Lessons Must Be Learned
It will take a long time for us to understand what happened on Simchas Torah and how it took place — that is, if we ever do understand. In terms of the “what,” we always knew that the terrorists in Gaza were beastlike creatures who were constantly plotting acts of murder and who would have no mercy on men, women, or children. We never doubted that they would viciously and indiscriminately slay babies and elderly men and women alike. Those who saw the bodies certainly recognized the endless depths of evil that were revealed in this murderous rampage.
As for the “how,” the government will have to investigate how it was possible for an Arab mob to break through the barrier at the border and avoid setting off alarms. And where were the IDF lookouts, the tanks, the air force, and the intelligence services? Of course, we know that the Master of the Universe runs the world and that He brought this calamity upon His nation, but that is not a reason to refrain from identifying the responsible parties who neglected their duties. Those inquiries, however, will be delayed for a while; for the time being, Israel is burying its dead, and the funerals will be continuing for a long time. But those funerals will not be enough to alleviate the pain we will feel. This is a wound that will never heal.
Years ago, at the levayah of a great tzaddik (I believe it was the Baba Sali), Rav Ovadiah Yosef quoted a posuk in Sefer Yeshayohu: “The righteous man is lost, and no one takes it to heart. People of kindness gather without understanding that the righteous man was gathered in because of the evil.” The worst thing of all, Rav Ovadiah declared, is if a tzaddik is taken from this world and no one is inspired to make a reckoning of his own deeds and to seek to improve himself.
On Simchas Torah this year, the Jewish people throughout the world received a serious blow, the likes of which we haven’t experienced in decades. Woe to us all if we do not respond to this appropriately. Yes, we are allowed to think and even talk about the failures of all the systems that were set in place to prevent such an invasion, about the army’s loss of control and the negligence born of conceit, but we must never forget Who truly wields the rod that has afflicted us, and we must never lose sight of what Hashem demands of us.
A couple of weeks ago, I quoted the Torah’s words, “Their Rock has sold them, and Hashem has delivered them,” and I remarked that there was no other rational explanation for the calamitous events of this Simchas Torah. I have since observed that many others have quoted that posuk as well. This week, I came across another posuk that seems fitting for our situation. At Minchah in the Knesset, the minyan recites Avinu Malkeinu after Shemoneh Esrei every day, and Tehillim after Aleinu. The entire sefer Tehillim is divided among the participants, and we manage to complete the entire sefer twice within ten minutes. I have found that I generally receive perakim that are unfamiliar to me and that tend to take me extra time. This Wednesday, I received the letter taf in perek 119, followed by several of the perokim of Shir Hamaalos. And I was transfixed by the final posuk of kapitel 125: “Those who turn their crooked paths, may Hashem lead them away with those who perform evil, and there will be peace upon Yisroel.”
Twenty–One Children with No Parents
Every passing day seems to bring us more heartrending stories and revelations. For instance, there is the plight of a young boy named Elyakim Libman. His grandfather, Reb Menachem Libman, used to live in Givat Shaul and was a very popular member of the community. Reb Menachem’s son Shneur Shlomo was murdered exactly 25 years ago, and we all shared his pain and grief. Another son, Eliyohu Libman, who was wounded in the terror attack in Beit Hadassah that resulted in six deaths, is the head of the Kiryat Arba Regional Council. The family’s lives have now been darkened by terror again, as Elyakim was one of the Israelis captured and taken to Gaza as hostages. This is an extremely saddening situation.
The plight of the hostages is far beyond anything that our hearts are capable of assimilating. We are all davening and hoping fervently that the hostages will all return in peace. One can assume that there will be demonstrations and protests, and I cannot help but pity anyone who is responsible for making decisions about how to handle the situation, which is surely an unbearable responsibility. The hostages are certainly in mortal danger, and if Gaza is bombed, then the terrorists may retaliate by harming them. Just think about the tragic story of Nachshon Wachsmann, and you will understand the difficulty involved. Think about the results of Gilad Shalit’s capture as well, and keep in mind that instead of one captive, there are over 200 people being held in Gaza today!
This week, several bodies were identified and were discovered to be members of a single family. The joint levayah of Yonah, Ohad, and Mila Cohen, who were murdered in Kibbutz Beeri, took place this Sunday. The terror attack has left 21 children from 13 families without parents altogether; most of these children were orphaned of both parents in the attack. One of those children, a four-year-old girl, was taken to Gaza as a captive. Another child lost her mother, while her father was abducted.
Avigdor Kahalani Davens in the Knesset
Last Monday, I was present for the opening session of the Knesset’s winter assembly. The first session of the season is usually a festive event, but the mood in the country this time was far from joyous. Even the annual events on the anniversary of the Rabin assassination were canceled this year.
The Knesset was in session when an air raid siren sounded. The moments when the siren sounded in the Knesset — and in the rest of Yerushalayim as well — and sent everyone rushing to sheltered areas were heavily documented in the media. In some ways, that brief episode became symbolic of the broader situation afflicting the country at this time. The next day, the picture of the Knesset taking shelter from incoming missiles featured prominently in the media. Personally, however, I took an interest in a very different image from that day: the sight of Avigdor Kahalani davening in the Knesset. I wrote last week about Avigdor Kahalani, a decorated Israeli war hero who is still suffering to this day from the injuries he sustained in battle. He is one of the country’s most famous veterans.
Kahalani’s appearance was not mentioned in the Knesset schedule, which is distributed in advance of every session. I believe that someone — perhaps the Knesset speaker, Amir Ochana — came up with this outstanding idea at the last minute. Ochana concluded his opening address with a short tefillah: “May all of you return home in peace and bring tranquility and calm to the people. The people of Israel are pained and suffering now, but with Hashem’s help, they will know better days.” Ochana then surprised his listeners by announcing, “I would like to ask the former Knesset member and minister, and hero of Israel for all times, Brigadier General Avigdor Kahalani to recite a tefillah on behalf of all of us for the welfare of the soldiers of the IDF.” This was an unexpected development, and it turned out to be deeply stirring. The audience wasn’t sure how to react to Kahalani’s tefillah. Should they sit or stand? Should the men don yarmulkes? Slowly but surely, everyone began rising to their feet. Many of the Knesset members began rummaging in their pockets for yarmulkes; some men asked others around them if they had extra yarmulkes to lend. Kahalani performed a flawless recitation of the tefillah for the soldiers of the IDF: “May Hashem cause the enemies who rise up against us to fall before them. May Hashem protect and save our soldiers from all trouble or distress, and from any ailment or disease, and may He send a brocha and success upon all their deeds. May He cause their enemies to be defeated before them, and may He crown them with the crown of salvation and victory … and let us say ‘amen.’” A chorus of “amens” echoed in response from every part of the room at once. In my mind, this was the scene that most fittingly captured the essence of the day.
I must also add a good word about President Yitzchok Herzog. Since he became the president of Israel, Herzog has delivered quite a few masterful speeches. When he spoke in the Knesset this Monday, I felt that his speech had been painstakingly composed, with all its elements meticulously calculated. One particular passage was especially chilling: “I would like to dedicate my words to the family that was burned, slaughtered, and massacred, the family whose destroyed home I visited yesterday, with the smell of death still in the air and puddles of blood in every corner, beneath the pictures of the children and grandchildren whose fates are unknown. I dedicate this speech to the bereaved families, including the family of Roi, the brave soldier who was seriously wounded and whose parents asked Michal and me to stand with them next to his hospital bed during his final moments….” The speech invoked a series of haunting mental images, which was exactly what the president intended.
Netanyahu’s Black Coat
Many calls have been heard for Netanyahu to hand over the keys to his office and step down. Personally, I am astounded by the people who are making these calls. They publicly stress that this is not an appropriate time to settle political scores, but that is exactly what they are doing. They claim that the fact that this massacre occurred on Netanyahu’s watch is enough of a reason for him to step down. But is that really true? Does that make sense, given that Netanyahu’s predecessors were the ones who made grievous mistakes? Moreover, is there anyone more qualified than Bibi to serve as prime minister at this time?
I find it infuriating that the anti-Netanyahu protestors have been exploiting this horrific tragedy to continue their campaign against the prime minister. This week, a reporter denounced Netanyahu for his poor relationship with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, citing the fact that Gallant had been absent from the cabinet meeting in the Kiryah in Tel Aviv. The only problem with this story was that it wasn’t actually true; Gallant was indeed present for the meeting. Another reporter attacked Netanyahu for failing to consult with Yossi Cohen, the former head of the Mossad. But again, the facts got in the way; at the very moment that he spoke, Netanyahu and Cohen were meeting. One cannot expect these people to ask for forgiveness; that is probably beyond their abilities. At the very least, however, they should keep quiet. Even worse, a newscaster on another program made the appalling statement that the Netanyahu family is responsible for the spilled blood of the victims of Hamas!
I’m sure you are well aware that a number of foreign heads of state visited Israel this week. The series of visits began with President Biden’s arrival and continued with the respective visits of the prime ministers of England, Germany, and Cyprus. The president of France is the latest to arrive. Governor Hochul of New York also came to Israel and visited the Kosel, where Rav Shmuel Rabinovich remarked to her that New Yorkers are all too familiar with terrorism, given their experience with the attack on the Twin Towers. Ten United States senators, five of them Democrats and the other five Republicans, also visited Israel last week. Senator Lindsey Graham commented on his visit, “We have come because we care…. I love Israel. I don’t hate the Palestinians, but I hate Hamas. Today, I saw things that I thought were impossible in the year 2023. The level of barbarism is simply incomprehensible.”
During some of his meetings with the visiting dignitaries, Netanyahu wore a black winter coat. Of course, some reporters mocked him for this, accusing him of trying to score points with the public by posing for pictures in the type of garb that a soldier might wear. The real truth, however, is that there was a simple reason for his choice of attire: He was wearing a bulletproof coat, following instructions from the Shabak. While this is no reason to ridicule a prime minister, Netanyahu’s opponents will stop at nothing to undermine and malign him. They are completely indifferent to the fact that he is responsible for overseeing a war, that the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza are weighing on his conscience, and that Israel is dealing with four separate battle fronts (to say nothing of the fear that the Arabs within Israel might rise up against us as well, as they did two years ago and on many other occasions). Eight Israelis have been killed by missiles fired by Hezbollah in the north!
Incidentally, the release of some hostages due to American pressure created a major stir in Israel. But in my view, it is wisest to refrain from discussing the matter at this time.
A Special Council to Aid the Citizens
This week, I was in a parliamentary command center. A group of parliamentary aides, all of them wearing yarmulkes, sat in a room under the oversight of MK Tzvi Sukkot’s advisor, Chana Korn from the community of Eli, and searched for ways to help the citizens of Israel. The Knesset publicized the phone number of this aid center, and thousands of calls were received. The telephones were manned by a team of aides of various members of the Knesset. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of those MKs were members of Shas, UTJ, or Otzma Yehudit.
There was a stream of requests for assistance. One family that had fled from the south was looking for a place to stay; this was handled immediately. Another caller asked for arrangements to be made for various goods to be shipped to soldiers; a volunteer was quickly found. Someone else reported that a shipment of bulletproof vests was stuck in customs, and Deputy Finance Minister Michal Woldiger quickly resolved the issue. An elderly couple reported that their electricity had been cut off; this was reported to MK Eliyohu Baruchi, who contacted Meir Spiegler in the electric company and arranged for the supply to be restored immediately. I was amazed to hear that many soldiers had called asking for military supplies and gear; in a properly functioning country, there would be no need for such a request, as the army itself would supply the requisite items. I personally received a list from one particular soldier, who asked for 21 tactical vests, one ballistic helmet, four SAPI ceramic plates, and four combat belts. “The reservists have been given priority over the regular soldiers,” he explained. The parliamentary hotline had refused to assist him, explaining that they were not authorized to deal with military gear.
There is good reason that the majority of the aid provided in Israel, both within the country and on the front lines, comes from the religious community. The community of the faithful is accustomed to recovering from every misfortune and searching for ways to improve themselves and help others. The scope of the chesed performed in this country since Simchas Torah is astounding. Thousands of people — soldiers, citizens, young, and old — received a massive outpouring of love and encouragement from the chareidi community and from numerous chesed organizations run by chareidim. Many chareidi citizens also visited hundreds of homes where shivah was being observed in the wake of the massacre, and strove to give comfort to the young orphans. Those who are not fortunate enough to have developed the gift of emunah deserve our pity; they are bound to be broken by these experiences. Everything in which they believed has collapsed before their eyes: the army, the police, the generals, the politicians, and even the state itself! There was terrible negligence leading up to the terrorist rampage on Simchas Torah. The only explanation for this failure, for the blindness of the government, is that it was a Divine gezeirah.
The chareidi community has rallied not only to assist many people in need — soldiers, the families in mourning, the families of the hostages in Gaza, and the multitudes who have relocated from the south — but also to daven and learn, which is at least equally important. There isn’t a single shul that hasn’t witnessed fervent tefillos in recent days. Tens of thousands of children in chadarim engaged in heartfelt davening, at the behest of the gedolei Yisroel. The war also prompted the winter zeman to begin a full week early, and Tehillim are being recited everywhere. I was also moved by the images of rabbonim visiting the soldiers to boost their morale: Rav Shlomo Amar and Rav Yitzchok Yosef appeared in their traditional robes, Rav Yitzchok Dovid Grossman used a special coin to render the soldiers shluchei mitzvah, Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl addressed the soldiers at the Ketziot military base, and Rav Reuven Elbaz visited a number of army bases as well. Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein visited wounded soldiers in the hospitals.
Kever Rochel Closed
The 11th of Cheshvan is also the yahrtzeit of Rochel Imeinu. Whenever I think about Rochel Imeinu’s yahrtzeit and the Kever Rochel complex, I am reminded of my dear friend, the late Mendy Klein of Chicago (and his wife, may she be well) who poured his soul and a small fortune into refurbishing the site. This year, unfortunately, no one will be going to Kever Rochel on the yahrtzeit. Due to the security situation, the government is insisting on closing the site to visitors and thus preventing the usual mass pilgrimage. This is very sad, and reminiscent of the restrictions of the year of Covid.
On Sunday, the National Center for the Development of Holy Sites issued the following statement: “Due to the security situation throughout the country, the Israel Police Force has informed the directors of the Center for Holy Sites that the yahrtzeit of Rochel Imeinu, which was planned to be held on Wednesday and Thursday, is to be canceled.” This is part of a general policy of limiting public gatherings throughout the country; in a similar vein, the security services have called for weddings to be scaled down both last week and this week. The statement continues, “In light of the situation and in coordination with the Israel Police Force, the Center for Holy Sites will hold a day of special broadcasts throughout the yahrtzeit from the site of the kever, where the chief rabbis of Israel and a series of other rabbonim and public figures will deliver words of chizuk addressing the situation in the country. The Center for Holy Sites would like to emphasize that no visitors will be permitted to come to the area of the kever, on orders of the police and the Home Front Command due to the security situation. The public is asked to follow all instructions of security officials.”
The special broadcasts from Kever Rochel took place during the year of the coronavirus pandemic as well and helped somewhat to create the desired mood. You may recall that I was one of the privileged few who were permitted to come to Kever Rochel at the time, but we were forced to daven outside the building. I was standing next to Rav Yitzchok Kolodetsky, and Rav Don Segal arrived immediately after me, accompanied by a sick child who was brought to the kever by Darchei Miriam. I imagine that there will be a few individuals with special influence who will manage to gain admission to the kever this year as well. The bottom line, however, is that this is a very sad occasion. In an ordinary year, Kever Rochel would be receiving 100,000 visitors on this day!
Rav Yehuda Tzadkah Takes a Seat
Another noteworthy yahrtzeit this week is that of Rav Yehuda Tzadkah, the rosh yeshiva of Porat Yosef, who passed away 20 years before Rav Nosson Tzvi, on 12 Cheshvan 5752/October 20, 1991. Rav Tzedakah is the subject of a fascinating story that recently came to my attention.
“Yeshivas Porat Yosef was once scheduled to host a conference of rabbonim on the subject of chinuch,” a certain rov related to me. “I arrived with Rav Benzion Abba Shaul, and we met the rosh yeshiva, Rav Tzadkah, at the door. These two gedolei Yisroel entered the yeshiva together, with Rav Benzion holding Rav Tzadkah’s hand. As they walked, Rav Tzadkah told Rav Benzion that he had recently intervened on behalf of a young boy who was having trouble securing admission to a cheder. The boy’s father had come to him and told him with great anguish that his son had been rejected from a Talmud Torah. ‘Which Talmud Torah?’ Rav Tzadkah asked. The father told him the name of the institution, and Rav Tzadkah replied, ‘I will go there tomorrow.’ The next day, he arrived at the school, without coordinating his visit in advance. When he entered the school building, he asked for someone to tell the principal that he wanted to see him. As soon as the principal heard about his distinguished visitor, he hurried out to greet the rosh yeshiva. ‘What is the occasion for the rosh yeshiva’s visit?’ he asked. ‘Had we known that the rosh yeshiva was coming, we would certainly have prepared a proper reception.’
“Rav Yehuda replied, ‘Come with me, and you will understand why I am here.’ Rav Tzadkah asked the principal to take him to the class where the boy who had been refused admission would have been assigned. He opened the door and observed the children listening to their rebbi’s shiur, and he noted that there was a single empty chair. To everyone’s astonishment, Rav Tzadkah entered the room, sat in the chair, and asked the principal, ‘If I want to sit here and learn, are you willing to accept me?’
“The principal was flustered. Rav Tzadkah repeated, ‘If I want to learn in the school, will you accept me?’
“The principal hastened to reply, ‘Of course! There isn’t even a question!’
“Rav Tzadkah looked at him and demanded, ‘So you have room for Yehuda Tzadkah in this school, but you don’t have room for a different boy? What did that boy do? Why are you refusing to accept him? Where do you want him to go — to the street?’
“Of course, the child was immediately accepted to the school.”
On another occasion, the faculty of the yeshiva began receiving complaints about a bochur who was accused of having a negative influence on his peers. The rabbeim suggested repeatedly to Rav Tzadkah that it might be necessary to expel the troublesome bochur. After they had gone to him three times with the same argument, Rav Tzadkah raised his voice and demanded, “Have you davened for him? Come back to me only if you daven for him and it doesn’t work!”
Remembering Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel
This Thursday is the yahrtzeit of Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, who passed away on 11 Cheshvan 5772/November 8, 2011. Rav Nosson Tzvi presided over the transformation of the Mir yeshiva into an empire of Torah learning and served as a father figure to thousands of talmidim, garnering universal respect and admiration. The day of his passing will be forever etched into my memory, for a deeply personal reason.
A few days before Rav Nosson Tzvi’s passing, I visited him in his home. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence; I had visited his home numerous times, but this time I had come to ask him to serve as mesader kiddushin at my son’s wedding. The rosh yeshiva was sitting on his couch, visibly weakened and drained of energy, when I arrived. An American family was visiting him at the time and had requested brachos, and Rav Nosson Tzvi, as always, was gracious and welcoming. But that did not change the fact that his strength was completely depleted. I was so touched by the sight of the visiting father and his children leaning toward the rosh yeshiva to hear his words that I felt compelled to snap a picture. That may very well be the last picture taken of Rav Nosson Tzvi during his lifetime.
In any event, when the visitors left, I approached the rosh yeshiva and said, “I am beginning to regret coming here today, since I am no longer certain if I should actually make my request.”
Rav Nosson Tzvi laughed and asked me about the purpose of my visit, and I explained it to him. I mentioned that my son was learning in the Mir yeshiva’s branch in Modiin Illit and that he had been a talmid in the Mir yeshiva ketanah in Ramat Shlomo. Rav Nosson Tzvi was particularly fond of that yeshiva ketanah, which he had placed under the aegis of Rav Menachem Zaretzky, one of the closest members of his inner circle. Years earlier, Rav Zaretzky had called me and informed me that Rav Nosson Tzvi wanted me to send my son, who was finishing eighth grade in Talmud Torah Chavas Daas, to the Mir’s yeshiva ketanah. The yeshiva was making a special effort that year to recruit the top talmidim from the chadorim in Yerushalayim so that the incoming class would be exceptional. Many parents felt that it was a risk to send their children to the yeshiva at that time, when it was fairly new, but I acquiesced immediately. For one thing, I knew that Hashem granted Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel success in everything he did. In addition, I was the last person in the world to turn down a request from Rav Nosson Tzvi. Finally, Rav Menachem Zaretzky is a top-notch talmid chochom and educator, and I relished the opportunity for him to teach my son. Sure enough, my son flourished in the yeshiva and benefited from his many interactions with Rav Nosson Tzvi, who visited the yeshiva regularly. I remain profoundly grateful both to Rav Nosson Tzvi and to Rav Zaretzky to this very day. After his time in yeshiva ketanah, my son was accepted to the Brachfeld branch of Mir for yeshiva gedolah, where he developed a closer connection to Rav Nosson Tzvi and became close to Rav Aryeh Finkel, with whom he learned b’chavrusa in his home until the end of Rav Aryeh’s life.
In any event, Rav Nosson Tzvi agreed to my request. “If I have the strength, I will come to be mesader kiddushin,” he said. This was a very special gesture, since the standard procedure was for the rabbeim of the Brachfeld yeshiva to preside over their talmidim’s chuppos. The wedding was due to be held a few days later, on the 11th of Cheshvan, at Ulamei Nof Illit in Brachfeld.
On the morning of my son’s wedding day, we received news of Rav Nosson Tzvi’s sudden and tragic passing. I cannot find the words to describe the grief that enveloped all of us, and the additional anguish of the fact that his passing had coincided with the day of our simcha. We were sure that the tragedy would cast a pall over the wedding. In fact, at the time when the chuppah was scheduled to begin, we were all still at the levayah. However, most amazingly, after the levayah drew to a close, the hall began to fill with guests. Almost all the bochurim from the yeshiva showed up at the wedding, even those who weren’t planning to come, and the entire yeshiva faculty came as well. I soon discovered that Rav Nosson Tzvi’s rebbetzin, who had known about the wedding, had specifically asked for everyone to attend the wedding. Even though she had just buried her husband and had been plunged into a terrible state of anguish and pain, she was able to show extraordinary compassion for a young chosson and spare him from disappointment. This is the story that I remember every year as Rav Nosson Tzvi’s yahrtzeit approaches. And every year, I relive the grief and longing that beset me at the time.
A Visit with Shai Graucher
Shai Graucher, the son of the famous singer Dedi Graucher, opened a massive chesed operation in Mevo Choron virtually overnight. “Thanks to the Jews of America, we have been able to distribute thousands of portions of food, as well as clothing and toys, to soldiers, wounded terror victims, and families of victims,” he told us. “We’ve also given out Gemaros, sifrei Tehillim, and hundreds of pairs of tefillin.”
On the day after Simchas Torah, when the rest of the country was still reeling in shock (including political leaders, journalists, and even the IDF’s top brass), Yeshayahu Yechiel Meir “Shai” Graucher was already hard at work and out in the trenches. Shai Graucher is the son of the beloved music star Oded Dovid “Dedi” Graucher, who passed away at the age of 62 on erev Rosh Hashanah. Dedi was a man with a remarkable circle of friends. At the levayah, he was eulogized by Rav Yisroel Meir Lau, Aryeh Deri, and Binyomin Netanyahu. Shai Graucher has clearly absorbed the ideals of altruism and giving to others that were modeled by his father. In recent years, he has also been very close to Rav Chaim Kanievsky and has been an active partner in the massive chesed operations run by Rav Chaim’s grandson, Rav Yaakov Kanievsky. In advance of the Yomim Tovim, for instance, he helps arrange for hundreds of yungeleit throughout the country to receive food packages valued in the thousands of shekels. But over the past two weeks, his chesed has reached new heights.
One of the volunteers for B’Yachad Nenatzeiach, the nonprofit organization that manages the project launched to assist the victims of the Simchas Torah tragedy, told me that their kitchen in Yerushalayim produced an astonishing quantity of food in the course of a week: 8000 hot meals, 2000 sandwiches, 1500 salads, 4000 portions of cut fruit, and 2700 homemade cookies. Of course, the list of products provided to the families in need extends far beyond food; the organization has handed out 520 iPods, 2200 games for children, 2200 sets of thermal garments, 800 combat jackets, 1700 fleece sweatshirts, and 400 flashlights. And that is not all; they have also conducted a massive distribution of hygiene products, sweets, canned beverages, socks, cell phone chargers, and food vouchers for families. Most important of all, they have also distributed 4500 volumes of Tehillim, 68 pairs of tefillin, and many Gemaros that were printed specifically for this purpose.
The Visit to the Wounded Policeman
It was in the aftermath of the Simchas Torah tragedy that I became aware of Shai Graucher and his staff — his two right-hand men, Shlomi Cohen and Itzik Ochana, and the many volunteers who make up his organization. These men have gone to shivah homes, hospitals, communities in the south, and hotels where the families who fled from the area are being housed. They also took a deep breath and visited the families of the captives being held in Gaza.
Shlomi Cohen, a well-known photographer, told me about one particularly moving moment: “This Thursday, we were at Assaf Harofeh Hospital. We were visiting a police officer from the Sderot police station who had been wounded in a fight with the terrorists. He was hit by a bullet in his arm, which made it impossible for him to use his gun; his fingers did not function. We brought him a special gift, and we gave his wife, who hasn’t moved from his bedside for the past 13 days, a necklace with the words ‘rabbos banos asu chayil.’ The police officer decided to try to put the necklace on her, even though he wasn’t able to move his fingers. ‘For my heroic wife, I will make the effort,’ he said. He was deeply pleased when he succeeded.”
Shlomi added another moving story: “We went to Petach Tikvah to pay our condolences and to bring gifts to the widow of Eliyohu Harush, the first police officer to be murdered at the Sderot police station. He was killed at 6:30 in the morning on Shabbos. His widow also works for the police in the same station; they live in Netivot. I discovered that their two orphaned daughters were celebrating their birthdays; one was turning five and the other was three years old. I brought them a large array of gifts, and the occasion was bittersweet.”
Since you mention the Sderot police station which was overrun by terrorists. How could such a thing happen?
“I’ve been told that hundreds of terrorists swarmed into the police station,” Shlomi replied. “The police never had a chance.”
Donors from America
Last weekend, I learned that Shai Graucher and his team had erected a temporary building in the settlement of Mevo Choron at lightning speed. This building is located near the campus of Yeshivas Nehora, where Shai was a talmid in his younger years. On Sunday, I decided to pay a visit to the site and to witness their work for myself. I was duly amazed by what I saw.
Shai informed me that the current facility is merely temporary and that he hopes to build a huge chesed institution on the site, to be named Chasdei Dedi. “My father was an active partner in all my chesed work,” he said. “He always used to say that we needed a massive, respectable building to serve as our headquarters.”
A row of trucks heading toward the building had been stopped at the entrance to the community when I arrived, as security guards were inspecting every vehicle. The deliveries included a wide range of goods: toys, clothes, mattresses, flashlights, and much more. The cargo was unloaded by yeshiva bochurim volunteering for the organization. When I arrived, I crossed a large hall and headed toward the offices on the other side. Shai Graucher was sitting in a room with several members of his staff, planning their activities for the rest of the day. I asked if I could pose a few questions, and he was happy to comply.
First, can you tell me a little about your father?
“He was beloved by many people because he was a very special person,” Shai replied. “He gave his heart and his very life to others. He was willing to give away anything he had. He did not care about money or honor; he never gave a thought to his own personal interests. He paid for a very large portion of his chesed work out of his own pocket.”
We have seen pictures from the front lines of huge deliveries of food and supplies being brought to the soldiers by various baalei chesed. Does the army have no food to give them? Does the army not have supplies for them?
“The army has food,” Graucher replied, “but the hot, fresh meals with cut fruit that are supplied to the soldiers by baalei chesed are far superior to combat rations. We also arrive at the times when the soldiers are hungry. As for supplies, I must emphasize that we do not deal with military gear such as helmets and vests. We provide them with warm garments to protect them from the cold and with things such as socks, which they always need.”
Shai Graucher’s chesed organization maintains a direct line of communication with the commanders supervising the soldiers in the trenches. These officers keep them abreast of the items that would benefit their troops. Interestingly, their biggest donors are in America. “Ninety percent of our donors are American Jews,” Graucher revealed. “These are people who help me all year long. They have seen what we have been doing here since the tragedy, and they want to be our partners. They want to give, and they are donating constantly.”
If the army launches a ground incursion into Gaza, will you continue helping the soldiers, or will you consider it too dangerous?
“Nothing will stop us,” he asserted. “We are constantly planning more things to do. B’ezras Hashem, we will be able to follow them everywhere.”
Two Wounded Brothers
As I sat with Shai Graucher, I was keenly aware of the commotion surrounding us: the constant rumbling of trucks coming and going, the sounds of volunteers rushing to and fro, and the staff members repeatedly entering the room to ask for instructions.
Do you have a heartwarming story to share? Perhaps you managed to make a child smile in spite of his suffering, or something of the sort.
“We have had many experiences that we found very moving,” Graucher replied. “We were at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon, and there were two injured children there. They were brothers, and the terrorists had killed their father and another brother. Their mother was there as well, and she spoke with tremendous bitachon and emunah. She even asked us to undertake an asher yotzar project. And she was not a religious woman. One of the children asked for a PlayStation; this child had bandages covering both of his eyes. Within twenty minutes, he had a new PlayStation in his hands, and he was very pleased. Then we heard that his brother was about to celebrate his bar mitzvah, and we gave him a pair of tefillin as a gift. We also sang together in the hospital room. It was extremely moving.”
Can you tell us about a sad experience?
“We went to visit the family of a soldier who had been murdered. His wife had been previously married, and her first husband was killed 20 years ago while operating in Gaza. She had then married her first husband’s close friend, and now he had been murdered as well. There were four orphaned children. That experience was emotionally shattering. Whenever one visits a house where a family is sitting shivah for someone who was murdered, it is impossible not to cry. There were also many wrenching moments when we visited the injured.”
Have you received any appreciation or acknowledgment from an official government source? Did anyone thank you?
“I am not waiting for anyone to thank me, and I am not doing this to be thanked. And no one has done so. I simply do what I need to do. It is enough for me that the soldiers, the parents, and the injured people we visit have thanked us.”