Rebbi, Save Me!

It was Motzoei Shabbos, the seventh night of Chanukah. At the Nof Hall between Shaarei Tzedek Hospital and the neighborhood of Bayit Vegan, a series of buses, vans and private cars were discharging hundreds of boys, still dressed in their Shabbos finery, in front of the hall. The children’s faces were aglow, and all of them proudly wore labels bearing the name of the Mifal Torah Vodaas organization.

The children were all students at the dozens of branches of this organization, which are located throughout Yerushalayim and the surrounding areas. Every branch offers, in essence, an afternoon club where the children learn Chumash and Mishnayos, participate in competitions that test their knowledge and offer prizes, and feel a connection to this large operation, which has been in existence for over 40 years. From car after car, throngs of excited children alighted outside the hall. They came from Kiryat Yovel, Tamon, Mevaseret Tzion, Telz Stone, Shmuel Hanovi, and many other neighborhoods.

The hall was decorated beautifully in their honor, and music was provided by a large orchestra accompanied by singer Meydad Tasa. The children were also treated to special gifts, an artistic performance, and, most important of all, a brachah from the gedolei Yisroel. The arriving boys and their parents begin to fill the hall and take their seats.

According to the original plan, one of the special guests at the event was supposed to be Naor, a 13-year-old boy from Pisgat Zeev. On October 12 of this year, Naor was suddenly thrust into the headlines when he, along with a 25-year-old man from the neighborhood, was stabbed by two Arab youths.

Jews across the country davened for Naor Shalev ben Rus throughout the extraordinary process of his recovery. Naor was initially taken to the hospital unconscious and in critical condition. The circumstances of the attack were tragic indeed: All he had wanted to do was purchase some candies at the local grocery store, but when he left the store and mounted his bicycle, he was stabbed in his upper body by a terrorist who was himself only 13-and-a-half years old. Naor remained unconscious for a week, until he suddenly regained consciousness and miraculously began breathing on his own. Two weeks after the attack, Professor Ahmed Eid, the Arab doctor who treated Naor at Hadassah Har Hatzofim, told reporters, “He arrived in the hospital 14 days ago in critical condition, with no blood pressure and a very slow pulse, but he will probably be released soon.” The doctor described the process of Naor’s recovery in great detail, leading to a single, inescapable conclusion: It was nothing short of a miracle.

After he was stabbed on the street in Pisgat Zeev, Naor collapsed. Minutes before he lost consciousness, he saw a chareidi avreich standing over him and recognized the man as his counselor from Mifal Torah Vodaas. How was it that the counselor arrived at the spot at that precise moment? The only conceivable explanation is that it was Hashgachah Protis. Naor collapsed in the man’s arms while shouting, “Rebbi, save me!”

That same counselor is now helping Naor prepare for his bar mitzvah. Mifal Torah Vodaas is planning to hold a massive thanksgiving celebration in Pisgat Zeev. Although Naor was supposed to be a guest of honor at the event on Motzoei Shabbos, he decided for various reasons to refrain from attending. Nevertheless, his cry of “Rebbi, save me!” continues to reverberate in the ears of the counselors of Mifal Torah Vodaas in every one of the organization’s branches.

• • • • •

At the Chanukah event, the guests of honor were Rav Yitzchok Yosef, Sefardic chief rabbi of Israel; the Zhviller Rebbe; the Stropkover Rebbe; and Rav Binyomin Finkel, who is commonly known as “Rav Binyomin Hatzaddik.” All of them came to show their respect and admiration for the founders of this great enterprise and for the avreichim who spend almost every evening working on its behalf – and, of course, for the thousands of boys and parents in attendance. Another honored guest was Rav Elimelech Belsky, son of Rav Yisroel Belsky, rosh yeshivas of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas.

The diversity of the guests itself says something about the organization, which is free of political agendas, is not funded by the government, and is involved solely in the holy work of spreading Torah and kedushah. That is why Mifal Torah Vodaas enjoys universal admiration. It works toward a single goal – bringing Jewish children closer to their Father in Heaven and doing everything possible to ensure that they receive a Torah education.

Rav Binyomin Finkel’s address focused on the subject of Shabbos observance, since the halachos of Shabbos are currently being learned in the various branches of the organization. “Only a person who observes Shabbos can feel the true delight of keeping Shabbos,” he told the parents and children at the event, some of whom do not consider themselves religious. “This organization has a wonderful quality,” he added, “in that it reaches out to the parents through their children.”

The Stropkover Rebbe, who spoke in Hebrew, related that he has been familiar with the organization for 45 years, and that he is well aware of the staff’s dedication to the children, most of whom are Sefardic. “The administration and the teachers make great sacrifices for these children,” he asserted, revealing that he was deeply moved by the organization’s impact, which was manifest in the hall filled with hundreds of guests.

• • • • •

Rabbi Yaakov Hager, the Israeli director of Mifal Torah Vodaas, agreed to share some information with me about the organization. Rabbi Hager has worked for similar programs in the past, dealing with chinuch and particularly with youths at risk, and when the position at the helm of Mifal Torah Vodaas was offered to him, he did not think twice. His vast experience had led him to the conclusion that success is guaranteed when one begins working with children from a young age. From his standpoint, his work was part of a sacred mission.

“My experience showed that working with youths who are slightly older, especially from Sefardic communities, can be extremely difficult,” he related. “It was clear to me that we need to run programs for them when they are younger, as children, before the yeitzer hara begins to control them.”

Rabbi Hager began working for Mifal Torah Vodaas slightly more than three years ago, and in the short time he has been with it, the organization has grown and thrived. All of its work is overseen and directed by gedolei Yisroel, led by Rav Yitzchok Scheiner, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Kamenitz.

Rabbi Hager related, “This organization was originally founded 45 years ago by Rav Binyomin Wilhelm zt”l, the founder of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, who moved to Eretz Yisroel at the end of his life. Even at his advanced age, he did not rest on his laurels, and when he perceived the difficulties facing the youths of Israel’s Sefardic communities, he decided to establish this organization. At the time, Rav Wilhelm coordinated his efforts with Rav Yitzchok Scheiner, who has remained with us to this day.”

The gedolei Yisroel taught the organization’s members that the proper way to perform kiruv is through teaching and learning Torah. “Our slogan, ‘Kiruv Through Education,’ says it all,” Rav Hager declared. “The idea is not to approach people with lectures and scientific evidence of the existence of Hashem, but rather to educate them and teach them Torah in a unique way, so that they will find it appealing and enjoyable. The goal is for people to understand that Yiddishkeit isn’t merely what we do. It is who we are.”

• • • • •

The thousands of boys who attend the programs of Mifal Torah Vodaas range in age from approximately eight years old (the age of fourth graders in the Israeli school system) to the age of bar mitzvah. The vast majority of the boys come to the programs at the end of the school day in their chiloni schools. In order to achieve the best possible results, and in order for each child to find his place, the director of the organization came up with an innovative idea: The boys are divided into groups not only based on their ages, but also based on their levels of religious observance. Another unique initiative of the organization is its bar mitzvah preparation course.

“Our goal,” Rabbi Hager relates, “is to be mekarev all the boys, both those who are already somewhat religious and those who are far removed from Yiddishkeit. In kiruv rechokim, our goal is for them to transfer to religious schools. In kiruv kerovim, the goal is to help them advance, both in their studies and in their observance, so that they can move on to even higher level institutions.”

Did Rav Scheiner give you specific guidance in the area of chinuch?

“First of all, most of our activities and almost everything that I have described to you were his ideas. Another guideline that he gave us was to work with the boys’ parents as well. Rav Scheiner has a very clear stance on this subject: If we aren’t mekarev the parents, then everything we invest in their children will be in danger of going to waste.”

Of course, that approach required a much greater investment of resources, but Mifal Torah Vodaas now runs a program geared for parents as well. Its outreach to the parents is coordinated with other kiruv organizations, and even more so with the rabbonim and with other kiruv activists in each neighborhood.

How do you reach the children?

“Through every means possible, including technological means. We use every part of the media to publicize our activities.”

Once, this was a much easier task. Rabbi Hager has met many times with the directors of the organization from its early years, Rav Yehuda Porush of Yerushalayim and Rav Shlomo Hershkowitz of England. “Forty years ago,” he relates, “the challenge was gathering children off the streets and finding ways to keep them interested in staying in each branch. Today, it is much more difficult. Our branches are locked in a daily battle against all of modern technology. It is very difficult to disconnect a child from his addiction to these devices and to convince him to sit with us and learn Mishnayos.”

Then what does convince the boys to stay?

“Of course, we offer prizes, incentives, trips and gifts, but those things aren’t the main motivating factor. The real reason these boys come to us is that they receive something from us that they will never get in the streets: a warm, caring relationship and a sense of family and belonging. It isn’t only the counselors who know each child. The administration and even some of the donors are also familiar with them. And the boys have very sharp, refined senses. They feel the love and caring that our staff exudes. That is what causes them to stay and to disconnect themselves from their devices, despite the tremendous difficulty involved in doing so. They feel that it is ‘worthwhile’ for them to do so in order to benefit from our warmth. That is the secret of our success.”

• • • • •

Without question, the high point of the night – at least from the standpoint of most of the traditional parents in the audience – was the appearance of the Rishon Letzion, Rav Yitzchok Yosef. Rav Yitzchok knows exactly how to address these parents. He had an excellent role model in that respect: his illustrious father, Rav Ovadiah Yosef zt”l, who spent seventy years making the trek to all the neighborhoods on the periphery of the country, all the areas where the youths were in spiritual straits, in order to reach out to the masses and strengthen their commitment to Yiddishkeit. One of the causes that Rav Ovadiah Yosef promoted heavily – in fact, perhaps the one cause to which he dedicated himself more than any other – was the effort to convince parents to register their children in religious schools.

Rav Ovadiah Yosef once told me that at a certain time, a number of religious individuals who were connected to the government threatened that he would be fired from his position as a dayan on the government bais din if he continued working to promote enrollment in religious schools. This was no trifling threat. That position was the source of Rav Ovadiah’s livelihood, as meager as it was. Of course, he did not desist from his efforts. Rav Shlomo Lorintz similarly relates in his memoirs that he was once traveling by bus with Rav Ovadiah on the way back from an event where they had been working to recruit more students for Chinuch Atzmai schools, when he turned to Rav Ovadiah and asked, “Aren’t you afraid that they will take action against you for this?”

Rav Ovadiah replied, “And if I am afraid, then what?”

Rav Yitzchok Yosef began his address by praising the administration of Mifal Torah Vodaas for their positive influence on the public. This, too, mirrored his father’s actions. Forty years ago, Rav Ovadiah was often called upon to speak to groups of parents such as this one. Now, his son, the chief rabbi of the country today, greeted the parents and added a special greeting to the “lovable children” in the audience. “You are fortunate to be involved in learning Torah,” he declared. “There is nothing more important to the Jewish people than the holy Torah.”

Rav Yitzchok drew a connection between the organization and the battle of the Maccabim. “Do you know what the Greeks wanted to do? They wanted to cause the Torah to be forgotten. They wanted the Jews to be like any other people. They didn’t want the Jewish nation to exist, to be the people who were chosen from among all the nations. But the Maccabim fought and they restored the glory of the crown.”

Rav Yitzchok shares his father’s rhetorical style. He uses simple words and speaks from the heart, in a manner that touches the Jewish soul – or, perhaps more accurately, the Sefardic soul. “The Torah gives the Jewish nation its uniqueness. Boruch Hashem, Torah study is growing everywhere. But you should know, children, that not everyone is fortunate enough to learn Torah. There are some places where there are unfortunate people who do not have the privilege of learning Torah. You are fortunate to have that opportunity.”

Rav Yitzchok then addressed the parents. “I am turning now to the parents who understand the value of a Torah education and Torah study,” he said. “I ask you to please send your children to Torah lessons at night as much as possible. Our Torah is what saves and protects us. The Jewish people have so many troubles – so many people are ill, and we hear about more terror attacks every day. Only the holy Torah will save us. We must pray and keep the mitzvos, but, above all, we must learn Torah. Torah study is like the ark of Noach during the generation of the Mabul. Outside, the yeitzer hara has created a flood. There are many temptations outside, and you, the parents, are charged with sending your children to learn Torah.”

Rav Yitzchok then concluded his address: “The world stands on three things, and the first is Torah. For that reason, I am appealing to you, the parents, and I assure you that if your child sits and learns Torah – Gemara, Mishnayos, or Chumash – he will be happy, and you will also be happy. There is no greater pleasure than learning Torah. It will bring you joy in this world and in the next. I beg of you: Send your children to places where they will learn Torah. Ask your rabbonim and counselors to direct you to the best places. And may you have much nachas and joy from them, and escort them to the chupah and a life of good deeds and health.”

Rav Yitzchok is well-acquainted with the organization, a fact that enabled him to deliver a speech that was completely on target. “That is indeed our goal,” Rabbi Yaakov Hager confirmed in his conversation with me. “Our objective is to bring these boys into Torah schools and to give them the tools they will need. Sometimes, we continue helping a boy succeed once he has entered a Torani school or a talmud Torah.”

Mifal Torah Vodaas currently operates 30 branches throughout Yerushalayim and the surrounding area, including branches in Givat Zeev, Maaleh Adumim, Pisgat Zeev, and Mevaseret. The organization’s branches are attended by almost 1,000 boys. Its programs take place after the school hours of public and state religious schools. Some of the branches were opened in response to requests from parents; in other areas, they faced opposition. At least one branch, if not more, will soon be opening in Beit Shemesh. Requests have already come in from even more distant locations both in the south (in Be’er Sheva and Ashkelon) and in the north (in Teveria), and the organization will soon have to decide whether it will become a countrywide operation. In any event, the number of students is expected to double in the coming year.

Who are the counselors?

“They are all selected individually,” Rav Hager replies. “They are young avreichim who possess both educational aptitude and, in general, significant experience. But above all, they are characterized by their interest in helping children and assisting their progress.”

What schools do the students go on to attend?

“Our students are divided into three groups. We try to send the chilonim to religious schools, and the more traditional or Conservative students to chareidi schools. There is a third group, which includes boys who are chareidi in appearance but have a very weak base of knowledge and hashkafah. These are boys who are liable to find themselves on the fringes of chareidi society within a few years, but because of our activities, they go on to learn in yeshivos and become integrated in the Torah world.”

Following the evening’s performance, which also bespoke a great investment of effort, Rabbi Hager drew the audience’s attention back to the most important point. “You, as parents, have been fortunate to be able to give your children something that you yourselves never had: the opportunity to learn Torah,” he declared. He urged the parents to attend shiurim as well, to encourage their sons to attend the local branches of Mifal Torah Vodaas, and to ensure that any younger children at home will attend the shiurim and activities of the organization when they come of age.

The stirring event came to an end late at night with kabbolas ol malchus Shomayim. The cries of “Shema Yisroel” echoed in the Yerushalayim air on a night when the temperature outside may have been cold, but the passion created by Mifal Torah Vodaas filled it with a blazing warmth.