There was a fairly easy way to get a clear picture of the political standing of the chareidi community in Eretz Yisroel today. Anyone who was interested in learning about that subject needed only to join the Shuvu delegation from America on its recent visit to Eretz Yisroel. The members of the delegation visited the Knesset, where they met with the people at the very center of the political action: Aryeh Deri, Minister of the Interior; Meir Porush, Deputy Minister of Education; and Moshe Gafni, chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee.
In addition, they received further briefings from Yitzchok Cohen, Deputy Minister of Finance; Dovid Azulai, Minister of Religious Affairs, and MK Yitzchok Herzog, the leader of the opposition.
I found it fascinating to accompany the delegation on their travels. They were received in the Knesset like VIPs, with no less a show of respect than they would have received had they been members of the British parliament or of Congress in Washington. Their lunch was served in a separate room, and they were seated in the VIP gallery overlooking the Knesset plenum. In addition, Yoel Yuli Edelstein, the Knesset speaker, delivered a speech welcoming them on behalf of the Knesset. But all of that was merely the introduction to the main event: their meetings with the most influential members of the Knesset. The purpose of those meetings was for the visitors to hear what the government officials had to say, as well as for them to convey their gratitude for all of the officials’ previous hard work on behalf of Shuvu and, of course, to ask them to continue promoting the organization’s cause in the future.
The delegation arrived at the Knesset after touring several Shuvu schools, where they personally witnessed the great success enjoyed by the educational network founded by Rav Avrohom Pam zt”l. In the past, Shuvu’s schools were attended primarily by children from immigrant families. Today, though, its scholastic success has led to a great demand for enrollment in the schools even among Israeli-born families. And that may be precisely what is so bothersome to the secular establishment in this country and to several of the country’s chiloni mayors.
The visiting delegation was headed by Avrohom Biderman, a close talmid of Rav Pam, and by Yosef Hoch, one of the leaders of the American directorate of Shuvu. Naturally, the two were also joined by Rabbi Chaim Michoel Gutterman, the director-general of Shuvu in Eretz Yisroel, and by other leaders of the organization here.
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The group’s first meeting was with Deputy Finance Minister Yitzchok Cohen. That Monday was a tense day in the Knesset, It marked the beginning of the discussions regarding the state budget for the coming two years. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were the designated days for those discussions, and the deputy finance minister was clearly anxious. Despite the difficult circumstances, he graciously agreed to meet with the visitors. He is already well acquainted with the Shuvu network. In the past, he helped the organization in its struggle against several mayors who refused to cooperate with it. Just one month ago, he also made a significant contribution to its success that was possible only because of his position in the government.
Shuvu has been working for many months to procure the funding that was allocated to them in last year’s government budget. Many government officials have promised to help or expressed their desire to do something about the situation, but in the State of Israel, the bureaucracy has a way of making the simplest things infinitely complex. Moshe Gafni, as the chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, made sure that the funding was in the budget, and Shas also did its share. (The funds due to Shuvu came partially from coalition funds, a designated sum of several million shekels allocated to each party to distribute at its discretion.) The only problem was that a vital piece of paperwork known as a Request for Budgetary Transfer hadn’t been received from the Finance Ministry, and without that form, which included the money earmarked for Shuvu, it was impossible to proceed. It was clear that the request for funding would be approved by the Finance Committee within a few hours of the receipt of the form, but it had yet to arrive. And, of course, the situation had become urgent.
It was Yitzchok Cohen who saw to it, at the behest of Rabbi Gutterman, that the form would be issued. And Cohen was in New York at the time. How did he manage to accomplish this miraculous feat? It was actually quite simple: He was traveling on the same flight as a senior official within the Treasury.
At the beginning of the meeting that Monday, the leaders of Shuvu thanked Rabbi Cohen for his efforts on their behalf over the years. They noted that he often serves as the kohein at various pidyon haben ceremonies organized by Shuvu. Rabbi Gutterman also noted a trait shared by Shuvu itself and Rabbi Cohen: Both the deputy minister and the organization tend to work quietly and unassumingly, yet both can be credited with major accomplishments.
Deputy Minister Cohen declared, “You are partners in a great enterprise, with which I am intimately acquainted. I have been involved in major projects of Shuvu, and I have attended a number of highly inspiring events. I can often discern a lot by looking into the eyes of children, and the happiness of the children of Shuvu is unmistakable. Even when they are studying under difficult conditions, in rudimentary facilities, that joy does not leave them.” Incidentally, Rabbi Cohen himself is responsible for founding Torah institutions in his own city of Ashkelon, including a talmud Torah, a yeshiva ketana, and a school for girls. Although he works as a politician, he is truly an educator at heart.
Cohen gave his guests an overview of the current political map from his perspective as the partner of Minister Moshe Kachlon in the Finance Ministry. His address ended with words of praise for the immense, almost superhuman chinuch network that Shuvu is. “Not only are we happy to help Shuvu, we also feel an obligation to do so,” he asserted. “We are not simply doing favors for Rabbi Gutterman and Rabbi Biderman. The children of Shuvu are the sons and daughters of Hashem, and we must do everything possible so that the network will continue to thrive. That is in the best interests of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel.” He then addressed the American donors: “Thank you very much for all that you do for the benefit of this precious institution. May you and yours be blessed with peace. Keep in mind that that is the bracha of a kohein…”
Aryeh Deri, Minister of the Interior, entered the room at his usual rapid pace. “I apologize for being late,” he announced as soon as he arrived. “There is a farmers’ demonstration outside, and it was impossible to get into the Knesset building.” In fact, the bus carrying the Shuvu delegation was also forced to circle the building several times until it found its way to an entrance.
Deri spoke about the current political realities from his own perspective. “The chareidi parties are now part of the government, after two very difficult years that we spent in the opposition. When the chiloni parties are in the opposition, it does not cause any harm to their voters. All that happens is that their ministers lose their bodyguards, their offices, their luxury cars, and all the honor and respect that come with their positions. Nevertheless, the people of the country receive what is due to them. But when we, the chareidim, are not in the coalition, everything that is important to us is placed in jeopardy, from the religious status quo to the vital funding for the Torah world. It all becomes hefker. The previous government had an agenda: They wanted to eliminate everything we had accomplished for sixty years. To a large extent, they succeeded. They planned to continue persecuting us. That government was supposed to remain in power for another two and a half years. The fact that it collapsed in the middle of its term was a miracle. The leaders of the coalition at the time pleaded tearfully with [Binyomin] Netanyahu to maintain their alliance. They were willing to sign a pledge that they would not continue creating problems, as long as they remained in power. Netanyahu is a cautious person who does not cause upheavals. He is not like Arik Sharon, who dismantled the Likud party. We have no explanation for the fact that the prime minister dissolved the government and went to elections. It was incredible siyata diShmaya. Even now, we are continuing to correct more and more of the damage that they did to us, and we haven’t yet succeeded in fixing everything. This government keeps all of its promises, and that means that it is very good for us. We, the leaders of the parties in the coalition, meet with the prime minister every day and raise various issues, and everyone tries to adhere to their commitments. All in all, the coalition is genuinely trying.”
This led Deri to the subject of our greatest problem: the Supreme Court. “There is one entity that is above the coalition, regardless of how it is formed: the Supreme Court. There are many areas in which we could have arrived at a solution if only the matters had remained in our hands, but the Supreme Court intervened.”
The most obvious example, of course, is the struggle over the Kosel Hamaarovi.
“The struggle over the Kosel,” Deri explained, “is not merely a battle for the kedushah of the Kosel, which is important in its own right. It also has to do with giving legitimacy to the Reform movement. They are not actually interested in the Kosel. Do they really care about davening there and placing notes in the wall? That does not concern them at all. What they truly want is recognition. There is only one Kosel in Israel, and they want it to be divided between the Orthodox and themselves. They want something, even if it is only a small area at the Kosel. And that is because they want the government of Israel to recognize them as a stream of Judaism. They have been fighting for that for decades. They are recognized as a stream of Judaism everywhere else all over the world. It is only here that they are given no legitimacy, and that is what has sparked this battle. When the chareidim are part of the government, they want that recognition even more, since our presence in the government would give them even more legitimacy.
“With all the differences of opinion in the government,” Deri continued, “if this matter were up to us, it would not create a problem. Everyone has something that is of vital importance to him, and the prime minister should understand that the kedushah of the Kosel and the battle against the Reform movement is no less important to us than Amona is to his right-wing partners. Everyone would understand that. The problem is the Supreme Court, and the fact that it is the attorney general, rather than us, who responds to the court. For that reason, we have submitted a bill that would stipulate that the Kosel should be managed according to the instructions of the Chief Rabbinate, in keeping with the traditional minhagim at the site, and in accordance with the status quo as it has existed until now. This is not a simple matter; the battle will certainly continue. The Reform and Conservative movements are fighting an all-out war.”
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The visitors from America were riveted by Deri’s words, as he presented the reality in the State of Israel in the starkest, most unadorned terms. They were beginning to see that the situation in this country is not as simple as it seems. Deri also revealed another dimension of the battle, which is not known to the public: the issue of the “conversions” conducted by the Reform movement. In response to a petition from the movement, the Supreme Court has ruled that while conversions conducted in Israel will not be recognized unless they are carried out in accordance with halacha and approved by the Chief Rabbinate, “conversions” in chutz la’aretz will be recognized even if they are conducted in a Reform “bais din.” This means that if an immigrant arrives from abroad with documents attesting that he was “converted” by a Reform rabbi, the Ministry of the Interior does not have the authority to evaluate the validity of the conversion.
“Unfortunately,” Deri said, “the Supreme Court has granted validity to Reform and Conservative conversions performed in chutz la’aretz, so that the converts may be granted citizenship under the Law of Return. A person who is converted by a Reform clergyman in chutz la’aretz is entitled to automatic citizenship and the status of a new immigrant here in Israel. They have been fighting for the past ten years for their conversions to be recognized within Israel as well, with respect to the Law of Return. That recognition would not apply to marriage or divorce. By law, the Rabbinate is the sole authority in the State of Israel with respect to issues of marital status. But they want their conversions in Israel to be recognized under the Law of Return, so that their ‘converts’ will receive automatic citizenship. This has been an ongoing Supreme Court case for ten years already. As the Minister of the Interior, I am now responsible for responding to the court. I have decided, and I have already informed the prime minister, that I will see to it that the law will recognize conversions performed in the State of Israel only if they are conducted by a bais din of the Rabbinate. I know that this, too, will lead to a battle – in fact, a full-fledged war.
“Unfortunately,” Deri went on, “what the chilonim did not manage to accomplish through democratic means or legislation in the Knesset, they managed to achieve in the Supreme Court. The justices of the Supreme Court are those who actually rule this country. Every violation of the status quo that took place over the past twenty years, in any area, was the result of the rulings of the Supreme Court. Our enemies have learned what to do: If you cannot defeat the chareidim in the Knesset after a democratic election, then you can defeat them in the Supreme Court.
“We have managed to recoup all the funding that was stolen from us,” Deri concluded. “The government of Israel today is the greatest supporter of Torah in the world, and that is the zechus that sustains us.” He also expressed his pleasure with the changes taking place in the American government. “Soon, a mitzvah-observant American ambassador will be coming here. There are some fears, but we know Who really runs the world. And there is another positive aspect of the current government,” he added. “There was a tremendous rift between chareidi Jewry and the national religious sector, and that rift has been closed.” Finally, Deri asked his listeners not to be frightened by the polls that show Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party winning the same number of mandates as Netanyahu and the Likud. “He will not be able to take over the government,” he said. “In Israel, a government is made up of blocs, and the right-wing bloc will remain the largest one even in the worst case scenario.”
Meir Porush, Deputy Minister of Education, was the next to arrive. He greeted Aryeh Deri warmly just before Deri hurried to the Shas party’s offices for the party’s weekly meeting. Porush spoke about the importance of Shuvu and the many merits it has amassed by providing true Torah education for the children of Eretz Yisroel. At the beginning of the meeting, he also praised his audience for their support of the Shuvu network, and he went on to describe the close ties between his own staff and the leaders of Shuvu in Eretz Yisroel.
“When there are requests for funding to be transferred to Shuvu,” Porush related, “people don’t always understand what the schools are all about. It is important to realize that Eretz Yisroel is run by Jewish people who send children to public schools where they are not taught to recite Modeh Ani or Krias Shema, where they are not taught about the Aseres Hadibros or other Jewish things. True, the Lapid government is gone, but you should not make the mistake of thinking that Moshiach has come and the public schools have begun teaching Yiddishkeit. Out of the entire populace of Israel, there are over 2 million children, of which 413,000 are chareidi children. That means that over one million children live a life of spiritual emptiness, and unfortunately some of them do not even know that there is a G-d. From a spiritual standpoint, they are utterly impoverished. Your job, as the donors of Shuvu, is to support the network in its efforts to instill Jewish values in those children, and to help Shuvu advance its activities.”
Porush turned to Yosef Hoch and said, “I am your emissary in the Ministry of Education. I said this to you and to Rabbi Biderman seven years ago, at the beginning of my first term as deputy education minister, and I am saying it again today. My door is always open, and I am always available to help you in any way.”
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The next arrival was Moshe Gafni, one of the longest serving Knesset members and the chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, which is one of the most influential positions in the Knesset. He emerged from the committee in the middle of a session that he was leading; after greeting the delegation, he would return to the committee’s chamber. Rabbi Gutterman greeted Gafni warmly; he and his aides are considered close friends of the Shuvu network. They also brought him regards from Mrs. Abuchatzeirah, the principal of a school in Rishon Letzion, who thanked Gafni for securing funding for transportation for her students, which was a critical need for the school.
Gafni spoke as if he himself was a member of Shuvu. “I am glad that you have come,” he said. “We need your chizuk. Things are not easy here, especially because there are problems with funding. It was actually a major battle to arrange for busing in Rishon Letzion. The mayor, Dov Tzur, transferred the school to a building that was more spacious but further away, and without transportation for the students, the school would have suffered terrible damage. I am very friendly with him, and I explained the situation to him. The principal, Mrs. Abuchatzeirah, is a very active person, and I am glad to hear that the problem was resolved and transportation was provided. That is a very important step toward ensuring that the school will not be forced to close.
“I want to tell you the same thing that I tell other people: Shuvu is a way for us to satisfy our consciences. Without Shuvu, there would be 20,000 children in Israel who have no idea what Shabbos is. It would have been a terrible crime for us to abandon those children. The greater community of Israelis and immigrants is thirsting for Yiddishkeit, and they receive it in Shuvu. For every shekel that you give to this cause, your reward in Shomayim will be indescribable.”
Gafni, too, addressed the current political climate and the differences between this government and the previous one. “We have good relations with the government. Today, I am supposed to pass the state budget for the years 2017 and 2018. I will let you in on a secret: The government is not interested in Shuvu. They don’t want Shuvu. They don’t want children growing up with Yiddishkeit. They want all the children to go to ordinary, secular schools. This battle is not an easy one by any means.”
Gafni also spoke about the government’s agreement with respect to Shuvu. “We have reached an agreement that Shuvu is to be considered a Jewish, Israeli and American organization, which receives some of its funding from American Jews and some from the Israeli government. It has been this way for several years already. Sometimes there are problems with the American portion of the funding, when there are economic difficulties there, and sometimes the problems are with the Israeli government’s portion, when it chooses to create obstacles. This year, we were able to secure matching funds for the years 2017, 2018, and even 2019. That means that we will not have to repeat our requests and pleas over the next two years.” Gafni then cautioned his guests, “It is important for your portion of the funds to arrive on time, because the officials in the Treasury are looking for pretexts to create problems for us. We will still have to contend with all sorts of criteria and other issues. I hope that Shuvu will remain financially stable. It already has excellent academics and is managed superbly. The problem lies only in its budget. I hope that that situation will soon be resolved.”
Gafni, too, addressed the subject of the current government. “We still have struggles, some of which are very difficult and others less so. Today there is a coalition that is good for us, certainly better than its terrible predecessor. There has never been a situation in the Western world in which an entire segment of society – in our case, the chareidi sector – has been beaten mercilessly. It isn’t only the yeshivos and seminaries; it is everything. Even the chareidi day care centers, employment for chareidi women, and simple things that every citizen deserves, such as housing, have come under fire. They have dealt us blow after blow. We were a powerful opposition, and we were ultimately the reason that the government fell. Today, the coalition is precisely the opposite. It is much better and much easier to work with. But we still have to fight for our rights.”