Thursday, Sep 16, 2021

My Take on the News

A Tragic Month on the Roads

At long last, the top news stories in Israel have to do with events outside of the country. Last week’s headlines focused on Trump’s domestic issues, the elections in England, and the terror attacks in Iran and Europe. Here in Israel, it seemed that things were calm.

One event in Israel was a wonderful visit from Mrs. Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations. Mrs. Haley met with President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu. The latter thanked her profusely for all her efforts on behalf of Israel. The ambassador, for her part, insisted that she is not owed any gratitude, and she decried the “bullying” of Israel at the United Nations. She visited the Kosel, and although a “sterile” area had been cleared for her, she insisted on approaching the wall like any other visitor, together with the crowd.

This is not to say that we have had no problems of our own. For one thing, the month of May was reported to be a particularly deadly month on the roads, with over 30 deaths caused by traffic accidents. The police claim that many of the accidents were caused by motorists who were distracted by their cell phones while they drove.

In other news, the events of Lag Ba’omer in Meron were discussed in the Knesset. Every year, the Knesset holds a discussion to determine what can be learned from the mistakes that were made on Lag Ba’omer. This time, demands were heard for the government to put an end once and for all to the annual chaos in Meron. Let us hope that this demand receives an appropriate response.

We saw yet another encounter with the Supreme Court, which ordered the city of Beit Shemesh to remove signs from its streets that ask women to dress modestly. Those signs, as you can imagine, have infuriated chilonim in the city. Another news story relates to some incidents of police brutality in Meah Shearim, which will be discussed at greater length below.

New Drama in the Elor Azaria Case

The saga of Elor Azaria has taken a surprising turn. This is a case that has been followed intently by the entire country, not only because of the sense that a grave injustice has been done to a soldier who merely might have made a mistake, but also because it is an incident to which everyone can relate. Every soldier, and perhaps every civilian as well, knows that there is always a chance, even if only a small one, that he himself may end up in the same situation. It is a major dilemma: If a terrorist has already been neutralized, should one simply wait for him to be taken away for treatment in a hospital, or should one make sure that he is dead, out of fear that he might still be capable of doing harm?

We have seen such things happen. In October 2015, Rabbi Yeshayahu Krishevsky was killed in a terror attack on Rechov Malchei Yisroel in Yerushalayim. The terrorist was a Bezeq employee who struck two people with his car and then emerged from the vehicle, armed with an axe. Video footage of the attack shows that even after the terrorist was shot and had fallen to the ground, he suddenly stood up and attacked another person with the same axe. It would seem that Elor Azaria, who shot a terrorist who was lying wounded on the ground, did precisely what any rational person should have done.

I have written extensively about his case in the past. Azaria was convicted and sentenced to a year and a half in prison, and his family then dismissed their legal team and hired the flamboyant attorney Yoram Sheftel, who was responsible in the past for the acquittal of John Ivan Demjanjuk. At first, no one believed that Sheftel would achieve anything in the Azaria case, but after just a few meetings, the court advised both sides to sit down for negotiations. The judges pointed out that there is a range of possibilities between a manslaughter conviction and a complete acquittal, and it advised both sides to settle on a plea bargain. That was an astonishing development in its own right. Meanwhile, the prosecution has not budged from its insistence that the manslaughter conviction remain in place. They insist that Azaria must confess to the charge of manslaughter, and only then will they negotiate on their position. But Sheftel is not prepared to accept that. He has demanded that the prosecution reveal in advance the concessions that they are willing to make. Meanwhile, the prosecution is losing points, and if the court will ultimately have to rule on Azaria’s appeal, it is clear that Sheftel has already created a major change in the atmosphere. This story is not over yet, but it is clear that a real drama is unfolding.

The Parallels Between Elor Azaria and Simcha Hodedatov

In Cheshvan 5776 (October 2015), I wrote in these pages about Simcha Hodedatov, who was mistaken for a terrorist and killed on a bus in Yerushalayim. At the time, I wrote, “There is no dispute about the tragic result of the events: A ben yeshiva, a ben aliyah, a baal teshuvah, and a new immigrant met his death at the entrance to the Holy City. The only dispute concerns the reason and the circumstances. It is possible that the panic of the passengers, along with his unusual behavior, led people to act quickly and without thinking, and thus caused the tragedy… Based on what we have learned, it seems that this was a death that could have and should have been prevented. It happened only because the people who had the weapons were inexcusably quick to pull the triggers.”

I also quoted the words of a “close friend” of Simcha – and I can now reveal that it was one of the rabbeim in the yeshiva where he learned – who examined the videos that were taken before the murder and said, “Simcha is not seen attempting to grab a weapon in any of this footage. The images show a person running, presumably the bus driver, and striking him in the back with an electric stun gun while he was still being held by the two soldiers. At that point, Simcha fell to the ground, with a group of people standing around him. Then one of the soldiers shot him in the legs. Presumably, they didn’t shoot to kill because they weren’t sure about his intentions. But then the security guard from the Ministry of Health arrived at the scene. He came from afar. He hadn’t witnessed the confrontation and he had no idea what was taking place. He didn’t even know the language in which they were arguing. But it is clear that the commotion, the screams, and the tension affected him. He arrived and he fired his gun.”

And with that, Simcha Hodedatov – a wonderful, pure yeshiva bochur – was dead.

I ended that article by quoting Rav Boruch Horowitz, who was saddened and pained by the death of his talmid and the posthumous tarnishing of Simcha’s name. Rav Horowitz stressed that he did not want to accuse anyone of wrongdoing, since the facts of the situation were not clear, but he felt that everyone should be very careful before taking an action that might be irreversible.

Does this remind you of Elor Azaria? Are all the citizens of Israel not supposed to be held to the same standard demanded of Azaria, according to the prosecution and the judges?

It has already been a year and a half since Simcha Hodedatov’s tragic death, when his burial was delayed until the authorities could decide that they would not order an autopsy. One month later, a statement was leaked to the press that, “in all likelihood,” Simcha’s murderer would not be indicted, even though he had acted with an appalling lack of responsibility. Now, a year and a half later, Simcha’s family has sued the government of Israel for millions of shekels. The lawsuit was filed in a court in Yerushalayim, with the claim that their son had been subjected to a “field trial” and that the soldier who shot him disobeyed orders when he opened fire. According to the charge sheet, Simcha was not actually killed by the security guard’s fire. Instead, he crawled toward a nearby ledge and climbed onto it, and then was shot and killed by a soldier. If that account is true, then the court’s ruling in the case of Elor Azaria will make it very hard for the government to defend itself. Let us hope that justice is done for Simcha and his good name, even though he is no longer alive.

Police on a Rampage in Meah Shearim

You are certainly familiar with the harassment of IDF soldiers wearing yarmulkas. It is a phenomenon that we all reject. The harassment is perpetrated by a handful of extremists in Meah Shearim and Beit Shemesh, who accost every soldier they see wearing a yarmulka, even if it is in a shul and he has come to daven. The extremists themselves link their actions to the issue of the chareidi draft, but in truth there is no connection. Regardless of how a person feels about the draft, there is no justification for demeaning another Jew.

In the chiloni community, as well as in our own communities, there have been increasing calls for the police to do something about this phenomenon. In response to the pressure, the police began engaging in extremely foolish tactics. One of their strategies has been to disguise police officers as soldiers with yarmulkas and to send them into Meah Shearim, where they wait for someone to throw a stone at them. As soon as that happens, the “soldiers” produce their police identification and arrest the protestors. But the reason this is foolish is because they are actually provoking people to commit criminal acts. A person cannot expect to enter Meah Shearim dressed in an IDF uniform just before Shabbos without provoking a stir. The result has been that the beginning of Shabbos, as well as the beginning of Shavuos, has become a time of tremendous tension in the neighborhood. In these incidents, the soldiers mercilessly beat elderly men and youths alike. The images from the scene were harrowing. The police arrested dozens of people, all of whom were released by the courts within an hour.

In videos recorded at the scene, the police officers are seen becoming violent lawbreakers themselves. Now, I do not mean to sound as if I am a fan of the extremists, but a police officer should certainly show even more restraint than the average citizen. He represents the law; he should definitely feel obligated to uphold it. I fully understand, and even support, the goal of ending the harassment of religious soldiers, but the end does not justify the means. The brutality of the police against small children and elderly men, even if they were shouting at the soldiers, was utterly unacceptable, as was the violence they used against the people who filmed their actions. We must stop the harassment of soldiers, but we must also put an end to the beating of chareidim.

Caught in a Lie

As I said, all of us deplore the harassment of religious soldiers. Nevertheless, it is important for you to understand the faults of the police in Yerushalayim. Here is a story that took place two weeks ago: Five policemen – one officer, two detectives, and two members of the Border Guard – delivered false testimony in court that nearly led to the false conviction of a chareidi protestor.

As Menachem Begin once said, there are judges in Yerushalayim, after all. And now we can add that Yerushalayim also has police officers who lie. The chareidi protestor was accused of striking a policewoman who had shoved a different chareidi protestor. Officer Mahmoud Dawima, Detectives Matan Mamo and Shmuel Dahan, and Border Guard officer Nir Saban all testified against the defendant. But then a short video of the incident proved that their testimonies had been falsified.

“The thought of how this case would have ended if the video had not been shown causes me to lose sleep,” the judge wrote. “The police officers’ testimony was untrue.”

There were other grounds for acquittal, including “selective enforcement” – the rule that if only one person is singled out for punishment for breaking the law, such as a single car among dozens that is ticketed for parking on the sidewalk, the penalties must be canceled. The judge ordered the case handed over to the Police Internal Investigations Department. Nevertheless, it is clear that nothing will happen there. If previous incidents are any indication, the department will find a pretext to close the case.

Saving the Cats

I know that you will find this hard to believe, but the following blurb appeared in a prestigious chiloni newspaper in Yerushalayim: “Someone is trying to save the chareidi cats. Anyone who visits the chareidi neighborhoods in the city will notice hundreds of cats wandering the streets. Many of them are suffering from malnutrition; most of them are very thin and sickly. At this time, the decision has been made by local activists, in conjunction with the Committee to Save the Street Cats of Yerushalayim, to try to do something to help these animals. The group is working to raise funds from the public for the care and rehabilitation of these poor cats.”

Now, I have never seen an emaciated cat in Givat Shaul. On the contrary, the stray cats are quite plump and perpetually licking their lips in satisfaction. Even in the poorest chareidi neighborhood, there are always chicken bones in the garbage dumpsters on Motzoei Shabbos. Our cats may suffer from elevated blood pressure and high cholesterol, and perhaps even from dental cavities, but they are certainly not malnourished. I would presume that the felines of Rechavia are suffering much more. In that neighborhood, the residents carefully wrap up the remains of their sushi before depositing it, in a tightly sealed garbage bag, into a closed dumpster. In Givat Shaul, meanwhile, the city has given us open green dumpsters to deposit all of our household waste, and the cats can find plenty of leftover food in those ubiquitous garbage bins.

My first reaction to the article was to send an e-mail to the writer to find out if it had been written in jest. The message immediately bounced back, marked as undeliverable. Next, I telephoned the number that had been printed in the newspaper. The person who answered the phone sounded quite serious. “Do you have any idea if the initiative to save the cats has moved forward?” I asked him.

The man asked if I was a supporter of the cause or if I had even taken to feeding the cats on my own. “And how did you get my cell phone number?” he asked.

“Your program was advertised in a newspaper, along with your number,” I told him.

“Ah, that is right,” he said. He asked where I lived, and he explained that the cats of Givat Shaul are not the intended beneficiaries of the program. “In Givat Shaul, this problem doesn’t exist as much,” he said. “The families in your area aren’t as impoverished as those in Meah Shearim and Geulah, where the problem truly exists. That is where the activists are working to benefit the cats. The garbage dumpsters are empty in those neighborhoods; people simply aren’t throwing away food.” He advised me to call back in two weeks, when he anticipates that he will have more information.

• • • • •

Now for a story from the “real” Yerushalayim. There are some things in life that create the same amount of emotion regardless of how many times they have happened in the past, such as the birth of a child, the feeling of your car colliding with the car in front of it, finding only eight pieces of bread on the night of bedikas chometz, or inadvertently driving a thumb tack into your thumb instead of the wall. My story deals with another such experience: attending the Chumash party of a son or grandson.

The party took place at Talmud Torah Achiezer in Bayit Vegan. As I sat there, my gaze focused on the proud fathers, rather than the dozens of beaming children who filled the room. A few of the fathers tried to draw the attention of their children, standing on their tiptoes and waving in the direction of their progeny. And then there were the grandfathers and great-grandfathers. Some of these men lived through the horrors of the Holocaust and survived to raise beautiful families, exacting their own form of vengeance against the Nazis. I looked at the wonderful rabbeim and saw a group of dedicated men fully aware of the immense responsibility that rests on their shoulders. And I was mesmerized by the sight of the distinguished menahel of the cheder, Rav Chaim Leib Auerbach, who sat before the pile of Chumashim that would be distributed to his tender young charges.

The children performed admirably throughout the production. There were songs (“Vesein Belibeinu Binah,” “Vetaher Libeinu,” “Ana Avda,” and “Vezakeini”), and they demonstrated their knowledge in response to the rebbi’s questions: “What is the order of the parshiyos?” “When it says ‘Vayikra,’ who called?” “Is it muttar to bring a korban with a mum? Why not?” And “What did Hashem create on the fourth day?”

At long last, every child had a turn to announce proudly, “I am a big bochur and I learn Chumash, and my name is….” In honor of the children, the nosi of the cheder, Rav Ezriel Auerbach, graced the event with his presence. As I said, this is hardly my first time attending such an event, but I can never fail to be moved by it.

In Memory of Rav Simcha Bunim Schreiber-Sofer zt”l

This week marked the shloshim of our rov, Rav Simcha Bunim Schreiber-Sofer zt”l, mara d’asra of the Pressburg shul of Givat Shaul, Yerushalayim. A sixth-generation direct descendant of the Chasam Sofer, Rav Simcha Bunim himself was a man of towering greatness. Rav Simcha Bunim was born in Pressburg in the year 5693 (1933). His health had been failing for the past two years, but that hardly mitigates our pain over his passing.

Rav Eliyahu Yitzchok Pincus, one of the rabbonim of the kehillah, who delivers a daily shiur in the shul, gave expression to the feelings that all of us share, especially those who benefited from the rov’s teachings. “When the Chofetz Chaim wanted to travel to Eretz Yisroel,” he said, “Rav Chaim Ozer asked him not to abandon the Jews of the Diaspora. The Chofetz Chaim responded that he was already old and not capable of leading the people anymore, and he wanted to live out his final days in Eretz Yisroel. Rav Chaim Ozer did not argue with him. Instead, he said sagaciously, ‘When a grandfather is present at the table, even if he is very frail and can barely see or hear, the entire house is different.’ The Chofetz Chaim smiled. We, too, feel a tremendous loss,” he concluded. “Our rov is no longer at our ‘table.’ The glory of Pressburg has left us!”

Rav Shabsi Shepsil Weiss, another neighborhood rov, also gave voice to some of the community’s feelings of loss. “We miss his refinement, his radiant smile, his knowledge, and his wisdom,” he declared. He went on to recount an anecdote involving the Daas Sofer, Rav Simcha Bunim’s grandfather: “When I reached the age of bar mitzvah, my father wanted to take me to receive a brocha from the gaavad of Pressburg. I remember standing next to my father while he called the rov’s home to ask if we could come. The gabbai, or whoever answered the phone, relayed the question and then told my father that we could come for a few minutes. In truth, even a few minutes was a major burden for the rov at the time. Tthis took place while his wife was ill, just a few days before she passed away, and he was very busy. We wouldn’t have been surprised if they had told us that we couldn’t come at all.

“Suddenly,” he continued, “the telephone rang in my father’s store. I answered the call and I heard the rov’s pleasant voice. ‘Hello,’ he said, ‘this is Akiva Schreiber. Can I speak with Reb Moshe Yaakov?’ My father hurried to the phone and the Daas Sofer said to him, ‘I wanted to tell you that you can come for a long visit. It doesn’t have to be only a few minutes.’”

The Daas Sofer passed away in Yerushalayim in Kislev 5720 and was succeeded by his son, the Cheishev Sofer, Rav Avrohom Shmuel Binyomin. The Cheishev Sofer passed away just two years later, on Hoshana Rabbah 5722. Ever since then, his own son, Rav Simcha Bunim Schreiber-Sofer, served as the rov of the community. He was 27 years old when he first assumed the position, and he was 82 at the time of his passing one month ago.

Ever since I arrived in Givat Shaul, I have benefited from him in many ways. He spoke twice every Shabbos: after Kabbalas Shabbos on Friday night, and at seudah shlishis. On Friday nights, he would climb the steps to the elevated platform in front of the aron kodesh, open a Chumash to a random page, and begin presenting a serious of comments from the various rabbonim of the Sofer dynasty on the pesukim on that page. He knew everything that had been said by all of his ancestors – the Chasam Sofer, the Ksav Sofer, the Shevet Sofer, and the later scions of the illustrious family – on every posuk. At seudah shlishis, he would demonstrate his vast erudition once again. He was intimately acquainted with all the minhagim of Pressburg as well.

I once interviewed Rav Simcha Bunim for the Yated. During that conversation, he spoke about the unique practices and minhagim of the Chasam Sofer, revealing that his ancestor habitually rose at midnight to daven for an extended period of time. He also related that the Chasam Sofer maintained that one should recite borei nefashos after consuming a hot beverage, even if it was drunk over a long period of time. Rav Simcha Bunim related that someone was once visiting the Chasam Sofer and drank his tea quickly in order to be able to recite the brocha, but the Chasam Sofer assured him that he could drink slowly and still recite it.

“In that case,” I remarked, “we can do whatever we choose. If we want to recite a brocha, we can rely on the Chasam Sofer, but if we desire, then we can follow the general minhag of not reciting the brocha.”

In all the decades that I knew him, I believe that was the only time that I heard Rav Simcha Bunim raise his voice. “If it is permitted to recite borei nefashos, then you are obligated to do so!” he insisted.

A Gift Fit for a Doctor

Next to the Shiras Yerushalayim simcha hall is an upscale store that sells a wide variety of housewares. Recently, I was standing nearby when a yungerman emerged from the store, toting a large number of bulging shopping bags. Another man who was standing nearby commented, “That yungerman has a child in the hospital ward that fell apart. Poor family.” I am acquainted with the busybody who shared that piece of information, and I also know the yungerman himself, although I hadn’t been aware that his child was ill. I am certain that you know which ward he is referring to. I have already written about the collapse of the pediatric oncology ward at Hadassah. “He must be drowning his sorrows in shopping,” the man next to me went on. “And why not? Even though I know that he is also drowning in debt…”

At that point, the yungerman noticed my presence and headed in my direction. “Do you mind if I ask you for a bit of advice?” he said when he came within earshot. “Do you think that a nice set of frying pans is a fitting gift for a woman doctor?”

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