A few months ago I went on a trip to visit OU Israel’s latest project in Tel Aviv and I saw a glimpse of the Jewish future in the Land of Israel. And it was bright. I am not exaggerating; I emerged from that day glowing and extremely positive about what is in store for our young nation beginning its 61st year of return to Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land.
Those of us living here during these trying times have developed an almost split personality regarding the notion that the modern state represents, “The first flowering of redemption.” We look at the past and marvel at where we were in history and how far we have come. I can recall when I studied for my Masters in Medieval Jewish History, the endless study sheets. One sheet depressed me so much that I almost had to cry. It was a list of countries that persecuted and ultimately exiled the Jewish people over a period of 1200 years. How many countries, despots, villains? How much pain and suffering did we endure?
Contrast that with the national charter of Israel which states that any Jew is welcome home to the Promised Land. Contrast those tragic experiences with the conception that the Israeli army which defends its nation is considered one of the best in the world. What pride! What honor! I replace the anti-Semitic propaganda of the media over the centuries with the words Shabbat Shalom and Chag Same’ach permeating all forms of Israeli media prior to those respective days. I rejoice in seeing the actualization of the prayers we recite daily that ask for the ingathering of exiles, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and peace. (Of course, in our short history we have suffered many wars, and there are still enemies trying to destroy us. But compare all these tragic losses over the last sixty years to one day during the Holocaust…).
And I relish in the thought that my children and grandchildren will grow up in a singularly Jewish, Hebrew speaking, proud and life empowering land, filled with endless possibility. These sentiments should and often do leave a smile on my face…
Then I listen to the news.
I hear of corruption in my Government. I listen to scandals, criminal activity and truly the worst one might expect from elected officials. I hear other nations of the world react with glee that Israel too engages in such ‘typical political activities’. My smile fades away.
I read in the newspapers about the continuing rift between secular and religious Jews and how religious political parties continue to embarrass themselves and us when they take self-serving stands and justify them under the guise of ‘Torah-true idealism’. How can I justify a religious sector living in Israel which does not serve the country in any public way? How can we earn the respect of secular Jews and aim towards reconciliation if there is a lack of basic tolerance and open-mindedness?
I think of these sad sentiments and wonder about the future of this young state and whether I still see that spark of the flowering of redemption. How can we mend this schism? How can we restore honor to our leadership? How can we find the proper balance between a healthy, modern society with a traditional Jewish philosophy, without presenting ourselves as supercilious or coercive?
These foreboding thoughts were stirring in my mind on the day I visited Tel Aviv. I wavered back and forth as I ‘walked through the doors’ of the OU Israel ‘Lev Yehudi Yisraeli’ kiruv program. Within the first few minutes, I experienced a transformation as I encountered individuals who delivered a message of hope, excitement and limitless possibility.
Rav Yehoshua Shapira: A Bright Shiny Future
Some people emit negativity and pessimism in whatever they do and just being around them is a heavy, depressing experience. Then there are personalities who exude light, warmth and optimism such as Rav Yehoshua Shapira. Our visit with spiritual leader and visionary Rav Yehoshua left me grinning with great expectation. Rav Yehoshua has always been one of the initiators of the kiruv community movement and a close confidant to the Lev Yehudi Yisraeli team.
One is first struck by his humility; he offers a friendly handshake, a big smile and a kind greeting. He then begins to speak about the future of Am Yisrael, the nation of Israel, and his eyes light up as he mentions that just five years ago there was no such concept as a religious Zionist ‘kiruv community’ in the Tel Aviv area. As a result of this void he built Yeshivat Ramat Gan in order to train students of the Hesder world to commit to serious shlichut (educational mission) in the Gush Dan region. His yeshiva joined with OU Israel’s Lev Yehudi Yisraeli program, becoming another prong in OU Israel’s outreach efforts in Gush Dan.
To date no less than 250 young families have moved to predominantly secular cities around the country where they established kiruv communities as part of OU Israel’s Lev Yehudi Yisraeli. And it is just the beginning. Rav Yehoshua tells a story about Rav Dov Lior, living in Kiryat Arba, who recently turned to him and praised his efforts at settling the “real” front lines – Tel Aviv, as opposed to those living in Hebron! Momentum is building and Rav Shapira is inspiring all who hear him. Indeed, Abba Richman, the photographer joining us that day, walked away from the meeting wide eyed with excitement exclaiming, “If I were thirty years younger I would move to Ramat Hasharon next month!”
From Gedera to Hadera
Rav Shapira bolsters his kiruv community location choice, pointing out that the future leaders and decision makers of Israel are growing up in a small coastal strip of some thirty miles, called the Gush Dan area. There, the elitist in the secular society build their homes, raise their children and teach them values that are predominantly secular, capitalist, and politically left wing. For many years, the Religious Zionist movement, concentrating its energies on settling Judea, Samaria and Gush Katif, stayed away from the Gush Dan area, causing a large schism between religious and secular in this influential arena.
In the past few years that attitude has changed as more and more in the Religious Zionist movement have realized that in order to truly make a difference in Am Yisrael, in order to change the perception of the secular Israelis and to insert traditional values and spirit into the culture, we must enter the Gush Dan region, live there, teach there and be involved in all aspects of communal life.
Integrating into Secular Cities
Lev Yehudi Yisraeli came to this conclusion and started developing Kiruv communities in these prominent secular sectors. Ramat Hasharon, Ramat Gan, Raanana, Givatayim, Tel Aviv Shenkin, Tel Aviv Ramat Aviv, Herzliyah. These major cities would act as the initial launching point for this noble mission. Bringing other religious Zionist organizations such as Nehora, Rosh Yehudi, Yeshivat Ramat Gan, Paamonim and others, under the OU Israel umbrella, Lev Yehudi Yisraeli director, Netanel Simantov, and OU Israel have been able to build up the Lev Yehudi Yisraeli program, uniting the different personalities and channeling their energies towards one goal. Each group with their own voice, united in their message of spiritual inspiration, Jewish culture, living together with secular Jews, getting involved in municipal life, and entering into the schools.
There are Israelis in Raanana?
As I sat in the new ‘Bayit Yehudi’, a gathering place for Lev Yehudi activities, in Raanana next to a completely secular looking man, discussing the merits of this new venture, I turned to him and asked him if he had any connection with the Anglo-immigrant community in the town. His response: “There are Anglos in Raanana?” That Shabbat I was in Shul talking with a friend about the remarkable accomplishments of the new Bayit Yehudi, how there are already over 100 secular Israelis a week coming to classes at the new venue in the heart of Raanana. His response: “There are secular Israelis in Raanana?”
I responded to both those individuals with some statistics: the population of Raanana is roughly 75,000, 25% of which is religious. The Anglo population of Raanana comprises only 10% of the veteran Israeli population. There is plenty of work to be done in Raanana as well as in other Gush Dan cities.
When you visit the Bayit Yehudi in Raanana the first thing that strikes you is the aesthetic nature of the place. We have long since rejected the notion of a small cheder with benches in a basement somewhere; instead the Bayit Yehudi is light, modern, attractive and open. Within this environment hundreds of secular Israelis participate weekly in classes, cultural activities, philosophical discussion; searching for answers to their questions.
T’shuva is not a Four Letter Word!
The most surprising aspect of the meeting with the secular students was that they were not afraid to use the word ‘chozer b’teshuva’ (a returnee or repentant). They understood perfectly that through learning and applying the messages they learn they will be returning to a path of observance and meaningfulness in their lives – and they were cool with that idea.
I sat with two individuals who described their experiences at the new Bayit Yehudi in Raanana:
Tomer grew up in Raanana and hadn’t entered into a Shul since his Bar Mitzva. One day a friend told him about this interesting place with great lectures, so he figured he would try it out. He was immediately hooked. After each class he emerged rejuvenated and refreshed. “I used to have nowhere to go to express Jewishness, but now I can come here to a place which looks nice, feels right, and where the speakers are excellent”.
Refael’s outlook is not as simple and his remarks are more comprehensive. He is married with two children and grew up secular, while his wife was once religious In Israel it is often called chozer beshe’ela, ‘returning to ask’ as opposed to chozer betshuva. He is searching but isn’t interested in any radical form of Judaism as he develops a stronger religious outlook. He comes to classes and appreciates the attitude of the lecturers: passionate, committed but open-minded and willing to engage in thought-provoking dialogue. Rav Koby, the director of the center, chooses only the best speakers who possess these qualities and exemplify the ideals of the Religious Zionist movement.
Menachem Ussishkin Would Be Proud
Netanel Simantov had an idea to approach the public school system in Gush Dan and offer their children classes on Jewish identity. This would supplement their excellent secular education and would allow exposure to Lev Yehudi Yisrael personalities in the various communities. The detractors said he would never do it. Once he made contact with several schools and they agreed, the detractors said he will never be allowed to enter into the Usisskin school in Ramat Hasharon, for there they are one hundred percent anti-religious. Netanel might have borrowed an axiom from Ussiskin himself who is credited with saying, “Nothing stands in the way of one’s desire”.
Within a short time span Netanel introduced his curriculum into many public schools all over Gush Dan. Moreover, he brought no less than ten thousand students and parents to the Kotel for an emotional Yom Yerushalayim experience!
Ten thousand is a beginning. This is the success in one city named Ramat Hasharon, but their aspirations are much bigger. What if Lev Yehudi Yisraeli’s “Center for Jewish Identity” catches on and offers in-school Torah classes to five times that amount, ten times the number of Tel Aviv children? The revolution is beginning and we are so excited to be part of it.
Building on the Foundation of Chesed
One of the main functions of the kiruv community is to administer to the needy of the city, particularly when it comes to Jewish needs. Every municipality has a welfare department but how many Deputy Mayors call the director of Lev Yehudi Yisraeli first when a crisis develops?
Nurit Avner is the Deputy Mayor of Ramat Hasharon. She is representative of the typical modern Israeli woman – successful, independent, gregarious and ambitious – who lives a secular lifestyle but has warm feelings for traditional Judaism and spiritual Friday night dinners. She has risen to Deputy Mayor, and is responsible for education and social welfare in the city. Nurit is fully aware that the youth of Ramat Hasharon are lacking a vital component in their development: Jewish flavor, heritage, and pride in our land and our nationhood. She is also fully cognizant of the fear parents in the city have of ‘religious coercion’ and other forms of outreach.
At this point Netanel comes in filled with passion, kindness, ambition, and open-mindedness. He speaks her language and has become a great confidant of the deputy mayor and of many in the municipality. This is the type of relationship that Rav Yehoshua Shapiro espouses to his students and towards which every member of the kiruv community strives.
She Came in for Salad and Ended Up with a Shiur in Kabbalah!
Kiruv must speak the language of the people today. It is not enough to inspire with intellectual, philosophical Torah motifs; one must also present it in an aesthetically pleasing way, blending creativity, humor and comfort. This is the philosophy of the Batim Yehudim of Lev Yehudi Yisraeli. To draw in crowds, one must attract not just the cerebral senses but the tastes, smells, and sights of Judaism, engaging individuals not only in the Synagogue but in the workplace and leisure activities. With this in mind Lev Yehudi Yisraeli launched the first religious Zionist spiritual café in the heart of Ramat Gan.
In addition to tasty, healthy, kosher food presented in an aesthetically pleasing way, the café provides spiritual opportunities in the way of classes, lectures, private learning times, and a library of Jewish books. Of course there are comfortable couches where one can enjoy a physical and metaphysical respite from the busy workday.
A few months after the launch, Lev Yehudi Yisraeli opened another house in the heart of the downtown Tel Aviv neighborhood Shenkin. This beautifully designed, expansive ‘house’ will host up to 2000 people a week with cultural programs, spiritual activities, as well as a café where all can relax, socialize and enjoy the positive atmosphere that Lev Yehudi Yisraeli created.
A Great Start…
Every year in the religious Zionist camp over 2000 couples marry and begin to build their homes. At the moment a small number have committed to joining the Kiruv community in Gush Dan. But those numbers are about to explode. Shlichut to the heart of Israeli society with the mission to connect, involve, reach out and help create unique kiruv communities will, God willing, become a requisite for many couples as they begin their lives in Israel. With blessings from Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, Rav Lichtenstein, Rav Ariel, Rav Druckman and others, as well as intense guidance from Rav Yehoshua Shapira and Rav Shmuel Eliyahu, the future of kiruv communities in Tel Aviv, in particular, and Israel, in general, looks very bright.
I saw the future, now I want to be a part of it.
You can too.
Rabbi Avi Baumol is Director of Communications of OU Israel.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.