Sunday, Sep 26, 2021

My Take On The News

Back to the Bais Medrash

So what are this week’s stories of interest? First and foremost, there is the arrival of Elul. Step out into the street in Israel today, on Rosh Chodesh Elul, and you will see the bus stations teeming with excited yeshiva bochurim toting hat boxes and overstuffed suitcases as they make their way back to their yeshivos. Soon enough, they will be listening to the shiur pesicha and then diving into the sea of Torah learning. It is a sight that I always find deeply moving.

For those who like numbers, here are some statistics: 100,000 yungeleit, 40,000 bochurim in yeshiva ketanah, and another 40,000 bochurim in yeshiva gedolah are beginning the Elul zeman this week. The children in chadorim across the country account for another 58,000 souls. Add to that the 115,600 boys and girls in the schools of the Chinuch Atzmai network, as well as the students in the kiruv schools of Shuvu, Nesivos Moshe, and other organizations, and the number of youths in the Torah world’s educational system is staggering. Of course, Chinuch Atzmai and the kiruv networks will begin the school year only on September 1, a few weeks after the chadorim, but the numbers are still impressive. The Shuvu school network alone has 6,000 talmidim, which is an enormous number. This is part of a spiritual revolution that has the potential to completely transform this country.

In short, today, the Torah world is thriving.

Now that we have dealt with the most important piece of news, let us turn our attention to some other topics, such as the delta variant of the coronavirus, which is casting a pall over our country, as well as the fires that have threatened many communities and the rockets that have been shot into Israel by terrorists in recent days.

Delta Variant Spreads

Since the middle of June, the coronavirus has been spreading in Israel again. The first local outbreak was in the town of Binyamina, and other confirmed cases were gradually discovered in other parts of the country. In the weeks that have passed since this began, the government has taken only a few isolated steps that did not manage to prevent the spread of the delta variant. Meanwhile, the number of serious COVID cases has jumped from 20 in June to over 200 today.

One observer has decided that the current government is completely inept; its response to the threat posed by the delta variant has been sluggish and inadequate. Take a look at the timeline and you will see what I mean.

On June 14, Israel was still in a post-pandemic frame of mind, as it seemed that the coronavirus was finally disappearing from our lives. On that very day, the director-general of the Health Ministry (who has since stepped down) signed an order rescinding the last remaining restriction related to the pandemic—the requirement to wear a mask in enclosed spaces. That regulation was completely dropped, with the exception of a few special cases. Five days later, on June 19, the Ministry of Health announced that a local outbreak had been detected in Binyamina, where 45 children tested positive for corona. This came after a period when there were consistently fewer than 20 new cases a day. The Ministry of Health announced that it was investigating the source of the outbreak, but it suspected that the virus had been introduced by a family returning from abroad. On that day, there were only 46 confirmed cases and 23 patients in serious condition in the entire country, and the ministry reinstated the obligation to wear masks in schools in Modiin and Binyamina.

On June 21, for the first time since the delta (or Indian) variant began spreading in Israel, over 100 confirmed cases of corona were detected in a single day. According to the Health Ministry’s official figures, 125 new cases were diagnosed that day, and 18 patients were listed in serious condition. Two days later, on June 23, Professor Chezi Levi announced that some of the coronavirus restrictions would be slightly tightened. One of the new regulations stated that if a minor violated a quarantine requirement, the adult responsible for him could be fined. Levi also announced that he might institute a two-week mask mandate if it became necessary in order to prevent an outbreak. On July 4, for the first time during the current outbreak, the number of daily confirmed cases passed the threshold of 300. On that day, 343 new cases of corona were diagnosed, and the number of patients in serious condition rose to 35. The next day, the number of new cases jumped to 501. Throughout all this, the government sat silently, without reacting to the developments.

Outdoor Mask Wearing Resumes

On July 9, the Ministry of Health announced that a significant number of countries would be added to the list of those with the highest infection risk. This was a significant move, since the regulations prohibit citizens to fly to any of the countries on the list except under exceptional circumstances. Many other countries have since been added to the list, and many more have been placed in the next category—countries subject to a travel warning.

At that time, the infection rate in Israel was already soaring dramatically. On July 12, there were 730 new confirmed cases of Covid, and 45 patients were listed in serious condition. On July 15, the number of daily confirmed cases rose to 855, while the number of seriously ill patients in hospitals rose only to 52. The next day, July 16, the government first began reinstating some of the pandemic-related restrictions. Prime Minister Bennett and the Health Ministry introduced the “Happy Badge,” a set of restrictions that would apply to events held in indoor spaces with more than 100 participants. According to the government’s decision at the time, guests at any event that met those criteria would have to present either a certification that they had been vaccinated or a negative corona test. The government decided that the Happy Badge regulations would go into effect only on July 21. On the next day, July 17, the number of new confirmed cases crossed the threshold of 1000, and there were 58 patients listed in serious condition. On July 22, there was a dramatic rise in the number of serious cases, and the government decided to reinstate the Green Badge regulations.

As you can see, this government drags its feet. It reacts to events only after the fact rather than anticipating what will occur. It has not demonstrated an ability to see the broader picture or any attempt to keep up with the ongoing developments. If it makes decisions, they are either wrong or too late. Last week, on August 4, there were already 3,421 new cases discovered in a single day, and the number of seriously ill patients rose to 236. Due to the continued spread of the coronavirus, the government decided to expand the Green Badge regulations. And that brings us to the situation today.

In recent days, the prime minister has been constantly exhorting the citizens of Israel to take the vaccine. The problem is that the vaccines are not available. Bennett has tried to lay the blame for the shortage of vaccines at the feet of his predecessor, Binyomin Netanyahu, but has only succeeded in making himself look petty and disingenuous. Bennett also claimed that Netanyahu never recommended a third dose of the vaccine, a statement that was proven to be patently false.

Not surprisingly, morale in Israel has been severely dampened by the current state of affairs, especially the return of even more restrictions (such as the obligation to wear a mask outdoors) and the talk of a possible lockdown during the upcoming Yomim Tovim. In the chareidi community, incidentally, there were relatively few new cases of the virus until this week—but we are all still quite concerned.

A Government That Answers to the Arabs

Last Friday, a red alert siren was activated in the Golan Heights, and we soon discovered that rockets were being fired at the Jewish communities there. The IDF responded with artillery fire directed at targets in Lebanon. Prime Minister Bennett consulted with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, and other senior officials in the defense system. The explosions were heard in Har Dov. There were over ten interceptions, which led the incident to be classified as “significant fire.”

Three rockets were also fired at Israel from Lebanon earlier this week, and the defense establishment believes that a Palestinian terror organization was behind the rocket fire. Out of those three rockets, one fell in Lebanese territory while the other two made it across the border into Israel. Magen David Adom reported that four people were treated for hysteria resulting from the attacks. This was the sixth incident in recent months in which rockets were fired into Israel from Lebanon, with the location of the rockets and the nature of the execution characteristic of Hezbollah.

Moshe Davidowitz, the chairman of the Forum of Settlements on the Line of Conflict and head of the Mateh Asher Regional Council, said, “Someone is trying to ruin the normal course of our lives, but they will not succeed. Someone thinks that they can cause the residents of the Galilee and Golan to change their way of life at the height of the tourism and agricultural season. I am certain that the IDF will respond in an appropriate way and will quash the attempts to change our way of life in the most beautiful swathe of land in the State of Israel. I am pleased that all three missiles fell in open areas.”

Prime Minister Bennett promised to respond to any rocket fire, both in the north and in the south, but many are concerned that he will not follow through on his promise. We all know that this government is dependent on the Arabs and that the Arab parties will withdraw their support if the government takes military action. When Bennett himself was in the opposition, he warned that a government that was dependent on Arab support would face precisely this danger. “It would be a tragedy,” Bennett said. “It would prevent Israel from reacting freely with military force.” And that seems to be the frightful reality that we are facing today.

Shul in Yerushalayim Damaged by Flames

As the extreme heat wave continued, one of the major fires erupted on Friday near the community of Beit El in Binyamin, ravaging a local forest while the firefighters struggled to halt the spread of the flames. Another fire had erupted earlier near the neighborhood of Kiryat Yovel in Yerushalayim, forcing the evacuation of many large apartment buildings and causing severe damage to a local shul. Seven firefighting teams worked at the scene until they managed to get the fire under control; the dangerous topographic conditions made it impossible for firefighting planes to operate. Another fire erupted at the entrance to Yerushalayim, near the village of Lifta, on that afternoon as well, destroying several dunams of natural forest; five firefighting teams were required to extinguish it. The fire in Yerushalayim caused damage to the first row of homes in Kiryat Yovel, and the residents were evacuated until the flames were extinguished. After about an hour and a half, the firefighters managed to gain control of the blaze and extinguish it.

Despite the valiant efforts of the firefighters, the Tiferes Yisroel shul in Kiryat Yovel, which belonged to the French community, was burned, and several preschools located near the shul were damaged. The ruined shul was a difficult sight to behold. The entire interior of the shul building was blackened by the flames. Rav Yeshayahu Arvas, the rov of the damaged shul, said mournfully, “This is unbelievable. My heart cannot bear these images. The preschool for children was in this building, and we daven in this shul every week. It is too painful to see it in this state. Every Shabbos, about 60 or 70 men daven here, and the place is alive with activity. This is absolutely agonizing, but boruch Hashem, the Sifrei Torah were saved. We will overcome this.”

Of Medals and Marriage

Artem Dolgopyat is a Ukrainian gymnast who recently won a gold medal in the Olympics being held in Tokyo. Why should this interest us? The problem is that the gymnast, whose full name is Artem Ologevich Dolgopyat, emigrated to Israel from Ukraine 12 years ago, when he was 12 years old. He has been training in Israel ever since, and his gold medal caused tremendous excitement in Israel, as if the medalist himself was Israeli.

Artem Dolgopyat may, in fact, be Israeli, but he is neither Jewish nor a Zionist. He was entitled to immigrate to Israel because his paternal grandmother was (at least questionably) Jewish. According to the law, this grants him the right to aliyah; according to halacha, it means nothing. Artem and his family moved to Israel only for the sake of economic opportunities; they were not pursuing any Zionist ideals, and they had no great love for the country. They were simply confident that it would be easier for them to live and for Artem to succeed in his athletic aspirations in Israel. Perhaps that is the reason that the family didn’t even remain here. After they collected all the benefits that were due to them as immigrants, they moved on.

What, then, is the problem? The issue is that this man is unable to marry in Israel because his fiancée is not Jewish. Artem’s mother, who is also a non-Jew, was interviewed in the media and complained in garbled Hebrew, “This state does not allow him to marry. They would need to leave because his fiancée doesn’t come from here, but he also can’t leave because of the sport and because Belarus is closed.” Marriages in the State of Israel must be halachic unions (as long as the current government doesn’t change the law) and this couple therefore cannot marry in Israel, even though Artem is an athlete and an Olympic medalist.

This led to a vocal outcry from several public figures, including Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov, who is a member of Lieberman’s party. “Artem Dolgopyat is good enough to bring us a gold medal, but he isn’t good enough to be an equal citizen of Israel,” they observed cynically, adding that “the time has come for civil marriage to be legitimized in Israel.” It makes no difference to them that Dolgopyat’s bride freely admitted that she has no Jewish roots, or that the law prohibits non-halachic marriages in Israel, or that the couple in question are not Jewish and have no pro-Israel sentiments at all. These self-styled advocates of social justice see only their own twisted reasoning: If he can win a gold medal in Israel, he shouldn’t be barred from marrying here. It reminds me of a bill once submitted by the Meretz party that would have defined a Jew as someone who served in the Israeli army. On that note, Artem Dolgopyat received a wealth of benefits from the army—but that is another story.

Last week, I mentioned that there are two languages spoken in this country, the language of Yiddishkeit and the language of the secular community. This is yet another example. There are people in Israel who do not understand why a non-Jewish Olympic medalist from Ukraine would have to convert to Judaism in order to undergo a halachic marriage. As far as they are concerned, the fact that he brought back a gold medal from Tokyo should be enough to render him Jewish!

An Epidemic of Stores Opening on Shabbos

Meanwhile, this country continues to be plagued by all its “usual” problems as well. Take this news report: “Yesterday, two 15-year-old Arabs were arrested for harassing chareidim en route to the Kosel Hamaarovi. The suspects recorded themselves attacking Jews in East Yerushalayim who were on their way to the Kosel.” In a similar incident, another report read, “Three Arabs were arrested on suspicion of throwing stones at a bus on Rechov Sultan Suleiman in East Yerushalayim. There were no injuries.”

Whenever I read such reports, I have the same reaction: It is very commendable that the police apprehended the perpetrators of violence, but what happened next? What was done with them after the arrests? My guess would be that they were simply released.

Meanwhile, we have a new ambassador in Washington. The previous ambassador, Ron Dermer, did an excellent job, but he was a Netanyahu appointee. Actually, Binyomin Netanyahu had recently replaced him with former minister Gilad Erdan, who was to serve in two capacities in America: as the Israeli ambassador to the UN in place of Danny Danon and as the ambassador to Washington instead of Ron Dermer. However, the Israeli government changed hands and we all knew to expect a new face in Washington. Sure enough, Bennett and Lapid decided to designate Mike Herzog, brother of President Yitzchok Herzog, as the new ambassador. Ambassador Herzog is a brigadier general in the army reserves and works in research institutes. Let us wish him the best.

On a more somber note, we have discovered that many stores in Israel have begun quietly opening their doors on Shabbos. A cursory examination of the situation in Tel Aviv will show that the religious status quo, which has long prevented businesses from operating in violation of Shabbos, is being eroded at an alarming rate. Unfortunately, there is very little that can be done about this phenomenon.

And on what may be a related note, the incitement against the chareidi community seems to be penetrating the secular mindset. Several days ago, religious Jews who were inspecting a home for sale in the community of Bostan HaGalil were accosted by a chiloni resident, who threatened them and demanded that they leave the town. “Chareidim are not wanted here!” he shouted, in a disgraceful display of prejudice and hostility. There is no doubt that this is the result of the rampant incitement against chareidim.

A Loss for the Chareidim in the Knesset

The Knesset began its summer recess last Thursday and will remain inactive until after Sukkos. The final sitting ended late at night with a speech from the Knesset speaker, who expressed his hope for a return to calmer times. Several hours earlier, the Knesset selected its delegates for the committees for the appointment of judges, dayanim, and kadis (lehavdil). Unfortunately, this involved a defeat for the chareidi parties.

The Knesset and the cabinet each have two representatives on the Judicial Selection Committee, which is responsible for appointing secular judges, as well as another two delegates on the Dayanim Appointments Committee. The latter committee is headed by the Minister of Religious Affairs, a post that was previously held by the Shas party and is now occupied by Matan Kahana of Yamina. The two chief rabbis of Israel are also members of the committee, along with two dayanim form the Bais Din Hagadol. These are the four committee members who will be interested in preserving the halachic integrity of the institution of dayanus. The other members of the committee are two representatives of the Israel Bar Association and a toenet rabbanit. In the past, there was always at least one chareidi Knesset member appointed to the committee, which resulted in a chareidi majority. The elements seeking to appoint liberal dayanim were always in the minority. There was also an unwritten agreement that one third of the newly-appointed dayanim would be Ashkenazic, another third would be Sephardic, and the final third would be drawn from the national religious community—but they would all be worthy of serving as dayanim. No one who would interfere with halacha managed to be appointed to a bais din.

This time, Moshe Arbel was the chareidi candidate to serve on the Dayanim Appointments Committee. There were three candidates in total, and the Knesset selected the other two: Gila Gamliel of the Likud party, who received 67 votes, and Shirley Pinto of Yamina, who received 62. Arbel came in third, with 59 votes. The Likud suffered a similar loss when its candidate for the Judicial Selection Committee, Orly Levi-Abekassis, didn’t receive the appointment. Instead, the Knesset selected MK Simcha Rotman, a relentless critic of the Supreme Court.

On the Dayanim Appointments Committee, the chareidi sector is now in the minority. They are represented by the two chief rabbis and two dayanim from the Bais Din Hagadol, who find themselves facing two lawyers, two female Knesset members, and two liberal ministers: Zeev Elkin and Matan Kahana. In all likelihood, the toenet rabbanit will side with the liberal majority as well. This makes for a somewhat bitter end to two arduous months spent battling the current coalition.

Avi Maoz Sets the Record Straight

Over the past two weeks, the filibuster waged by the opposition has brought us hundreds of speeches in the Knesset. The discourse in Israel’s parliament has been laced with insults and ill will. The protocols of the Knesset sitting last Monday filled a record 1,220 pages with transcripts of speeches heavily spiced with vicious invective. I will not quote the vitriolic insults that were hurled back and forth in the Knesset, but I would like to quote one of the 180 speeches delivered in that sitting (which actually spanned parts of two days, as it began on Monday at 4:03 p.m. and ended at 2:57 on Tuesday morning). This was a speech delivered by MK Avi Maoz.

“Mr. Speaker,” Maoz began, “I would like to speak about Jews and Israelis. One of the events that may have symbolized the imminent founding of this government was a joint appearance of Avraham Fried and Aviv Geffen, in which Avraham Fried represented religious, chareidi Jewry, perhaps the Jewry of golus, while Aviv Geffen was the new, ultimate Israeli. This reflects Bennett’s deception over the past ten years. He first formed the Yisraelim party as part of his effort to distort religious identity, and when he realized that he had no chance of achieving his goals on that platform, he took over Bayit Yehudi, destroyed it from within and expunged all the religious content it possessed, collaborating with people who have no commitment to Torah and mitzvos and even attempting to include non-Jews in a party that was once dedicated to national religious ideology. A direct line leads from his establishment of the ‘brothers’ pact’ to the formation of the current government of a state of all its citizens, which has set out on the road to erase the Jewish identity of the State of Israel… I advise the citizens of Israel not to fall into Mr. Bennett’s trap, and to continue embracing the Jewish and Israeli identity of the state.”

Anti-Semitism in Ukraine

Reb Eli Cheshin of Kiev is in Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Yerushalayim after undergoing an operation on his head. Reb Eli is a son of Rav Tzvi Cheshin, one of the older yungeleit of Yeshivas Mir and a prominent figure in the Torah world of Yerushalayim. I met Eli several years ago at the Podol shul in Kiev, where he was learning with his chavrusah, Reb Yeshaya Biner. For a few moments, while I sat with them in the shul in faraway Ukraine, I felt as if I was visiting the Mir Yeshiva.

Reb Eli Cheshin recently traveled with his family to visit various kivrei tzaddikim in Ukraine. During the course of their trip, they sat down to rest in a garden along the way, not realizing that they were trespassing on private property. The owner of the garden appeared and began beating Eli with ferocious cruelty. He suffered a fractured skull and was rushed to Hadassah Hospital, where he underwent surgery the other day. Hillel Cohen, who is always at the forefront of every chesed initiative in Ukraine, rushed to assist him immediately after the assault. (Hillel also hurried to lend his assistance after the recent accident that claimed the lives of three bochurim.) I actually find it surprising that the attack on Reb Eli Cheshin didn’t make it into the headlines.

On that note, a word about Hillel Cohen and chesed in Ukraine: The Ukrainian health system isn’t exactly highly developed. For that reason, the Ukraine chapter of United Hatzolah always sets up a medical clinic near the kever of Rav Nachman of Breslov. The clinic operates around the clock for 12 days and is equipped to offer any form of medical care, including psychological treatment. The local staff is augmented by teams of doctors and paramedics from Israel and America, and the clinic is stocked with a large inventory of medications and medical equipment brought from Israel. Its services are provided to the tens of thousands of visitors to Uman, often with lifesaving effects, yet I am not aware of any official body that contributes resources to this vital project. The clinic is directed by Nachi Klein, who heads the Galilee branch of United Hatzalah, along with Avigdor Landesman, Yisroel Klein, and Hillel Cohen. The latter has been living in Kiev for 20 years and serves as one of the rabbonim of the community, as well as a leading kiruv worker and the director of the local chapter of United Hatzalah. He is also responsible for raising funds to cover the costs of the clinic’s services.

As of now, Reb Eli Cheshin (Eliyahu Nochum ben Henya Miriam) is recuperating from his recent ordeal. The assault that left him battered and injured was clearly an anti-Semitic act that demands a severe response from the government itself. I have no doubt that if the current excellent ambassador to Ukraine, Yoav Leon, didn’t already have one foot back in Israel, his response would have been outraged and vociferous. Let us hope that his successor, Michoel Brodsky, will be no less hardworking and determined, not to mention sensitive to Jewish considerations, especially in advance of Rosh Hashanah in Uman. The Jewish community has every right to demand that the local police show determination in opposing anti-Semitism in Ukraine in general, and in Uman in particular.

The Benefit of the Doubt

A yungerman from Bayit Vegan recently shared the following story with me, which illustrates the crucial importance of giving others the benefit of the doubt: “I knew that my neighbor was going away for Shabbos, and I asked him to allow my brother-in-law, who was looking for a place to spend Shabbos in the neighborhood, to use his home for the weekend. He replied that he would gladly allow the family to stay there—for the price of 400 NIS. I was a bit taken aback. After all, he was vacating his home for Shabbos in any event. Why should he charge us for using it? He ‘explained’ that the average rate for an apartment for the weekend is 700 NIS, but he was willing to give it to my brother-in-law for a much lower price on account of our longstanding relationship.

“Sure enough, the deal was finalized and the money changed hands, but I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth. I couldn’t help but resent the fact that he insisted on taking money for a chesed that cost him nothing.

“On Sunday, however, I overheard a conversation that cast the incident in a completely different light. My neighbor was speaking to a friend after davening and shared what he viewed as a story of incredible Hashgocha Protis. ‘I spent Shabbos in Tzefas,’ he told his friend. ‘We found an apartment for a very low price and we took a bus from Yerushalayim to Tzefas. The only problem was that I didn’t have enough money to pay for our lodgings in Tzefas. I thought about giving them a check and then finding some way to cover it after the fact, but just before we left our home, a neighbor approached me and asked if I would let his brother-in-law use my apartment. I would never have asked for money under ordinary circumstances, but I realized that this was the answer to my dilemma. I told him that I would do it for 400 NIS, which was exactly the sum I needed. It was pure Hashgocha!’ he concluded jubilantly.”

Needless to say, the yungerman no longer felt exploited in the slightest.

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