesday?
“In the afternoon, I was at the offices of Degel HaTorah in Bnei Brak. From there, I went with Moshe Gafni to meet with our activists in Petach Tikvah. There were kiruv workers from the entire region there, including Ohr Yehuda and Ramle, and there were also 70 couples from Ramle there. These couples were all parents whose children had registered for a Torani school, but the school was too full to accept any new children. The first grade class had reached its limit, and we can’t open a new first grade class because the building is already packed. We decided then that Gafni and I would meet with Yoel Lavi, the mayor of Ramle, and try to get another building for the school, or at least some caravans. Lavi is generally opposed to the use of caravans, but perhaps we would manage to persuade him. In this area, as in other areas, it is clear that the stronger we are, the more we will find that public officials will accede to our requests.
“From there, I went to Beit Shemesh to officiate at a chupah for a young man from Neve Yaakov in Yerushalayim, who was once chiloni but is now a yeshiva bochur beginning his studies at a Lev L’Achim midrashah. After that, I went to a party meeting in Yerushalayim organized by our coordinator, Bracha Schwartzer. There were dozens of activists there and about 15 neighborhood coordinators. They are all part of a large group of women who ‘cover’ all the neighborhoods in Yerushalayim. It was a very powerful meeting. After that, I met with the workers at Lev Shomea. I left Yerushalayim at 2:00 at night.”
Did you attend that meeting in your position as the director of Lev L’Achim or as a candidate for the Knesset?
“Both,” Rabbi Sorotzkin replied. “Lev L’Achim’s activists are now working for the election campaign. I need all our activists to put in maximum effort in order to achieve the maximum results. Let me tell you a secret: I told our agents that when they speak to people, they should talk about both Lev L’Achim and the elections. They should try to recruit people for Lev L’Achim’s programs, and they should also try to persuade them to vote for Yahadut HaTorah. And if any of them were unwilling to vote for Yahadut HaTorah, then they should convince them to vote for Shas. And no matter how the people responded, they should make sure to get their details so that we could continue working on them.”
Tomorrow [i.e., Sunday], the central elections council will be opening in Petach Tikvah.
“And I will be in Los Angeles.”
That was actually my question. How are you able to leave the country now?
“Yes, everyone is going to ask, ‘Where is Sorotzkin? He has been running a marathon. How could he suddenly disappear?’ But the answer is simple: I need to pay the salaries of the employees at Lev L’Achim and I have nothing to give them.”
Still, you are leaving at the height of the election campaign…
“This was a calculated decision, not a rash one. This past Wednesday, I davened vosikin with Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman so that I could ask him what to do. He paskened that if it would be only a three-day trip, I should go, and it would help my efforts for the elections as well.”
This week, the polls are predicting that Yahadut HaTorah will win seven mandates. In the past, they have been saying that it would be seven or eight; sometimes they even said that it would definitely be eight. It looks like all the additional votes from the periphery and from the baalei teshuvah – the votes you garnered – will end up bringing Yaakov Asher back to the Knesset, since he is the seventh man on the list, but you will be left out.
“Let’s just agree that we will win seven and a half,” Rabbi Sorotzkin quipped. “But I must tell you something important,” he went on. “It is definitely possible that I will not be elected. But even if my efforts will cause Yahadut HaTorah to receive seven votes instead of six, that alone spurs me to action. On a personal level, I will feel a great sense of relief if I am not elected. I have plenty to do, and I am not looking for a job, and certainly not for kavod. But I look at my mission, if I am elected to the Knesset, in the same way that I look at my responsibilities at Lev L’Achim. When a person is given a mission – especially when he sees that it is something that a number of gedolei Yisroel feel is very important – he must give up his very lifeblood for it. At the same time, I don’t have to finish the job; I simply have to do my best to fulfill my responsibilities. That is my approach, and that is what motivates me. I am making every effort, and I see that I am bringing new circles of voters to Yahadut HaTorah. I am working on this without looking to see whether it will bring me, personally, into the Knesset. Experience has taught me one thing: Mesirus nefesh changes a situation. Even if the polls show that we will receive either six or seven seats, it is still crucial to keep working with all of our strength. Every additional vote, after all, is a kiddush Hashem.”