Like everything the Shuvu organization does, the visit of its delegation to the Knesset was carefully planned and organized down to the last details, in an impressively professional fashion. At exactly 4:00 in the afternoon, at the beginning of the debates in the Knesset plenum, the delegation entered the VIP gallery of the Knesset. As they entered, the Speaker of the Knesset, Yoel (Yuli) Edelstein, arrived to begin the session. Edelstein invited the first speaker, Erel Margalit of the Zionist Camp, to present the weekly motion of no confidence in the government. The motion accused Prime Minister Netanyahu of “abandoning the capital of Israel and its residents, and handing out money to the members of the coalition.”
“Handing out money”? Indeed, this time, the chareidim were among the parties deciding where the government funds would be channeled. It is for that purpose that they are in the government and the coalition. One of the organizations receiving those government funds is Shuvu. Other recipients include the Chinuch Atzmai system, the country’s kollelim, and working chareidi women. Funding has also been allocated for American students learning in Eretz Yisroel. In a word, everything that Yair Lapid and his cronies stole from us has now been returned. It isn’t much, but it is something. Our guests would soon hear more on this subject from Aryeh Deri and Moshe Gafni.
MK Margalit concluded his address, and Edelstein invited the government representative, Minister Ze’ev Elkin, another of Shuvu’s friends in the Knesset, to respond. The response was followed by a debate among dozens of Knesset members, which was followed, in turn, by a vote on the motion. As usual, the government won by a single vote. Between Margalit’s speech and Elkin’s response, though, the Speaker of the Knesset looked at the VIP gallery and greeted the visitors from Shuvu.
“I am honored to invite the Minister of Yerushalayim Affairs and Heritage, MK Ze’ev Elkin, to respond,” he said. “In the meantime, I extend my greetings to the large group of friends of the Shuvu school network who are here with us in the visitors’ gallery. Welcome to the Knesset and thank you for all of the work you do with our youth.”
Edelstein, in fact, had been informed in advance of their arrival. As I said, when the leaders of Shuvu, Rabbi Yosef Hoch of America and Rabbi Chaim Michoel Gutterman of Yerushalayim, organize a trip to Israel, they pay attention to all the details. But let us not get ahead of ourselves.
Ambassador Michael Oren Greets the Visitors
At 1:30, exactly on schedule, the bus carrying the Shuvu delegation drove up Givat Ram. The first gate opened before them, followed by the second. In a break from the usual procedures, the bus was admitted into the Knesset complex and the passengers were allowed to disembark at the inside entrance. This saved the guests a good deal of time and spared them from the rigorous inspection at the entrance to the Knesset. There was a short delay before the bus was admitted. Its passengers were unaware of the fact that the Knesset guard dogs spent this time diligently sniffing the bus on every side. They arrived at the Knesset after spending a few meaningful hours in the city of Lod, where one of the Shuvu network’s schools is located.
Three days packed with activity awaited our guests from America, including a visit to a Shuvu school in Petach Tikvah, a visit to the homes of the gedolei Yisroel in Bnei Brak, a bar mitzvah of 60 Shuvu students and the distribution of tefillin to youths alongside Rav Shlomo Moshe Amar, the Sefardic chief rabbi of Yerushalayim. The visitors also toured a school in Netanya that has absorbed many of the children of recent immigrants from France, and attended special events at the Kosel and the Davidson Center.
There is something else that no one, including the people from Shuvu, knew in advance: It was decreed min haShomayim that on Monday, the day of their arrival, the subject of the amended draft law would be on the Knesset agenda. The law was brought to the Knesset for its second and third readings, and the Knesset was preparing for the debate while keeping publicity to a minimum. The employees of the various parties and the members of the Knesset were all instructed not to allow visitors into the building. “Minimize invitations throughout the day on Monday,” the Knesset officials ordered us. And why? The reason is simple: the fear of provocation from opponents of the amended draft law. Time after time, the Knesset guards looked at the large group making its way through the building’s hallways and rubbed their eyes, wondering, “Who permitted them to come? Especially on a Monday, and especially when the draft law is under discussion?”
The visitors made their way directly from the building’s entrance to one of the committee chambers — by appointment, of course. The hall next to the Knesset Education and Culture Committee had been designated for their use. The group was addressed by two senior Knesset members: Deputy Minister Meshullam Nahari, who has been a staunch supporter of Shuvu for many years, and MK Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington. After those two speeches, in accordance with the plan, the group had lunch in an area that was closed off for their visit by the personal order of Ronen Plut, the director-general of the Knesset.
“I Have Never Been to America”
Their next stop was at the Knesset Finance Committee, where MK Moshe Gafni feels at home, like a fish in water. This, after all, is his territory; he is currently serving as the chairman of the committee. The guests sat in the seats of the Knesset members and advisors. But there was a small problem: A few journalists who had been present for the committee session were still there, and Gafni was therefore unable to speak as freely as he would have wished. Yosef Hoch introduced Gafni, thanking him for his work in the past.
“I will be speaking in Hebrew,” Gafni warned his audience at the beginning of his address. He does not speak English at all. Even Hoch’s introduction had to be translated for him. Gafni proceeded to make a joke: “The leaders of the Knesset have asked me several times to learn English so that I can make trips abroad for the sake of public relations. I told them that I will go to chutz la’aretz only after I have solved all of the problems we have here.” Apparently, those problems haven’t yet been solved. Gafni then greeted the visitors: “I always enjoy meeting guests from Shuvu, especially when Rabbi Eliyahu Mansour is among them.”
Before he lambasted the previous government, Gafni took a few moments to speak about Shuvu. “If not for Shuvu, there would be no one to help the thousands of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. These are Jews who have been cut off from Yiddishkeit for over 80 years. They were forced to abandon their faith, and then they came to Eretz Yisroel completely detached from Yiddishkeit and Shuvu saved them. I have visited most of the Shuvu schools around the country, and I have seen children from families that are far removed from Torah and mitzvos learning in those schools. The families send their children there for the high scholastic level, and their children learn Yiddishkeit as well. There are thousands of children in these schools who go on to influence their families. Today, it isn’t only immigrants who are served by Shuvu. It is also children from Israeli families.”
Addressing the Shuvu donors from abroad, Gafni added, “I don’t know if there is anyone else who lives in America and does so many mitzvos in Eretz Yisroel as those who aid Shuvu.” He concluded this part of his address with a smile: “I was born in Tel Aviv. After my marriage, I moved to Ofakim in the Negev. I love Eretz Yisroel. The only time I left this country was for a wedding in Belgium. I have never been to America, but they say it is a nice place.”
Gafni moved on to discuss the current political and economic situation. “We are in the process of a transition out of the hester ponim that we experienced under the previous government, when cruel laws that defy description were legislated against us. Last Thursday, in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee [during a debate over the draft law —TY], I commented that nothing like this happens anywhere in the Western world. There is no democratic country where an entire sector of the population — a minority, but still a large group — is mercilessly beaten and harassed by the government: fathers, mothers, children, students in school and babies at day care. You cannot imagine the types of laws that were passed under the previous government.”
Gafni cited an example of the government’s persecution of chareidim: “The Finance Minister in the previous government promoted a law known as the ‘Zero VAT’ bill. In order to provide more affordable housing, he cancelled the tax on home purchases — but not for chareidim under any circumstances. We are happy that he didn’t come to an understanding with us, because history shows that there are some rulers who cause damage, and Hashem injects some insanity in their minds that leads to their downfall. Yair Lapid thought that the law would pass somehow, but we took the challenge — myself and my colleagues, Yaakov Litzman of Agudas Yisroel and Yitzchok Cohen of Shas — and we performed a filibuster,” Gafni hastened to add. “For five months, we kept up an exhausting debate in the Knesset Finance Committee over the Zero VAT law. We brought in another economist every day to speak against it. We didn’t miss a single committee session. And because of that, the government fell and a new government arose.” The new government, of course, is the current one, with the chareidim in the coalition.
“Today, we are witnessing tremendous kindness from Hashem,” Gafni continued. “I cannot remember a time like this in the past. Today, for instance, the draft law is being discussed. It is merely the least of the possible evils, but it does create a situation in which the students of Torah in the Jewish nation can continue learning without interference. In that sense, it rectifies the damage they caused. We have made sweeping legislative changes to reverse all of the harm they caused us. But we haven’t yet finished our work.”
Gafni went on to emphasize two interesting points: “Our policy follows the instructions we received from Rav Shach zt”l — not to worry only about ourselves, but to be concerned for all of Klal Yisroel. We always speak about all of Klal Yisroel; you can check that out and confirm it. Rav Shach, in his drashos, didn’t talk about Rechov Rabi Akiva in Bnei Brak; he talked about Rechov Allenby in Tel Aviv. He spoke about Rechov Yaffo in Yerushalayim and about the kibbutzim. He worked with all his might to see to it that there would be kiruv organizations like Shuvu. And then Rav Elyashiv zt”l did the same, and today, lehavdil bein chaim lechaim, Rav Shteinman does the same. Kiruv is always part of our agenda.
“However,” he continued, addressing the Shuvu donors in the room along with other affluent Jews in chutz la’aretz, “if there is no funding to support the Torah world, we will not be able to exist here. Even if one of us became the prime minister, we could not exist that way. We do not want them to harm us. We want to exercise our full rights, and even if everything ultimately works out — and that hasn’t yet happened — without the aid of the friends of the Torah world all over the globe, and especially in the United States, we will not be able to do that.”
As Gafni concluded his speech, the news reports in the background announced two new stabbing attacks: one carried out by two Arab girls in the Machaneh Yehuda market in Yerushalayim, exactly three minutes from the Knesset as the crow flies, and the second perpetrated against a soldier at the gas station on Route 443, a road on which we all travel. “We in Eretz Yisroel are in a difficult situation,” Gafni declared. “There is an intifada. We are in the Middle East. Hashem has given us this land, where we live, but we are surrounded by enemies on every side. Let us be clear: We do not have the natural ability to survive everything that we have been through, now and throughout our exiles. There is no natural explanation for it. Only the zechus of Torah learning keeps us alive. Without Torah learning, we, as a nation, would not survive.”
“This Time, the Speech Will Be Different”
The delegation then made its way from the Finance Committee’s chambers to a different floor in the old wing of the Knesset building. Forty men walked through the corridors, while onlookers watched in astonishment. It is not the accepted practice for such large groups to wander around the building while the Knesset is in session. The prime minister’s security guards tensed as the group passed his office.
The next stop was the offices of the Shas party. The walls there are decorated with an assortment of pictures of Rav Ovadiah Yosef. In some he is seen with other rabbonim: Chacham Bentzion Abba-Shaul, Chacham Yehuda Tzadkah, and Rav Yitzchok Kaduri, the latter in a helicopter. Other pictures show him examining the eiruv in Har Nof, giving a brachah to professional soccer players who came to inform him that they would no longer play on Shabbos, speaking before a crowd of thousands in a huge hall in Be’er Sheva, and meeting with Yitzchok Rabin in the rov’s old home on Rechov Jabotinsky in Yerushalayim. The guests took their seats around a large table, enjoying the pictures. And then Aryeh Deri, the Minister of the Negev, Galil and Periphery, arrived.
Deri looked at the assemblage, recognizing some of the visitors. He embraced Rabbi Mansour and shook hands with Mr. Hoch. “The last time I met with a Shuvu delegation,” he said, “we spoke about the troubles that the government was causing us. Today, our discussion will be different.” He laughed.
Rabbi Chaim Michoel Gutterman — the director of Shuvu in Eretz Yisroel, who deals all year long with the schools in need of funding — greeted Deri, saying, “This is a delegation of businessmen led by Rabbi Eli Mansour and Mr. Yossi Hoch. These people have left their businesses to come and give their encouragement to Shuvu. Today, they visited Lod and saw the school there. They were moved by the sight of the 500 students and their parents.”
Rabbi Gutterman spoke highly of the Shas party’s support of Shuvu — as many of Shuvu’s students hail from Sefardic chiloni families — and stressed that without the party’s support, the network would not be able to survive and grow. “We are all familiar with your dedication to the chinuch of Jewish children,” he told Deri. “We have come here to give and receive chizuk.”
Terror Threatens the Entire World
As usual, Aryeh Deri spoke quickly and briefly. It is possible that the visitors from America did not catch everything he said. If they did not, they can read it here. “Every person must give thanks to Hashem for everything,” he began, “especially when he sees clearly that Hashem has been kind to him, and certainly when a miracle is done for him. This past year, we have experienced an open miracle. From a situation of hester ponim,” he said, echoing the words of Moshe Gafni, “we have entered a state of Divine kindness. That is nothing short of miraculous.”
Deri went on to explain himself: “There was a brutal government in this country that made very harsh decrees against us. By nature, that government could have and should have remained in power for at least two more years. We have never seen a prime minister dismantle a government of his own accord, even after his coalition partners promised not to cause problems for him anymore. The prime minister listened to no one’s advice and ran straight into elections. I believe that that was the result of our tefillos and the tears of the poor that reached the Kisei Hakavod. There is no natural explanation for what happened. The government simply disappeared and went to elections. Now that we are in the government and we can see the decisions that were made by the previous government, we can understand even better what we were saved from. In addition to the wicked laws they passed, they had more planned for the future. But no longer! Thanks to Hashem’s kindness, the tables have turned. This past Wednesday,” Deri announced, “the budget was passed, and their decrees against us were more or less abolished. Today [Monday], I hope that we will finish with the draft law.”
Deri then broached the subject of the plague of terror, both in Israel and worldwide. “The situation in Israel today is a difficult one. You all know about what has been happening. In truth, the situation is complicated everywhere in the world. Terror is a threat to the entire world.”
Commenting on the fact that the government rests on the margin of a single vote, Deri went on, “While it is true that the government today rests on a narrow coalition, it is a good government. There are no conflicts between the different components of the government. There is goodwill and an atmosphere of cooperation. Even the Bayit Yehudi party, which took a stand against us in the previous government and worked closely with Yair Lapid, is now working together with us very nicely. I must say that even the prime minister is fulfilling all of the promises he made to us. Until now, we have been working to repair the damage that was caused to us. Now we can begin further development.”
Deri also discussed Shuvu and the need for further donations from abroad. “Shuvu is doing holy work. I am familiar with some of their schools. They are literally saving lives. They are providing Jewish education to parts of the population that no one else can reach. Many of the students in Shuvu come because of the high academic level; these families would not send their children to the schools of Chinuch Atzmai or Shas. They are not yet ready for a Torah school, and they consider Shuvu to be the only option they are willing to adopt, even if it means taking in large doses of Yiddishkeit. We, the political representatives, are obligated to help them and we will continue to do so, but it will be much easier for us to procure funding for Shuvu if they prove that they have revenues of their own. That is the reality in the State of Israel, especially when it comes to religious institutions. If you come to the government with a plan for matching funds, it is much easier. Therefore, the task of the Jews of America is to help the Torah world in Eretz Yisroel, including Shuvu.
“Together,” Deri concluded, “we will greet Mashiach. However,” he added with a laugh, “I hope that no one in the Knesset will attempt to stop him from coming. You must all come to Eretz Yisroel when Moshiach comes,” he warned the guests.
After the speech was over, a boy who had come with his father asked for Deri to join him in a photograph. Deri happily consented, admonishing the boy, “Make sure that you grow up to become a talmid chochom. Don’t be a politician!”