Rabbi Avi Baumol Director of the OU communities in Israel, talks about his first day on the job and an exciting OU kiruv program he experienced.
When I began working at the OU Israel Center it was like stepping onto a speeding train going a hundred miles an hour; Rabbi Avi Berman as the conductor. Within 24 hours I met all of the dedicated staff, viewed classes already in progress, and discussed exciting upcoming plans for Shabbat, Sukkot, the OU National Convention in November and even the Israel Center dinner in May!
My first order of business was to learn about the OU in Israel, and understand their challenges and successes. I was mesmerized by the amount of activity, the variety of programs, and the kaleidoscope of personalities which enter the doors of 22 Keren Hayesod Street every single day.
But the most remarkable part of my first day on the job was going out with Avi Berman after work to partake in one of the many programs which take place after dark, and witnessing the fruits of all the labors of love which I had been told about by everyone earlier in the day.
Avi told me we were going to meet some chayalim (soldiers) – immediately conjuring up images of standing in front of a group of hungry soldiers with a cake in hand. But I was way off. Instead I embarked on a mini-spiritual journey together with secular members of the Israel Defense Force, from which each of us emerged a changed person, enlightened even.
An Isolated Hilltop in the Judean Mountains
We arrived in the community of Masuot Yitzchak which has a total of two(!) families living there year round. (Although they have an amazing restaurant called Gavna which you must visit). Looking around I only saw forests, valleys and a vista which was stamped by the Divine. Out walks Rafael Evendenan, holding two of his six children, and invites us to tea and cookies in his homemade Sukka. Rafi starts explaining how his unique kiruv operation began and where he hopes to see it go. In the most natural and unthreatening way he began inviting chilonim (secular Israelis) to his home for a talk, a barbecue, even a Shabbat, with no strings attached. It was simply a way for someone to experience a taste of a spiritual existence without committing to anything at the end of the day.
What began with a few stragglers, developed into some soldiers who were looking for a few minutes of relaxation and encouragement, and ultimately turned into a chavaya, an experience, that many (thousands!) soldiers are sure not to miss during their enlistment.
Altogether over 50,000 visitors, of them 15,000 soldiers have passed through his doors throughout the years. The project grew due to the support of the OU in Israel and America, support which involved Rabbi Weinreb himself visiting and giving a class to the soldiers this past year.
A Silent Tiyul Without Shoes
After a few minutes the soldiers appeared, a mix of men and women, one boy was wearing a kippa (skullcap), the rest, not. Rafi proceeded to describe the magnificent view to these chayalim pointing out the once destroyed and now rebuilt city of Betar Ilit, the home of Bar Kochba, and its destruction, and the rejuvenation it has gone through proving to the world that the true nitzachon, the everlasting victory, belongs to the Jewish people.
A few minutes later Michy Yosefi emerged from his pickup, looking like a cross between a Rav Nachman (of Breslov) Chasid and a drummer for ZZ Top. He was the leader of the day’s workshop. He would take them on a tiyul (trip) like no other they experienced. All he asked for was that they would walk in silence. This tiyul was to be an awakening of their souls, forcing them to contemplate who they really were, and what they expected of themselves in their lives.
In the forest he found a secluded area where the chayalim were asked to sit on the ground, still in silence. He began with a Chasidic interpretation which was to be the theme of the entire workshop: של נעליך מעל רגליך God says to Moshe when he arrives to a spot in the forest, take of your shoes from your feet.
The Chasidic meaning carries a different message in these words. נעל (defined as shoe in the previous paragraph) they say stems from the word מנעול, a lock. And רגליך (defined as feet in the previous paragraph) comes from the word הרגל – habit. Newly translated the phrase becomes, remove the chains which bind you from achieving higher consciousness due to your own expectations and habits. His message was that in our lives we all create a daily routine which often cuts us into a certain mold. This is what we expect of ourselves because this is how we have always done it. Sometimes in order to reach higher we have to break the mold, remove the locks, emerge from our own inhibitions, and try something new.
With those words he said our tiyul continues with one change – “everyone take off your socks and shoes and follow me into the forest”. The incredulous looks on their faces did not deter Michy from his request. In the thorny, rocky terrain, we were expected to walk, in silence (though the word ow was now permitted!), and during this walk we were to consider how an almost habitual, inconsequential, five minute walk would turn into a new experience, a time to reflect on nature, on the precariousness of our condition, and on ourselves.
I noticed their faces and each soldier who was taught to control emotions and surroundings all of a sudden was attempting to grasp at an unknown, and internalizing that message as the tiyul continued.
Notes on her Hand
In another spot Michy relayed the words of the Kotzker Rebbe who spoke of choosing how we identify ourselves– through society’s standards, or through our own? It forced us to contemplate how and why we act or refrain from acting in a given circumstance. As he was quietly speaking I noticed one girl feverishly writing on her hand. At the end of the session she told us that she was so interested in what he had to say that she jotted it all down on her hand so as not to forget it. I am sure Michy’s beautiful words were embedded in her heart as they were embedded in mine and all of our hearts in that forest.
Michy’s final message before allowing us to put our shoes back on was that we just broke our stereotypes; we broke a chain which binds us in this one realm, “how many other realms can you find?” he wondered aloud. Indeed there would be new avenues to explore, new heights to reach, and a process of learning new things about ourselves would most surely begin.
Michy and Rafi, two diamonds in a forest of the Judean Hills, taught us about kiruv— truly opening our hearts towards self-exploration and how to gently guide souls towards a higher power. The OU saw something magical in these two righteous people, invested in them and joined them on a journey towards redemption. There are other gems supported by the foresight of OU, other programs unknown but not unappreciated. Hopefully I can share in the publication of these stories so as to equally inspire us all towards the great mission that lies ahead.
Rafi with two soldiers on a visit to ‘Gush’ Yeshiva after the ‘silent Tiyul’
A Small World in a Forest
As I walked away from the tiyul back to the parking lot I overheard the soldiers talking about their jobs in the army. Some were teachers of other soldiers; others were teachers of Americans who came for a few months on the Maarava program. I remembered my brother saying he was on such a program last year and I asked them if anyone knew him. Of course, they responded and smiles appeared on their faces, please give him a dash cham, warm regards, they exclaimed. They had taught my brother about the army, and together we learned from Michy about ourselves and our capacity to rise to the highest levels.
Today, on my second day at the OU, in addition to meeting more fascinating personalities and encountering a few hundred people in various programs I ran into Rafi, the organizer of the program who had a wonderful story to tell me.
One of the secular soldiers at that tiyul, whose name was Shaked was visibly moved by the event and wanted to speak with both Michy and Rafi at the end of the evening. Shaked told Rafi that he was touched by the journey and he is at the point of becoming a chozer beteshuva, returning to observant, religious life. But it was not one simple silent tiyul which moved him to that point, instead he said one rabbi jolted him and set him on a path which culminated with this final stage. That Rabbi was our very own Rabbi Weinreb. Months back Rabbi Weinreb spoke to him with a group about the practical and powerful, as well as therapeutic and cleansing nature of teshuva – return, in Jewish life. Shaked didn’t realize the simplicity involved in Jewish return, how when you shatter your mold and accept the myriad of possibilities you can achieve, the sky is the limit. Today Rafi is helping Shaked and others come home.
Working for an organization often entails monotony and a lack of interpersonal involvement as well as creating a mold which binds it into a state of paralysis. My first day at the OU broke every mold and promises to offer me an exciting opportunity to engage and encounter, create, teach, and learn from young and old, secular and religious, Israeli and Anglo, all part of this beautiful tapestry living in Eretz Yisrael.
*After recognizing the great gulf between the secular and the religious in Israel, the government approached the OU to speak with Israeli soldiers in an effort to create a dialogue between the secular and relgious, and bridge the divide. The OU developed Kehillot Yisrael (lit. the communities of Israel) for this purpose. Kehillot Yisrael, invests in select religious individuals throughout the country who keep the discourse going with secular soldiers. In the coming months, we will continue to visit and feature these different individuals and their experiences.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.