Reflections From Afar
August 10, 2006Menachem Persoff is the Director of Programs for the Seymour J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center. He recently accompanied Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb on a tour of some of the critical projects of the Israel Center during the ongoing conflict in the north of the country. Within the context of the current war, he shares some impressions.
They say that 40,000 Israeli troops are poised to enter Lebanon in lieu of the 40,000 demonstrators who faced off with the army at Kefar Maimon just before the Disengagement, just over a year ago.
They say that once nobody took notice of the shells landing in Gush Katif. But when shells fell in Sederot, they said it was a travesty. And then they forgot about the people of Sederot and claimed that the shells landing in Ashkelon were a disaster. Then when the shells hit the North, they forgot about the people of the Sederot.
They say that this is heavenly wake up call. For wasn’t there supposed to have been a Gay parade in the palace of the Almighty? For hasn’t the recent outpouring of care and assistance from all sectors and all backgrounds served as a Tikun for the divisive tendencies in Israeli society?
Paradoxically, the proportion of casualties among those who were evicted from Gush Katif last year is said to exceed proportionately the numbers of other soldiers who have so tragically suffered in this latest war of the Jewish people. These were the boys who supposedly refused orders, who despaired of the classical values that they had ascribed to the IDF. These are the same soldiers who you will see on television passing around the Tefillin to each other, eating on Tisha B’av because of Piku’ach Nefesh, chanting the Tefillat Hadrech as they walk into the hell-fires in the valleys and mountains of Lebanon, and who sing Ani Ma’amin as they march to face their adversary.
They came into the Israel Center after a day in the Old City of Jerusalem, in the Tunnels, in David’s City. After a tour arranged, among scores of other activities for the “People of the North”, initiated by our director, Rabbi Avi Berman, and the staff of our OU Israel Center in the heart of Yerushalayim. Actually, at first glance they seemed a dispirited group, which in many ways they were. They are People of the North, like out of a science-fiction thriller. What are they doing coming into the Center?
Greeting them one at a time as they came in – babes in arms, stressed mothers and creased Savtot (grandmothers), I felt that the scene was surrealistic, to put it mildly. Was this just another group coming to our Center for yet another program? Why did I feel that the smile on my face was forced and yet the tears in my eyes were genuine? Why at one and the same time did I feel proud that we were about to do a tremendous chessed (kindness), yet almost guilty that we were conveniently safe while these refugees running from the Katyushot were so, so fragile?
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the Senior Executive Vice President of the OU, was there with his wife Chavie to welcome the two busloads of displaced persons from Avivim on the Lebanese border. Having just arrived that day from New York, the presence of the rabbi was noble, meaningful. He expressed the concern of Jews all around the world, and especially in the synagogues of the OU, for the welfare of the people of Israel. He sang and clapped as the crowd, warming up to the event, sang a rousing “Am Yisrael Chai.” Suddenly we were all one. Suddenly, all faces were focused on singer Moshe Dovid whose accompanying Chassidic tale roused passion and calmed the spirits: “When you reach the pinnacle, you can only go down. But when you are down, you can only go up…”
I am driving along the back roads of central Israel with Rabbi Weinreb. We are on the way to another Israel Center sponsored project that has a benefit for the needy in the aftermath of the outrages in the North. We are on the way to join volunteers to pick vegetables in an abandoned field on the outskirts of Rehovot. The volunteers are children in the Center’s three-day camp program set up especially for the children of Nahariya and Sederot. Traumatized children desperately in need of a break; children in our NCSY-in-Israel program – Makom Balev. Together with youngsters from Makom Balev chapters from all around the country, they make a colorful group, dressed in their orange Makom Balev T-shirts.
In the true spirit of "Achdus" (unity), there was yet another group that joined this band in this pastoral setting whose silence was broken only by the urgent roar of F-16 fighters overhead, screeching to the war but six minutes flying distance away. This group, like the rabbi, also hailed from overseas: thirty young men from the NCSY Kollel, here for a summer of learning.
To see the smiles on the faces; to witness the pristine enthusiasm of these latter-day horticulturists. To hear the laughter and giggling. To hear the collective singing of “Hakadosh Baruch Hu… We love You,” as the tomatoes and onions found their way to the tractor and eventually to the shelters in Hatzor and Kiryat Shemona. To sense the coming together of Jews from all over the world, in every shade of color, making their small clearing in the forest, their modest contribution for Am Yisrael. To allow the Israeli children to maintain their innocence for just a few more minutes. To inspire them all with words of Torah. To put our Jewish values into practice. Isn’t that what it’s all about?
Why is life so full of contrasts? The children in the hotel we visited were refugees. Yet they were laughing as the entertainer in our sponsored project amused them with his guitar. He had dressed it up with his spectacles and yarmelka. The children bounced up and down, oblivious to the strain on their parents’ faces around them.
A couple from Meron tell their story. Beni, a schoolteacher, and his wife Zehavit Suissa have escaped the shelling. That was after their little girl started knocking off the faces of her dolls, one by one. “A Katyusha got them!” she said. Beni is fortunate: his wife had a baby girl eight days ago; so now he is released from active duty. However, one of Beni’s students was among the first to be injured. In addition, four of his fellow army reservists have been killed in these three weeks of fighting. The family had just been pleasantly hosted by families in Efrat (and guess what their new daughter’s name is… ). And now they are in a hotel for a few days, and what will be next?
Looking back a year, I think, “Haven’t we been there before?” A lady comes up to us crying: “I heard that you can help. We need places for four families…” Meir Schwartz, the Israel Center’s director of outreach projects has taken the lead in much of the support work that the Israel Center is undertaking. He quickly pulls out his trusty cell phone and the lady holds back her tears to catch on to a therapeutically positive action as she scribbles down a useful contact number provided by Meir.
On this mission, Rabbi Weinreb has brought balabatim from the OU and is accompanied by Yitzchak Fund, President of the OU Israel Center. Yitzchak adds, “The Israel Center is the extended arm of the OU. The extensive and generous help given by our constituency in the US is making happen all our efforts to support the refugees from the north of the country.” I am thinking of how accurate these words are even as the children are piling over the presents brought for them by this keenly concerned group.
In Ramat Hasharon we visit the Bayit Hayehudi that we established as an outreach center in what is one of Israel’s largest hubs for secular Jews. Here we learn of what is really Am Yisrael’s greatest weapon, even as we hear the horrendous news of the casualties over the border. We learn of secular Jews brought to Yiddishkeit through the nurturing and soft-selling activities at this thriving center. We learn of teachers and students who have bonded spiritually. We also learned of enthusiastic children who scared off the police who tried to evict the Bayit Hayehudi workers at their school premises. “We want more!” they cried; “Let the police put on Tefillin!” they chanted. Now over 1500 children in secular schools have Jewish enrichment classes, courtesy of Meir Schwartz, et al.
And this weapon is so powerful. Door-to-door visits, discussions on personal relationships and Kabbalah, Oneg Shabbat programs for school kids (The teachers asked: "And when can we have our own Kabbalah Program?" ) – and so much more. Also, in Tiberius (once again when the war is over) and in Ariel and in places you might never have heard of, such as Lachish and Kibbutz Na’an. In fact, all over the country…
Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu shlita is the Chief Rabbi of Zefat. He was almost in tears when he spoke to us. The rabbi came down especially from Zefat to meet the mission. What a zechut in these trying times! As he talked to us he admitted that his mind was on the soldiers. The outpouring of chessed from everywhere overwhelms him. The rabbi could not stress enough how the visits of the OU volunteers and their gifts gave chizuk to the residents of the North.
Rabbi Eliyahu tells of the Giborim, the heroes of Zefat. The shells are raining down near his house. They hit the Tzofnat building next to the Abuhav shul. In the nearby Bet Knesset, however, even as the shells whistle overhead and the bombs spit death, the prayers in the shul continued.
Now is the time to give an encouraging word. Now is the time to say Tehillim and, yes, to distribute Tehillim to all the houses in the North of the country. For now, paradoxically, the people are ready. It’s difficult to pray; but now more than ever we must be strong and daven. The times are difficult. In the post Disengagement period there is much concern. But nevertheless we must pray for the soldiers going into battle.
These are not my words. These are the words of a courageous rabbi from Zefat who is risking his life every day for the spiritual welfare of our people. We can but take heed and do our share, those of us nearer and those of us further from the smoke and the dust.