My Take on the News

Looking Toward Elul

In just a few days, bein hazemanim will be over. This past Shabbos, we bentched Rosh Chodesh. This Sunday, tens of thousands of yeshiva bochurim will return to their botei medrash. Many boys will be entering yeshiva ketanah for the first time in their lives; having completed the eighth grade in cheder, they will now be moving on to what is known here as shiur alef. Others will be entering yeshiva gedolah for the first time. The excitement felt by the bochurim and their parents is tangible.

Every summer, we daven that there will be no tragic deaths. This summer began with the drowning of a 20-year-old yeshiva bochur named Eliyahu Maguri Cohen, a resident of Bnei Brak and a talmid of Yeshivas Zichron Michoel in the community of Zichron Yaakov. The shock generated by his death was so intense that it may perhaps be credited for the fact that there were no further tragedies.

As I noted last week, many of the country’s yeshivos organize summer camps for their talmidim. This year, two of the yeshivos considered canceling the camps that they had planned to run: Yeshivas Ohr Elchonon and the branch of Yeshivas Mir in Modiin Illit. Both of those yeshivos recently suffered the petiros of their roshei yeshiva: Rav Moshe Mordechai Chodosh zt”l of Ohr Elchonon and Rav Aryeh Finkel zt”l of Mir. The p’sak for the camps to run as scheduled was issued by Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, but the usual summer merriment was mixed with sadness.

Learning on the Street

Now that we are speaking about bein hazemanim and yeshiva bochurim, I must add a few words about Yeshivas Ner Moshe in Givat Shaul. The vast majority of the yeshiva’s talmidim are American boys who come to Eretz Yisroel to learn under the tutelage of its rosh yeshiva, Rav Shalom Schechter. The bochurim of the yeshiva amass a wealth of Torah knowledge, master the ability to learn a sugya, and return to America enriched by the experience.

The bochurim of Ner Moshe are among the icons of the Givat Shaul neighborhood of Yerushalayim. They add a tremendous amount to the neighborhood, and the residents are very fond of them. They are occasionally invited for Shabbos meals at the homes of the neighborhood rabbonim. The talmidim of Ner Moshe make their way from the dormitory to the beis medrash and back at least twice a day, and they regularly discuss their learning in the street. It is an immensely inspiring sight.

For the Pesach vacation, many of the bochurim return to America to spend the Yom Tov with their families. During the summer bein hazemanim, many of them remain in the yeshiva. They have no particular reason to return to New York, Chicago or Baltimore for the summer. Eretz Yisroel has much more to offer them. It is my impression that about 70 out of the 140 bochurim in Ner Moshe remained in the yeshiva for bein hazemanim. According to two of the bochurim from the yeshiva who davened with me in Zupnik, the yeshiva provides them with meals and allows them to stay in the dormitory, and they take advantage of the vacation to visit sites such as Kever Rochel, the Me’oras Hamachpeilah, and the kevorim of Rav Shimon bar Yochai and Rav Meir Baal Haness. Bein hazemanim is their opportunity to see Eretz Yisroel before they return to America.

Ehud Barak’s Secret

This is the time of year that the media calls “the silly season.” In Israel, it is known as onat hamelafefonim (“cucumber season”). Simply put, it is a time when there is little for a news reporter to write about. Everyone is on vacation, many people are out of the country, the nation’s political system is dormant, and there is very little news to report.

In a country like Israel, though, not a single day goes by without an event worthy of being a front-page story. This time, it was Ehud Barak, the former prime minister of Israel, who generated a plethora of headlines by launching an attack on Binyomin Netanyahu, accusing the current prime minister of causing damage to the State of Israel. Barak acted the part of the responsible adult, refusing to divulge what Netanyahu had supposedly done that caused damage to Israel. Nevertheless, he managed to stir up quite a tempest. Most pundits believe that Barak was referring to Netanyahu’s address to Congress, which was delivered in defiance of Barack Obama’s direct opposition. This was likely deemed damaging to Israel because of its effects on the military aid supplied to Israel by America.

Barak may or may not have been correct, but he certainly managed to place himself in the public eye for a few days. That seems to indicate a desire on his part to return to politics, even though there doesn’t appear to be a platform for him to do so. In any event, Barak has declared his willingness to appear before a subcommittee of the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee to explain his statement. Until now, he has always refused to appear before that classified committee.

Meanwhile, let no one think that the subject of yeshiva bochurim in the army is no longer an issue. On the contrary, it remains a subject of contention, and it is perpetually up for debate. We are now experiencing an illusion of calm only because the Supreme Court has given the government time to respond to the appeals that have been filed against the draft exemption for bnei yeshivos. Last week, the government relayed its position to the court. Now we will see what the results will be. Anything is possible. The Supreme Court may issue an extreme ruling in favor of the bnei yeshivos, or its verdict may be exactly the opposite, chas veshalom.

The Beleaguered Prime Minister

Speaking of Binyomin Netanyahu, something interesting has been happening to our prime minister recently. Over the past three weeks, he has held closed meetings with journalists, where he spoke strictly off the record. The first meeting was held with reporters from Haaretz, which is ostensibly the one newspaper in the country that is furthest removed from Netanyahu’s political views. Incredibly, the journalists who attended those meetings emerged from the prime minister’s office in an enraptured state. Somehow, Netanyahu managed to charm them during those closed conversations. Gideon Levi, one of the staunchest leftists in the State of Israel, published a brief piece praising Netanyahu after his meeting with the prime minister. Although he continued to disagree with the prime minister and expressed his fear that Netanyahu’s policies would lead to disaster, he still praised the man for having a carefully thought-out approach.

After meeting with the staff of Haaretz, Netanyahu held similar conferences with the staffs of many other publications, both print and electronic. Last week, it was the turn of the chareidi media. In an unusual step, Netanyahu met with representatives of the entire chareidi media at once, rather than meeting separately with the staff of each publication. The chareidi journalists, too, emerged from the meeting deeply impressed with the prime minister, a sentiment that was expressed in their writings last weekend, although they kept their promise not to quote any of his actual comments.

At the same time, in the State of Israel there is no such thing as a secret meeting without a leak of some sort. In fact, Netanyahu himself raised that point during one of his meetings. He also opined that since the minutes of classified meetings are recorded, there is a tendency for government ministers to make statements solely for the benefit of the written record, even at the expense of making sense. If you would like some partial quotes, here are a few brief excerpts. At one point, Netanyahu declared, “If only I was accepted in Tel Aviv the way I am accepted in New York and Washington!” Regarding President Obama, he said, “Obama was locked into opposition to me from the outset.” As for Israel’s international relations, he added, “I will soon be able to break the automatic majority against Israel in the United Nations.”

The gist of Netanyahu’s statements in all of those secret meetings was that he considers himself a genius, more intelligent than anyone else, and a man who has performed wonders. He laments the fact that the Israeli media despises him, but he intends to continue ruling the country as its prime minister.

The question of whether he is actually smarter than anyone else may be open to debate, but there is no question that he is the most beleaguered prime minister in the history of this country, and he certainly has the right to complain about that. During the course of his meetings, Netanyahu made no effort to conceal his sense of persecution, and indeed, that is a sense that is not rooted in paranoia at all. Netanyahu has suffered very much as the target of harassment.

Congestion at the Airport

Silly season or not, this is also the season when many people, including government employees, go on vacation. In fact, in the month of August, there is a compulsory vacation in every government office. The offices are closed and the employees have no choice but to take off. This applies to me as well. Since I have no computer at home, I had to receive special permission from the Knesset director-general to write this article in the office where I am sitting right now.

The employees of the population registry are also on vacation, but the government still needs to have workers at the airport and other border crossings. In order to fulfill that need, they hire temporary workers on a short-term contract, some of whom are the children of regular employees who are interested in earning some extra money during their school vacations. This, however, is where the problem begins. At Ben Gurion International Airport, not only has the number of border control officers been cut almost in half – from 100 to 60 – but most of the replacement workers are young boys and girls who are not quite familiar with the details of their jobs, and who constantly need to ask an experienced worker for help. The result is a tremendous backlog at all the country’s exits or points of entry.

The problem is compounded by the fact that this is prime tourism season. Tens of thousands, or perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of travelers are entering and leaving Israel during this time. In short, not only are there many more people coming in and out of the airport, there are also far fewer border control officers. That is typical of the State of Israel.

Allow me to give you an idea of what it means for an airport to see a high volume of activity by Israeli standards. Without belittling the volume of traffic at JFK International, the figures are still somewhat staggering: Last Thursday, 85,000 people arrived at or left Ben-Gurion International Airport on 489 different flights. The most popular destinations for Israeli travelers this past Thursday were Greece, Turkey, America, Italy, and Germany.

A Solution for Amona

The controversy over the settlement of Amona may have come to an unexpected end. I have written about it in the past, and I have mentioned that it has the potential to lead to a coalition crisis that may even bring down the government. The Bayit Yehudi party, which includes members of the Tekumah faction (namely, Minister Uri Ariel and MK Betzalel Smotrich) cannot permit Amona to be evacuated. There are not many families living in the community, but it has already taken on symbolic significance, and the Tekumah representatives will certainly resign from the government if the residents of Amona are evicted. They would never allow themselves to remain in a government that was responsible for driving Jews out of their homes. This would also be problematic for Naftali Bennett and the other members of the right-wing party, who joined the government in order to protect the political right in general and the settlements in particular.

As usual, the problem comes from the Supreme Court. The court decided long ago that Amona should be dismantled by December 25, 2016, and as everyone knows, the Supreme Court is the highest authority in the country. Nevertheless, it seems that its authority is not without limit. When the government understands that it is facing its demise, it can find a way to circumvent a ruling of the court.

It is to Amona’s good fortune that one of the members of the Bayit Yehudi party, Ayelet Shaked, is the Minister of Justice. In addition to their knowledge of the law, the legal experts working under Shaked also know how to read a map. Directly adjacent to the settlement is a plot of land that does not belong to the Palestinians, and the government announced that the settlement can simply be relocated there. The houses themselves can be removed from their current locations and transferred to the new spot. This creative solution has been accepted by everyone concerned, and the government will presumably adopt it as the solution to prevent its own demise.

Cheated in a Hotel Lobby?

Once again, here are a few illustrations of the power of a parliamentary query. First, a resident of Beitar Illit contacted a member of the Knesset, complaining that he had been mistreated and unfairly charged by El Al on his return from a trip to Prague. The man was flying with UP, a subsidiary of El Al, where there are fees for everything imaginable. He arrived at the airport with two suitcases and was told that he would have to pay an overweight fee for one of them. The other suitcase was almost empty, and he asked for a few minutes to transfer some items from one piece of baggage to the other. The employees at the check-in counter insisted that it was too late, since the suitcase had already been weighed, and they quickly removed it from the conveyor belt. Moreover, their overall treatment of the passenger was disgraceful; I witnessed it myself. The disgruntled passenger contacted a chareidi member of the Knesset, although he did not expect that much would come of it. To his surprise, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz responded that El Al would compensate him for his experience with a voucher for $100 to be applied to his next flight. It was still a negligible sum when compared to the abuse he had endured, but at any rate, it was something.

The second case involved a yeshiva bochur who was charged 70 shekels for ordering orange juice and Coca Cola in the lobby of the David Citadel Hotel, which is located across from the Waldorf Astoria, in the neighborhood of Mamilla. In the hotel’s defense, it should be noted that the bochur was told in advance that there would be a minimum charge of 70 shekels for sitting in the lobby. This young man contacted the same Knesset member about the subject, who sent a parliamentary query to Yariv Levin, the Minister of Tourism. Levin responded that his ministry does not have the ability to interfere in a private business, which was a bit of a strange response, but he added that he had contacted the Israel Hotel Association, which had denied knowledge of any such practice. The hotel in question claims that it was an error made by the employee, rather than a fixed policy.

Another parliamentary query concerned the Kavim bus company. One incident reported involved a passenger who disembarked from a bus and removed a suitcase from the baggage compartment beneath the bus, dislodging a second suitcase in the process. Before he could return the other suitcase to its place, the driver closed the compartment and drove off, ignoring the shouts of protest of the owner of the second suitcase. In another case, the driver of a bus traveling from Yerushalayim to Brachfeld refused to pick up passengers waiting at the final stop in Ramot. He stopped the bus for a moment, but ignored the pounding on the door of the passengers waiting to be picked up, as well as the shouts from passengers within the bus, and drove off. The Minister of Transportation admitted that since the beginning of 2016, there have been a large number of incidents in which the drivers of the Kavim company did not stop for passengers waiting at a bus stop. The minister denied that this has to do with the fact that most of the company’s drivers are Arabs, who will take any opportunity to cause difficulties for innocent Israeli passengers. In fact, he was uncertain if the majority of the drivers are indeed Arabs. Regarding the lost suitcase, he related that there were insufficient details to identify the driver who was responsible. As for the driver who did not stop for his passengers, the minister passed on the complaint to the authorities responsible for enforcing the rules.

The moral of these stories is simple: There is good reason to contact a member of the Knesset in situations like these, and there is good reason for the existence of parliamentary queries.

Shabbos in Beit Shemesh

The city of Beit Shemesh is often in the news because of the protests held in its Yerushalmi neighborhood. This week, I spent my first Shabbos in the city. As they say, there is a first time for everything.

There is a certain element of Yerushalayim itself in Beit Shemesh. There are people who are always in good cheer, and there are those who are dejected and morose. The city has the same green, open garbage bins that can be found on the streets of Yerushalayim. But it also has botei medrash filled with prominent talmidei chachomim, and the sounds of children playing echo in the streets even when most of the city is asleep.

I davened in the Heichal Avrohom shul on Rechov Chazon Ish, and I felt as if I was in Ponovezh. It is a huge shul and was filled to capacity, with a congregation that was primarily Litvish. The mara d’asra, Rav Nosson Kopschitz, is a masterful spiritual leader. Between Kabbolas Shabbos and Maariv, he delivered a shiur to a large audience of talmidei chachomim, including one of the sons of Rav Nissim Karelitz. Later in the evening, he came to wish mazel tov at the simcha for which I myself had come to Beit Shemesh. “Rav Nosson is a remarkable and unique person,” one of the local residents commented. “He tries to honor every baal simcha.”

Next to Heichal Avrohom is an enormous shul belonging to Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok. At the beginning of the street is another shul, Nachalat Hachaim, which is home to a thriving Sephardic kehillah. On Motzoei Shabbos, I attended a shiur delivered by Rav Yitzchok Yosef, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, which was transmitted to numerous locations throughout the country. In Beit Shemesh, it was shown on two adjacent screens, with an image of the rov on each. If you consider the fact that several dozen people heard the shiur in Beit Shemesh alone, and that it was seen in dozens of locations around the country, you can certainly imagine that broadcasting the shiur is a tremendous act of zikui harabbim.

The fiery passion of Meah Shearim was also in evidence in Beit Shemesh. A notice posted on a box belonging to the telephone company bore the following announcement in large, black letters: “The entire golah is on fire! Yesterday, the thugs of the army brutally arrested an orphaned chosson, habochur Avrohom Mordechai ben Miriam, two weeks before his wedding, for his refusal to enlist in the army of impurity. Who can imagine the depths of the pain of an orphaned chosson sitting in a military prison cell, while his widowed mother weeps over her son’s absence? On the instructions of our master, the Gaavad, and the Badatz shlit”a, every person is obligated to go out and stage a massive protest to halt this disgrace, and to have him freed completely from the hands of those who thirst for our souls.” The notice was signed by “the Vaad for Rescue from the Danger of the Draft, under the direction of the gedolei Yisroel shlit”a.”

I stood alongside other passersby reading the notice. Only one person murmured, as if to himself, “He wasn’t arrested for refusing to be drafted. He was arrested because he refused to arrange a deferment, the way everyone else does.” He was correct, but let us daven that the young man will soon be released from the clutches of the “thugs of the army of impurity.”

I davened Shacharis at a shul known as Kehal Chassidim Anshei Yerushalayim in the neighborhood of Nachalah Umenuchah. Upon reading the notices on the bulletin board, I realized that I had stumbled on a festive occasion: The rov of the shul, Rav Yitzchok Eizik Kahana, son of the Zidichov-Spinka Rebbe zt”l, was marrying off his son. The kallah is a daughter of the rosh kollel of the Vizhnitzer-Monsey kollel. “Is everyone flying to America for the chasunah in Monsey?” I asked one of the chassidim. He laughed and corrected my error: The Vizhnitzer-Monsey kollel is in Beit Shemesh, not in Monsey.

As in every shul, I managed to find a generous fellow in this shul who was sharing his snuff with the mispallelim. I never found out his name, but I think that he bears mentioning, along with his large, fragrant snuffbox, and, above all, his radiant smile. In addition, I learned that Pesukei Dezimrah in this shul can last over an hour on Shabbos. The shul is worthy of its name, for the mispallelim ranged from Chassidish to Litvish and included Sephardim and Yerushalmim as well. There were even a few men sporting large kippot serugot. I also witnessed a sight that I have never seen before: a young man dressed entirely like a Litvishe bochur, albeit with a kippah serugah peeking out from beneath his narrow-brimmed hat. The four people on the bench in front of me were a study in contrasts: Next to the aisle sat a typical Yerushalmi Jew, with a young man seated beside him wearing a kippah serugah and an untucked shirt. The third occupant of the bench was a young boy with peyos and a Yerushalmi yarmulka who was undoubtedly the son of the man sitting on the aisle, while the window seat was occupied by a Sephardic yungerman. As usual, I couldn’t restrain my curiosity, and when we reached a point in the davening when it was permissible to speak, I leaned forward and asked the young man with the kippah serugah why he couldn’t move over to allow the young boy to sit next to his father. The young man laughed, as did the Yerushalmi seated beside him. “I am also his son,” he told me.

On a bookshelf containing an impressive collection of seforim, I found a copy of a new edition of the sefer Kedushas Levi. I cannot resist quoting the comment inscribed on its binding: “Anyone who lacks the quality of always seeing the good in other Jews, and who does not have the holy middah of constantly praising other Jews, and who does not always view other Jews as being praiseworthy and honorable, and who does not have the sacred quality of always judging the holy nation of Yisroel favorably should know that that he will never be fortunate enough in all his life to enter the gates of avodas Hashem!”