Thursday, May 30, 2024

My Take on the News

The Tables Have Turned

Last Tuesday, I listened to President Trump’s speech, and I found myself thinking that even Menachem Begin couldn’t have spoken better. Trump was furious; he called Iran a disaster for the world, and he announced the imposition of high-level sanctions. He even accused Iran of being a “regime of terror,” and he denounced Obama’s nuclear deal as a sham.

The tables have certainly turned. We all remember the image of Barack Obama propping his feet up on his desk contemptuously as he spoke with Binyomin Netanyahu. Obama was a president who was hostile to Israel, and we are better off now that he is gone. At the same time, we live in fear of what is to come. Iran is unpredictable, to say the least. What will Trump do if the Middle East ignites now? The hearts of kings and princes are in the Hands of Hashem.

In his speech, Trump proclaimed that it has been proven that the nuclear deal was catastrophic and built on falsehood. Iran is a country that supports terror and is run by liars, and the agreement has not halted its support of terror. He declared that America is united with Israel in its understanding of the threat, and that Iran is the principal sponsor of terrorism throughout the world. And then came the wonderful ending: “G-d bless you and thank you.” If only the politicians in Yerushalayim would learn to acknowledge G-d in their speeches…

Here in Israel, certain politicians took this opportunity to bash Netanyahu, accusing him of endangering the lives of the country’s citizens for the sake of political gain. Chief among them, of course, was Yair Lapid. His reactions are becoming so bizarre and detached from reality that he is constantly harming his image.


Opening the Bomb Shelters

There is no doubt about it: The winds of war are blowing. There is already widespread fear. According to the radio news, the owners of hotels and vacation homes in the north have reported that their occupancy rates dropped from 70 percent last week to zero – absolutely no guests – as of today. My point is not to illustrate the financial damage suffered by residents of the north, but to give you an idea of the panic that has gripped the general populace. The residents of Israel are indeed afraid of a possible Iranian strike.

Indeed, the immediate reaction to Trump’s speech was fear – fear of what is to come. In addition to the speech itself, there is the fact that the Home Front Command ordered the citizens to clean out their bomb shelters and to prepare them for use. In general, the bomb shelters in this country have come to be used as storage rooms, and many of them become filled with mold and dirt. Now we have suddenly been asked to clean out the rooms and to prepare them to house people. That is something that happens when there is a war. Clearly, then, the country’s intelligence apparatus has reason to believe that a war may be imminent, and that it may involve missiles and unconventional weapons. That is certainly frightening. A spokesman for the IDF even revealed that the army knew that Iran was plotting revenge. The very next day, missiles were fired at Israel.

I find the boastful reactions of our heads of state to be no less frightening than the hostility of our enemies. Last weekend, Defense Minister Lieberman announced, “The Iranians tried to attack an area in Israel, but not a single missile struck the State of Israel. Some of the missiles landed in Russia, and some of them were neutralized by the Iron Dome. We have attacked all of the Iranian infrastructure in Syria.” Lieberman then proceeded to brag, “If it rains [missiles] here, then there will be a flood there.” What is the point of this boasting? Why should we antagonize the nations of the world? What is there to be gained from it?


Elor Azaria Returns Home

Elor Azaria was freed from prison nine months after he began serving his sentence in Prison Four for killing a wounded terrorist. Azaria’s discharge was moved up by one day on account of his brother’s wedding. Azaria’s home in Ramle was the scene of a massive celebration.

Meanwhile, the transfer of the American embassy to Yerushalayim is now behind us, after occupying much of our attention during the past week. There were some tensions over who received invitations to the opening ceremony. The embassy apologized to those who were left out, explaining that there simply wasn’t enough room for everyone. In truth, the entire embassy hasn’t exactly been transferred. For the time being, only a few offices have moved to Yerushalayim. Nevertheless, there is a widespread feeling that a historic event has taken place.

Another important development this week was the state comptroller’s report. The current state comptroller is a retired judge by the name of Yosef Chaim Shapira. The comptroller examines the functioning of the various ministries of the government and publishes his findings. He may also order the government to open a criminal investigation if he believes that it is necessary. In his most recent report, the comptroller identified a number of deficiencies in the government’s conduct, including insufficient efforts to regulate the use of electric bicycles (as evidenced by the fact that five people have died while riding electric bicycles since the beginning of the year), insufficient efforts to combat smoking, and a failure to address the problem of African infiltrators. The latter, as we know, is an issue that the prime minister himself has been trying to address, but the Supreme Court has torpedoed the government’s decisions. The comptroller also found that government ministers have been using public funds to advertise projects associated with their ministries in an effort to boost their own public images, and that the government has failed to deliver on its promises to settlements located in areas prone to military confrontations. In addition, the comptroller criticized a number of city rabbonim for spending an inordinate number of days out of the country.


Questioning the Criticism

I would like to share a few thoughts of my own regarding the state comptroller’s report. Now, I will admit that I am not an expert in this field; perhaps I should not have the gumption to question Justice Yosef Chaim Shapira. Nevertheless, Shapira has dedicated a large portion of his current report to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and to issues such as the fact that many rabbonim have traveled out of the country without reporting their absences. On that subject, I have a couple of things to say.

Here is his criticism of the system for the appointment of rabbonim: “The office of Minister Dovid Azulai did not work in accordance with the instructions issued by the deputy attorney general in May 2015 to act without delay in order to reinstate the election process for city rabbonim in areas where there is no municipal rov currently serving, as well as areas where the tenure of a municipal rov is about to conclude. The ministry did not map out the settlements that do not possess municipal rabbonim, and it did not formulate a working plan for the selection of rabbonim. Until October 2017, the minister published notices of the need to select new municipal rabbonim only in 15 out of the 26 councils where a rov is not serving. The notices that were published were also sometimes released several months or years after the time that the position became vacant. Furthermore, the minister appointed electoral committees to select a new municipal rov in only seven local councils, and only four of those committees reached the point of actually choosing shuls whose representatives would be members of the selection committee.”

There is a simple reason that I find this criticism hard to accept: The Minister of Religious Affairs has more of a vested interest in appointing municipal rabbonim than anyone else in the country. Those appointments are the basis on which he is judged by the chareidi public. If he left rabbinic positions vacant in various communities, that is clearly a sign that he was hampered by forces beyond his control. I have no doubt that Azulai himself was distressed by the situation. Thus, something does not seem right about the fact that the comptroller found fault with him.

Here is another item from the comptroller’s report: “According to a letter written by the mayor of Haifa, Mr. Yonah Yahav, to the Minister of Religious Affairs, MK Dovid Azulai [which is, incidentally, an incorrect title, since Azulai resigned from the Knesset and maintained only his ministerial title] in May 2016, Minister of the Interior Aryeh Deri (referred to hereinafter as the Interior Minister) conferred with him about appointing Nissim Dahan as the head of the religious council. The proposed candidate served in the past as a government minister on behalf of the Shas party, the party of the Interior Minister himself. Thus, the Interior Minister nominated a candidate for the position who was his own close political ally. This can be viewed as misconduct, especially in light of Minister Deri’s position as the Minister of the Interior, which gives him jurisdiction over the local authorities and equips him with decisive influence over their budgets and other major decisions that affect them. In light of the above, there is a concern that this may have been an effort to exploit his position as a minister with wide-ranging authority, which affects the municipality of Haifa and its mayor, and may have created the possibility of the use of improper pressure, whether overt or merely implied. It should be noted that the appointment ultimately did not come to pass.”

Here, too, I find the comptroller’s criticism to be out of place. If Deri’s recommendation was not accepted and the position was not awarded to Dahan, then it would seem that his influence as a government minister did not have much effect, after all. Furthermore, why should it be forbidden for a minister to recommend a candidate for a position if he believes that the individual in question is suited to the post? Isn’t it only natural that anyone making a recommendation is bound to be familiar with the person he is recommending? Why is it so strange that Aryeh Deri was personally acquainted with Nissim Dahan? Regardless of his recommendation, Yahav had the ability to weigh the recommendation and to decide whether to accept it.

On another note, I should mention that Dahan is remembered as the best Minister of Health in the history of the State of Israel.


How I Met Rabbi Moshe Sherer zt”l

Hakoras hatov is the reason that I wrote about Reb Moshe Reich and Mendy Kein last week, and this week I will add a few lines about each of them. In addition, I share a few words about Rabbi Moshe Sherer zt”l, whose twentieth yahrtzeit recently passed.

I first met Rabbi Sherer when I was about 16 or 17 years old, which was quite a long time ago. I was a bochur at the time, and I was staying with my parents in the Galei Sanz hotel in Netanya. I believe that was the only time until my marriage that I stayed in a hotel; indeed, my parents themselves never went away on vacation either.

Rabbi Sherer and his wife happened to sit beside us in the hotel’s dining room. My father was a well-known person. He was the rov of a town in Eretz Yisroel, the founder of a seminary for Sephardic girls, a former talmid in Yeshivas Ner Yisroel, and the son of Rav Binyomin Zev Yaakovson, who was one of the founders of Agudas Yisroel. My grandfather, Rav Binyomin Zev, was a talmid and close confidant of Rav Yaakov Rosenheim, was one of the leaders of Keren HaTorah and the Vaad Hatzolah, and served as the rov of the Machzikei Hadas community in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was only to be expected that my father and Rabbi Sherer would begin talking, and as their conversation continued, they decided to push our tables together. Toward the end of the meal, Rabbi Sherer said to my father, “That young man [referring to me] is going to be a politician. Not just any politician,” he added, “but a very talented and successful one.” My father’s expression evidently showed that he did not particularly appreciate the prediction, so Rabbi Sherer added, “If you agree, I will be willing to hire him as my assistant in the Agudah in America.”

That was my first encounter with that wonderful man.


The Am Echad Delegation

I did not become Rabbi Sherer’s aide. Instead, I remained in Yerushalayim. Many years later, though, I did serve as his assistant for about a week.

He came to Eretz Yisroel 22 years ago as leader of an Am Echad delegation. On that visit, he made history. The delegation consisted entirely of members of the Agudah. The visitors met with the gedolim of Eretz Yisroel, as well as with the country’s political leaders, including the president and the prime minister. I was placed in the position of organizing their meetings with those political figures; that was a task that was given to me by Rabbi Sherer. Not many people understood why he had chosen me, but after the fact, I believe that everyone agreed that the delegation’s visit was eminently successful.

In February 1989, I was an aide to a young minister who was a rising star in the State of Israel. In that capacity, I accompanied that minister – whose name was Aryeh Deri – on a visit to America. We traveled to Lakewood, and we visited Ateret Torah and the home of Rav Avrohom Pam. Deri met with Ed Koch and with Moshe Reichman. It was a short visit, but it was packed with activity. I made certain that we paid a visit to Rabbi Sherer as well. We sat together for a long time and enjoyed every moment of it.

I interviewed Rabbi Sherer several times in several different venues; our last interview took place immediately before his passing. When I arrived at his doorstep in Boro Park, I knocked on the door and his wife informed me over the intercom that her husband could not have visitors. She added that his immune system was very low and that it was dangerous for him to come in contact with other people. I told her that I had come from Eretz Yisroel, and she said that he looked unwell, and he did not want others to see him in that condition. “Just tell him that my name is Tzvi Yaakovson,” I replied. I was ushered inside.


Settling His Bill

I could tell many stories about Rabbi Sherer, but my space here is limited. Let us return to the Am Echad visit. Rabbi Sherer collapsed during our visit to the Belzer Rebbe, but he insisted on accompanying the delegation to meet Rav Ovadiah Yosef. After that visit, he asked someone to take him to a hospital so that he could have a blood test. At that point, I took matters into my own hands and said, “Reb Moshe, do you really want to wait in an emergency room for seven hours in order to have a simple blood test?”

“What choice do I have?” he asked.

“Come with me,” I said. “I will take you to Terem, and I will see to it that the test is done within five minutes.”

He agreed to come in my car. We were accompanied by another passenger, although I do not remember who it was. When we arrived at the Terem urgent care center, I explained the purpose of my visit – and the identity of the patient – to the director. Indeed, the blood test was completed within a matter of minutes. But when the doctor came to share the results with us, I could tell that the situation was bad. He ordered Rabbi Sherer to check in to a hospital immediately. Rabbi Sherer told the doctor that he would be hospitalized only in the United States, and that since he would be delaying his admission, he wanted to stop in Switzerland on his way back to America in order to attend a convention dealing with the recovery of stolen Jewish property. The doctor was shocked by the idea. “No detours to Switzerland!” he exclaimed. “Pack your suitcase and go to the airport now!” And so he did.

The next time I met Rabbi Sherer was our final meeting, when he was on his sickbed. At that time, he thanked me for the precious hours that I had spared him by taking him to Terem. Then he asked, “Wasn’t there a charge for the blood test?”

I laughed. “Is that really what you are worried about?”

Rabbi Sherer replied, “All my life, I have tried to never accept gifts. Should I give up that practice now that I am about to leave the world?” He insisted on repaying me for the cost of his blood test

Rabbi Sherer was the only person who could fill the shoes of Reb Elimelech Tress as a faithful servant to Hashem and His Torah, who fought for the sake of Yiddishkeit and followed the directives of the gedolei Yisroel without question.


A Trip to Meron

Now for a few words about Reb Moshe Reich. I wrote a tribute to him last week, but I would like to add to it.

There is a well-known aphorism that in order to evaluate a person, one should examine what others say about him. Since Reb Moshe’s passing, I have met many people who have spoken very highly of him. One of those people is a man who used to work as Reb Moshe’s driver. “In retrospect,” he told me, “I am certain that he hired me in order to give me tzedakah without embarrassing me.”

When I left the shivah home after visiting the family, I was approached by a Sephardic yungerman. “Are you thinking of writing about Moshe?” he asked me. I confirmed that I was.

“In that case,” he said, “let me tell you a story that took place last year. Moshe came out of his home one day and saw that I was wearing Shabbos clothes. He asked me what the occasion was, and I told him that I was waiting for someone who would be traveling with me to Meron. He grew excited and said, ‘Wait a minute. Do me a favor.’ I was already familiar with his ‘favors.’ If I was traveling to Bnei Brak, he would ask me to bring an envelope to someone in Rishon Letzion… Nevertheless, who could turn him down? In this case, though, it was different. Moshe handed me 200 shekels and said, ‘I want to be a partner in your mitzvah. This is for the gas.’ I was flabbergasted. He even went so far as to claim that it was a favor for him, rather than for me. And do you know what? I really needed those 200 shekels…”

Ehud Olmert, one of the thousands who were enamored with Moshe Reich, shared a fascinating story with me: Moshe’s business, which employs dozens of chareidi women, received the official status of an “approved manufacturer.” At a certain point, the business was suspected of failing to meet the criteria for entitlement to the benefits it had received, and Moshe was ordered to repay the entire sum at once. In desperation, he contacted one of his assistants, Oved Yechezkel. Yechezkel managed to convince the managers of the Industrial Development Bank to delay taking action against the business on the condition that Moshe would immediately pay the sum of one million shekels. Moshe did as they demanded, and then he sent an e-mail to Yechezkel, notifying him that the million shekels had been deposited. “Aryeh can confirm that,” he added.

Upon reading this e-mail, the police investigators clapped with glee. “They inferred that I had received a bribe of one million shekels from Moshe, that Oved Yechezkel was the middleman, and that Aryeh Deri could confirm it,” Olmert related, adding that the police had pursued him like predators stalking their prey. Moshe was summoned to the National Fraud Investigations Unit, a building that he knew well; the investigators still resented him for the aid he had extended to Aryeh Deri in earlier years. The police presented their accusations to him, and after Reich had recovered from his shock at their complete misreading of the situation, he asked for permission to call his brother Ephraim in their presence. The police agreed, and Moshe instructed Ephraim to bring the file concerning his dealings with the Investment Center to the building where he was being questioned.

Ephraim Reich arrived, and the police soon learned the true story: Moshe Reich had deposited the sum of one million shekels in the Industrial Development Bank. “Aryeh” was the name of one of the employees in the bank’s legal department, who had issued a handwritten confirmation of the deposit. Moshe had then reported to Yechezkel that the deposit had been made and had asked him to keep him updated on his progress. There was no connection to Aryeh Deri or to a bribe of any sort.

Last Wednesday, hespeidim l’illui nishmas Reb Moshe were delivered in Har Nof. The speakers included Rav Elimelech Biderman, Rav Yitzchok Yosef, Aryeh Deri, and Bentzion Reich. The stories that were told were simply unbelievable. His businesses existed in a gray area between business and philanthropy. Moshe sought to perform chesed no less than he attempted to earn a profit. Hundreds of families were able to extricate themselves from debt as a result of his kindness. At times, he hired employees even without having a need for their services.

Over the past week, I have heard many stories about Moshe, and the more I hear about him, the greater has been the pain that I have felt at his absence.


Mendy and the Mortgages

Last week, I wrote about Mendy Klein, as well. Since that time, I had the opportunity to visit his family at his home in Yerushalayim and to hear many more incredible stories about him. Mendy was a tzaddik nistar; his greatness has begun to be revealed only now. Even the people who were closest to him knew only the things that were relevant to them. His levayah was attended by a large number of roshei yeshivos, admorim, and directors of various institutions, and it quickly became clear that they had all benefited from Mendy’s generous donations.

I had the good fortune of being personally acquainted with this remarkable man. Our first meeting, arranged by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, publisher of this newspaper, as I related last week, was at Kever Rochel. Mendy was wary of me at first, since he tended to avoid media exposure, but he eventually warmed up to me, and I felt that he even became fond of me. Last Monday, I paid a visit to his mourning family in Yerushalayim. The shivah house was visited by many admorim and roshei yeshivos. Rav Don Segal sat for a long time with Mendy’s sons, Yonah and Nati, and with his sons-in-law, Shmuli Halperin and Amir Jaffe. Mendy once said modestly, “If I become a baal middos like my son-in-law Amir, I will know that I have perfected myself.” I saw his children and grandchildren, and I remembered that Mendy once told me, “I have four children and fourteen grandchildren, and they are all bnei Torah!”

I also saw Mendy’s good friend, Reuven Dessler, at the shivah. “I am here to comfort you as well,” I said to him. “You have lost your other half.” Rabbi Dessler’s eyes reflected his sorrow.

During my visit, I heard an amazing story. When Mendy became wealthy, he decided to tear down his house, which was very small, and to build a new home in the same location. Mendy was told by real estate experts that it would be less costly for him to purchase an empty plot of land in a more expensive area and to build a new house there, but Mendy insisted on following his own plan. Eventually, he revealed his reason: “I wanted to make sure that I will always remember that I was once poor, so that I will understand the people who come to ask me for tzedakah.” For that purpose, Mendy wanted to live in the same location where he had resided during his poorer days, where he would always be reminded of his feelings at that time.

Then there was another story: Mendy’s business expanded into several areas, one of which was dealing with foreclosures. Even a slight delay in paying a monthly mortgage can cause the bank to repossess one’s car and even one’s home. Mendy’s lawyers once commented that they had noticed an interesting phenomenon: Among all the people who were evicted from their homes in the foreclosures handled by his company, hardly any were even Jewish, not to mention religious. What they did not know was that when Mendy became aware of a Jewish person who was about to lose his home, he would settle the person’s debt out of his own pocket and would help him continue to pay his mortgage. Sometimes, Mendy’s beneficiaries themselves weren’t even aware of his intervention, as he would handle the matter directly with the bank. That was Mendy Klein – a paragon of chesed and compassion who performed many of his acts of righteousness in complete secrecy.

Here is one more incredible story: Several years ago, one of Mendy’s senior employees approached him in a panic. He revealed that he had examined the company’s books and had discovered that Mendy’s donations to tzedakah that year had come out to 90 percent of the company’s profits. “You must stop now,” the employee insisted, “or else you will end up giving more than we earn.”

Mendy replied, “You have drawn the wrong conclusion. Instead of giving less, we should try to earn more.”


“Where Are You?”

One last thought in honor of Mattan Torah. Outside a bais medrash in Givat Shaul, I recently overheard an exchange between two yungeleit. One of them asked the other, “Where are you?” I was certain that he was asking the other man which kollel he was learning in, but the response was not at all what I expected: “In the middle of teven v’afar.” As it turns out, the two yungeleit were in the midst of learning Maseches Sukkah, and the other man was identifying the sugya that he was in the process of learning.

There is a lesson to be derived even from this simple exchange between two people who spend their lives immersed in Torah learning. The answer to the question “Where are you?” has nothing to do with a physical location. Instead, the “place” where a person truly exists is the sugya that he is learning.



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