Wednesday, May 12, 2021

My Take on the News

Fundraising Season in Israel’s Yeshivos

Purim is here again. Time has certainly flown by. It seems like just a few days ago that we were lighting the Chanukah candles, and it seems that it was just yesterday that we were attending peiros tishen on Tu B’Shevat. By now, the Purim costumes are already arrayed in our living rooms, and the hamentashen have already been packaged for mishloach manos. The atmosphere of Purim is in the air, and if there is any household that lacks an awareness that Purim is approaching, the bochurim of our yeshivos are making sure to remind them.

Let me explain that last comment. In every yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel – or at least in the vast majority of yeshivos – the bochurim participate in fundraising campaigns during the Purim season. On both days of Purim – the fourteenth and fifteenth of Adar – the bochurim are organized to descend on thousands of homes and solicit donations for their yeshivos. In most cases, the money is used for the Tomchei Torah, the fund in the yeshiva that provides for the needs of the talmidim themselves. These operations require massive logistical coordination, and the yeshivos prepare for them over the days before Purim, with the top bochurim in each yeshiva overseeing the operations. The more exacting the preparations, the greater will be the success of the bochurim’s fundraising efforts.

In general, the bochurim target homes that are selected in advance. Naturally, the alumni of the yeshiva are given high priority, as are the wealthy financiers of Israeli society – and there are many of those. The faster the bochurim are able to collect money at each home, the more homes they will be able to collect from. In order to visit as many potential donors as possible, the bochurim split into pairs, with each pair either going from home to home or following a predetermined list of addresses. And in order to make sure that they have enough time for their efforts, they begin making their rounds a week or two before Purim.

As I said, for anyone who has yet to detect Purim in the air, the bochurim who will come knocking on their doors in pairs should serve as enough of a reminder.

A Hurried Execution

The bochurim receive a crash course in fundraising before they begin making their rounds. Each group is equipped with a secret list of the exact donations received at each address the previous year, and anyone who attempts to give a smaller donation will be reminded of their previous contribution. The goal is to solicit even larger donations than the bochurim of the previous year managed to extract.

There is a popular song used by the young fundraisers, to the tune of “Kachah yaaseh,” with the words “Lo pachot mei’elef – No less than one thousand.” There is also a popular joke that circulates at this time of year: The Gemara states that a person should serve Hashem with both the yeitzer hatov and the yeitzer hara, but how can one use the yeitzer hara to serve Hashem? The answer is simple: When bochurim come to collect for their yeshiva on Purim, the yeitzer hara will tell a homeowner to give them only 100 shekels, while the yeitzer hatov will advise him to give them 300. The proper approach to this situation is to take the advice of both and to give them a total of 400 shekels…

Speaking of jokes, there is another famous joke that was originated by Rav Ovadiah Yosef zt”l: When the Megillah is read, the names of the ten sons of Haman are recited in a single breath. This practice alludes to the fact that they were all hanged rapidly, within the span of a single breath. Why, Rav Ovadiah asked, was it necessary for Haman’s ten sons to be executed so quickly? What would have been wrong with conducting the hangings at a normal pace?

To answer this question, Rav Ovadiah quipped that if the sons of Haman hadn’t been hanged all at once, they would have had time to rush to the Supreme Court, which would have ordered the executions suspended. In order to prevent them from doing that, the Jews executed them all immediately.

The Purim Tish at Chaim Berlin

I don’t know how many of you have been in Eretz Yisroel on Purim and experienced the special atmosphere of the day. On Purim, many major streets are transformed into gigantic traffic jams. The drive from my home in Givat Shaul to Rechov Sorotzkin, for instance, takes six minutes on an ordinary day, but two hours on Purim. Traffic is at a complete standstill. People dance in the streets, and the doors of the cars standing still in traffic are regularly pulled open by intoxicated bochurim. There is a general atmosphere of levity and rejoicing. I once visited Rechov Chazon Ish in Bnei Brak on Purim, and the scene on the street was utterly unbelievable. All that is beautiful and good about our yeshiva bochurim is revealed in their drunkenness.

I have almost never been in America on Purim, but I imagine that the streets of Boro Park and Flatbush are not closed to traffic on the Yom Tov. You, unlike us, must take the non-Jews in your neighborhoods into account.

A few years ago, I was in America on Erev Purim. I was accompanying a patient who had been hospitalized in the Cleveland Clinic, and we returned to Eretz Yisroel on Purim itself. We left America before the fast had ended; two hours later, we read the Megillah on the plane. But there was another time, many years ago, when I actually spent Purim itself in America, and that was a Purim I will never forget. It was the year I saw Rav Yitzchok Hutner leading a tish – or, at least, that is what it seemed to be – on the night of Purim in Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin.

The year was 1980 and I was a young man. I was invited to the yeshiva because Rav Hutner’s right-hand man, Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Wollman zt”l, was related to my family through marriage. He assured me that I would not regret the experience, and he was absolutely correct. To this day, I am still thankful to him for the recommendation. I stood there and sang and danced. I still remember that joyous melody. I would pay a fortune to be able to have that experience again today, to see the shining face of Rav Hutner in the yeshiva on leil Purim.

Business as Usual

Despite the festive atmosphere, you should not think that our ordinary problems have disappeared. Elor Azaria, the soldier who was sentenced to a year and a half in prison for killing a terrorist, has decided to appeal both his sentence and his conviction in a military appeals court. That decision led both of his lawyers to quit the case, and Azaria is now being represented by attorney Yoram Sheftel, the attorney who once defended an accused Nazi murderer named John Demjanjuk. Sheftel, a colorful and sharp-tongued attorney, managed to secure an acquittal for Demjanjuk, who returned to his place of residence in Cleveland.

There have also been acts of terror. A terrorist armed with knives entered a home in Har Chevron through a living room window and was shot by the father of the family. Other attempted terror attacks have been taking place as usual, with rocks and Molotov cocktails being thrown at motorists. Several more Arab youths were arrested for regularly hurling Molotov cocktails and stones over the protective wall at Kever Rochel.

Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu, meanwhile, is still embroiled in criminal investigations. This past week, it was announced that the police inquiry into Israel’s submarine purchase has been upgraded to a full-fledged investigation, although the authorities seem to believe that Netanyahu himself will not be found guilty of any wrongdoing. Even if it is determined that something illegal took place and someone received money in exchange for Israel’s buying the submarines from Germany, the guilty party will not be Netanyahu himself, but rather one of his associates.

Another story this past week was the comptroller’s report on Operation Protective Edge, which was released last Tuesday. Last week, I explained the function of the state comptroller and the issues surrounding the report. Senior officials in the army and the government have already begun defending themselves and explaining their actions. It is difficult to believe that any person will be dismissed from a position because of this report; most of the military officers who made the decisions during the period of combat have already left the army. It is believed that Netanyahu will not be affected by the report either.

The Lies of the Reform Movement

One can never tell if a person is lying when he speaks about something happening in the present. One can certainly never tell if a person is lying when he discusses the future. But when a situation is examined 30 or 40 years after it took place, it is certainly possible to determine whether the truth was told. That is what I would like to do today.

The Reform movement is now waging an all-out war against us; that is not a secret. Even David Friedman, President Trump’s pick for the position of United States ambassador to Tel Aviv (or Yerushalayim) has been harassed by the Reform movement. They are unhappy with the choice, and they will stop at nothing to get their way. But this is nothing new: The Reform movement has actually been combating us for decades.

I enjoy looking through old newspapers, and I recently found an article in a chareidi newspaper from 35 years ago with the headline, “Supreme Court Issues a Conditional Order Against the Minister of Religious Affairs and the Chief Rabbinate Concerning Recognition of Reform Marriage.” Even then, the Supreme Court was on their side.

The article states, “Yesterday, the Movement for Progressive Judaism won a conditional order for the Minister of Religious Affairs and the Chief Rabbinical Council to explain why they will not recognize the chairman of the Council of Progressive Rabbis in Israel, Rabbi Moshe Zamar, and the secretary of the movement, Rabbi Mordechai Rotem, as legal marriage registrars. Justice Dov Levin, who issued the order, gave the minister and the council 45 days to submit their responses.”

It is both saddening and amusing to read the claims of the Reform Jews at that time. “In recent years, the movement has gained power and has brought thousands of its members to Israel. It has taken root among the people of the country and has established 17 communities and synagogues here. It has opened schools, formed a youth movement, and even founded a kibbutz in the Arava.” Today, years after these words were written, their falsehood is blatantly clear. The “thousands” of Reform Jews in Israel are nowhere to be found, and the Reform communities of which they boasted are utterly nonexistent. The Reform movement in Israel today is nothing but a handful of individuals, an infinitesimal fraction of the country’s populace.

The events leading up to that Supreme Court case began when a Reform marriage was not recognized by a local rov, who referred the case to Aharon Abuchatzeirah, the Minister of Religious Affairs. Abuchatzeirah, in turn, passed the decision on to the Chief Rabbinical Council, which did not decide on the matter, and so the petitioners appealed to the Supreme Court, which took their side. The court argued that the failure to recognize the marriage was a violation of their freedom of worship and contradicted the basic right of all citizens to choose their religious practices.

The Reform movement also claimed that they were subject to discrimination, since the Eidah Hachareidis and the rabbonim of Bnei Brak were legally recognized to conduct marriages, even though they did not work on behalf of the Chief Rabbinate. They also argued that the Rabbinical Council should not have the authority to decide which rabbonim may perform marriages at all. I did not research how the saga ended, but I understood the basic picture, and I have presented the details to you here in order to expose their duplicitous arguments for what they are.

A Foothold in the Media

As you know, the Reform movement is continuing to wage its battle even today. The struggle for the Kosel has not ended yet, and we still hope that the Supreme Court will not make any lamentable decisions. On another front, this past week it was announced that the Council for Cable TV and Satellite Broadcasting held a meeting with the participation of its chairwoman, Yifat Ben Chai Segev; the director of the Reform movement in Israel, Gilad Kariv; the director of the Masorti (Conservative) movement, Yizhar Hess; and a representative of the management of Channel 20. At the end of the meeting, the group decided that Channel 20 would begin a month-long test period, during which it would be required to give “proper and fitting representation” to those streams of Judaism.

Perhaps a word of explanation is in order. In Israel, there are many television channels, one of which is Channel 20, which is intended to offer somewhat more meaningful content. Unofficially, it is considered a Jewish channel. The Reform movement therefore decided that they wanted a share of the airtime, since they want to be considered part of Judaism as well. The council, which is responsible for broadcasting in Israel, was frightened of them and decided to investigate how to respond to their request.

The official announcement relates, “The council repeated the provisions of the channel’s license, which states that it is required to give expression to the full range of views, approaches, and streams that exists among the public, and that it must express a variety of outlooks and opposing views, although it does not explicitly mention the Reform and Conservative. An investigation by the council’s enforcement division revealed that the Reform and Conservative movements are not included in the channel’s heritage programming. The organizations representing these streams of Judaism claim that the ideas and proposals that they submit to the channel are always rejected. At the conclusion of the meeting, the chairwoman of the council decided that from now until before Pesach, the channel will be tested on whether it gives proper representation and platforms in its programming to the representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements. The council also asked for information about interviews and programs that were suggested to the channel [by the Reform movement] in the past and were rejected.” That should give you an idea of the current status in this ongoing battle.

Waiting for an Ambulance

And now, a true story in honor of Purim.

Today, there are no surprises. When your cell phone rings, all it takes is a quick glance at the screen to determine who is attempting to reach you. You can then choose whether to answer the call or to allow it to be picked up by your voicemail, leaving the caller to deliver a monologue to be recorded. There are some phone numbers – such as those of your mother or your mother-in-law – that you know automatically whether or not you will answer.

And then there is “Shabsi from Rishon Letzion.”

Shabsi from Rishon Letzion is one of the lamed vov tzaddikim of our generation. The only reason you haven’t heard of him is that the lamed vov tzaddikim are hidden; their greatness is concealed, and they live in obscurity. Humility is his defining attribute.

The lives of Reb Shabsi’s family and my own family have been intertwined for many years. Shabsi is a talmid from the early days of the yeshiva of Be’er Yaakov. He was one of the personal favorites of the rosh yeshiva and the mashgiach, and he remained in the community after his marriage, where he became the administrator of the Be’er Yaakov Seminary. His wife taught in the local school; I myself was one of her students when I was a small child. In fact, in our family she was known as “Doda Reut.”

For years already, my visits to Be’er Yaakov have become few and far between. But even if I were to still visit the town frequently, I would not see Shabsi very often, because he has since moved to a neighboring city, where he has established a beautiful religious community. In his new home, Shabsi is continuing to do exactly what he did in Be’er Yaakov: In his own quiet, unassuming way, he has dedicated his life to serving the people. He has also maintained one major connection with Be’er Yaakov: He is still the head of the chevra kadisha. In that capacity, he carries out his responsibilities faithfully, with great dedication and adherence to all the relevant halachos. Most importantly, he does it without receiving even one cent in remuneration.

The chevra kadisha in Be’er Yaakov is a busy organization, tending to many a meis mitzvah, since the town is home to hospitals that serve numerous patients who are childless and alone in the world. There is a psychiatric hospital, where most of the patients do not receive visitors while they are alive, nor do they have anyone to tend to them after their deaths. The chevra kadisha has also received bodies for taharah and kevurah from the Shmuel Harofeh Geriatric Hospital. In these circumstances, we always gathered a minyan of bochurim from the yeshiva, while all the other aspects of the burial, including digging a grave, were left to Shabsi. And Shabsi never allowed a deceased person to remain unattended. In the blazing heat of the summer and the driving rain of the winter, he always saw to it that every niftar was accorded the proper final respect.

Two weeks ago, when my cell phone rang and the words “Shabsi from Rishon Letzion” flashed across the screen, my heart skipped a beat. I was excited to see that he was calling, but also curious: What could the tzaddik want from me?

I answered the phone, and Reb Shabsi’s voice demanded, “Why isn’t the ambulance here?”

My heart almost stopped when I heard those words. His voice sounded somewhat frantic, which made me very suspicious that something was wrong. In general, Reb Shabsi is one of the most unflappable people I know. But even more terrifying was the question itself: “Why isn’t the ambulance here?” The most tragic possible scenarios began playing out in my mind’s eye, as I struggled to imagine why he would be waiting for an ambulance with such urgency.

Before I could ask what had happened, though, Shabsi realized that he had dialed a wrong number and hung up the phone. I wondered if my number was recorded in the contacts on his cell phone in close proximity to that of Magen David Adom. Or perhaps someone had set up a speed dial on his phone for the ambulance service, and they had accidentally entered my number instead. I contemplated calling his neighbors to rush to his home, or calling one of his children to come to his aid. On the other hand, I thought, it was possible that the ambulance had already arrived, and it might be inadvisable to cause everyone else to panic. I asked myself if it might be better to ignore the alarming call, and I decided that that was indeed the case. I did nothing, and over the following days I began monitoring the mourning notices in the newspaper. When Reb Shabsi’s name did not appear there, I allowed myself to calm down.

Two weeks later, the dreadful incident repeated itself. Once again, I received a call from “Shabsi from Rishon Letzion,” and when I answered the phone, he demanded, “What is happening with the ambulance?” There was a slight tremor in his voice, and I feared that another calamity had struck Reb Shabsi or his rebbetzin.

“It’s me, Tzvika Yaakovson,” I replied. “How are you?”

“It’s you again?” came the response. “What’s going on?” With that, he disconnected the call. He gave me no other information on what was happening. This time, I decided that I had to take action; I called one of his sons, keeping my tone tranquil and serene, and asked, “How is your father?”

Reb Shabsi’s son grew alarmed. “Why are you asking? Did something happen? Did you hear something?”

I immediately regretted having made the call, but it was too late to undo what had been done. The son demanded an explanation for my call, and I stammered, “I don’t know…. He called me by mistake, but he said something about waiting for an ambulance to get there.” I struggled to keep the fear out of my voice, but Reb Shabsi’s son immediately began laughing.

Now I was completely bewildered. “What is so funny?” I demanded.

“He was calling Albert!” came the reply. “Albert drives the ambulance for the chevra kadisha – and he is always late!”

The Miraculous Eggs

Here is another story in honor of Purim, also a true story but one that occurred many years ago.

There was once a pious businessman by the name of Reb Menachem Fogel zt”l. Reb Menachem and his wife, the righteous Rochel, had three children: Chezky, Moishy, and Tzvika. Those three boys eventually grew up to become men of great accomplishments, much to their parents’ pride and delight. Reb Yechezkel built up the world of academic studies for the chareidi community, while Reb Moishe is a well-known attorney, the holder of a doctorate, and, most importantly, a trusted right-hand man to several gedolei Yisroel. Their father, Reb Menachem, eventually became highly successful in his business ventures in Eretz Yisroel and amassed a large fortune, becoming a prolific contributor to tzedakah and raising his sons to lead lives of dedication to the Torah.

Almost sixty years ago, in 1959, the family left their home in Transylvania, on the border between Romania and Hungary, and made their way to Eretz Yisroel, the land where they had always aspired to settle. As obedient new immigrants, they were first placed in Kikar Yerucham and then “upgraded” to Moshav Tochelet, which was an extension of today’s Kfar Chabad.

In Transylvania, the family had enjoyed financial security and a prestigious standing in society. When they moved to Eretz Yisroel, they left all of that behind, traveling with nothing but a valise containing a few articles of clothing. In Tochelet, the family – the happy parents and their three small children – lived in a dilapidated storage shed that had been abandoned by its Arab former owners. They were utterly destitute, yet they pinned their hopes on Hashem’s help.

And indeed, the Master of the Universe answered their prayers. Sustenance, after all, is entirely the product of Divine Hashgacha. Our job is merely to engage in hishtadlus. On the very day they arrived, Reb Menachem commented to his neighbor, “Look what a wonderful chesed Hashem has done for us! There are two hens living in this courtyard. At least we know that we will have eggs for our children to eat every morning.” At that time, eggs were a rare and precious commodity.

That neighbor, Reb Moshe Dovid Ehrenfeld zt”l, was an outstanding tzaddik in his own right, who did everything in his limited power to make life easier for the young family struggling to acclimate in their new land. Reb Moshe Dovid and his wife opened their hearts and their home to the Fogel family. The newly arrived Fogel children felt perfectly at home in their neighbors’ residence. In response to his neighbor’s comment, Reb Moshe Dovid said, “There are hens in the courtyard? That is indeed a tremendous chesed. Eggs contain all the most important nutrients. You are truly fortunate.”

The two hens were frail, pathetic-looking birds, yet they managed, amazingly, to live up to Reb Menachem’s expectations. Every morning, it seemed that the hens had laid several eggs. The family could never tell how many eggs had come from each bird, but by the time the sun rose each day, there were five eggs waiting for their consumption. It was a veritable miracle: Every morning, there was an egg for each member of the Fogel family, just as the monn descended every morning in the midbar in the exact quantities that each family needed. What more could the family have asked for?

Actually, there was one more aspect of the “miracle” that Rebbetzin Fogel never realized: The “hens” that made their home in the courtyard were actually not hens, but roosters – male chickens that were never capable of producing an egg.

Moshav Tochelet boasted a small grocery store where basic food items were sold: oil, margarine, bread, eggs, and the like. Most of the local residents were people of limited means, and they limited themselves to purchasing only the most basic necessities. The Fogel family bought nothing in the grocery store, other than the most vital items. Rebbetzin Ehrenfeld, too, was forced by her limited means to be extremely frugal in her purchases; however, along with her regular groceries, she had a habit of buying five eggs every day. Every night, late at night, while the rest of the village was asleep, she would furtively enter the Fogel family’s yard and place the eggs near the “hens.” In the morning, those eggs were gathered by her excited neighbors.

From the Fogel family’s perspective, it was an incredible miracle. Every night, five eggs appeared on their doorstep – precisely the number that the family needed. Clearly, it must have been a product of the special kedushah of Eretz Yisroel, the unique blessings of the land that did not exist in their native Transylvania.

Rebbetzin Fogel once remarked to Rebbetzin Ehrenfeld that the eggs seemed to be “a miracle within a miracle.”

“Why do you mean by that?” her neighbor inquired.

“One miracle is the fact that these old, weakened hens still lay eggs. The second miracle is that they lay multiple eggs every day, not just one. And then there is the third miracle….”

“What is the third miracle?” the other rebbetzin pressed.

“That the eggs already bear the stamp of the Tenuvah company, along with an expiration date. That aspect of the miracle is absolutely mind-boggling!”

Toys from Odessa

Here is one last story for Purim – this time, an incident that occurred just this past week.

The proud grandfather returned from Odessa with a suitcase filled with toys. There was a train, a clown that made sounds, a toy car with a remote control, and all sorts of other goodies – not to mention some imitation brand-name socks. “There are amazing marketplaces in Odessa,” he told his children gleefully. “A single dollar can do wonders there.” With great pride, he withdrew the toys from his suitcase one by one, hoping to impress his family members with his success at finding excellent bargains. Even though he had spent only three days in the Ukraine – the first day in Mezhibuzh, the second day in Uman, and the third in Odessa – he had spared no effort to bring back gifts that would delight his grandchildren.

His sons, the fathers of the young children who were the recipients of those gifts, sat silently throughout the conversation. Their gazes shifted from each other’s faces to the rest of the room – anywhere but their father’s shining eyes. They were struggling to avoid embarrassing him. After all, how would he feel if he knew that all the “rare” and “special” toys he had purchased on his trip to Europe could be easily obtained at a toy store in Geulah? Every last object in his suitcase was available in Yerushalayim, with the exception of the imitation socks. Out of respect for their father, they pretended to be amazed and impressed with every toy that he produced. The grandfather, for his part, waxed enthusiastic about the low prices in the markets of Odessa. “I didn’t spend more than sixty shekels altogether on all these toys,” he boasted, as his grandchildren were indeed delighted by his gifts. When the children and their parents left their grandfather’s home, every child was clutching at least one brand new toy securely in his arms.

The next day, the three fathers – all of them yungeleit in the Mirrer Yeshiva – decided to try an experiment. They made their way to the aforementioned toy store in Geulah and asked the proprietor to calculate the price that he would charge for all the items their father had brought back from his trip. The storeowner agreed, and the toys were piled on the counter. The proprietor calculated the price of each item, reaching a total of approximately sixty shekels.

The three young fathers were astonished. “That’s interesting,” one of them remarked. “That’s exactly the amount that our father paid for these toys in Odessa.”

The storeowner laughed. “I know who your father is,” he said, identifying the man by his name and place of employment.

“Yes!” the three sons exclaimed. “How did you know?”

“Because he bought these toys here in this very store four days ago…”

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