By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Back then, there wasn’t much to share. It was just a dream, but I welcomed them to join in dreaming.
The people sitting across the table from me – actually a rickety old kitchen table in a damp, unheated basement with a bulb dangling from the unfinished ceiling above it – had come from Eretz Yisroel with a vision. They spoke of the two-sided coin that was life in the Holy Land: the incredible growth of the Olam HaTorah, the explosion of yeshivos and kollelim, and, at the same time, the spiritual bankruptcy and complete ignorance of secular Israelis of all things holy.
Two populations living side by side, one experiencing unprecedented growth and the other sinking fast. Except that they weren’t two demographics. They were brothers, joined in heart, if not in outlook and ideals.
The young men sitting across from me were burning with intensity and determination to do something about it. They perceived that the force of thousands of bnei Torah could bring about a revolution. There was real potential for change.
They saw two sleeping giants. The gifted and committed bnei Torah, on one hand, about to be properly mobilized by one of their own as an army of mekarvim, and a seemingly indifferent, even cynical Israeli society on the other, a people waiting to be addressed.
They sat with me, these two men, and they told me that they heard about the new newspaper, a media organ that would seek to reach the homes of America’s bnei Torah, and they wanted us to share their dream.
I sat there with pads of paper and clippings all around me. There was no computer and no office staff. It was really just a dream.
And together, we dreamed. Their organization, Lev L’Achim, became everything they hoped for. As it turned out, there were many, many ‘achim‘ with room in their hearts. The stacks of paper became Yated Ne’eman. We never forgot that meeting in the cold basement. We reminisce about it when we share triumphs and challenges.
We are proud of the association and connected with the hearts at the center of the great communal ‘lev,’ the wonderful people who were leading and carrying the organization.
Over the past two decades, I’ve gotten ever closer to and increasingly admire their dedication and selflessness. They know how important their work is, and their approach reflects that. The mesirus nefesh of the administrators fuels the mesirus nefesh of the volunteers, the p’eylim, and ultimately, the mesirus nefesh of the ‘achim,’ the beneficiaries of all this concern. I came to know them as Hashem’s foot soldiers, tzaddikim who happen to be involved in kiruv, but are much more.
There are moments frozen in memory, encounters with the ‘field soldiers,’ which are etched in my mind, markers along the journey we traveled together.
Let me introduce you to Lev L’Achim’s director and founder, Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin, with a story.
There was a family in Yerushalayim that was blessed with a son. Their joy over his birth was short-lived, as he was diagnosed with spina bifida, Rachmana litzlan, and the doctors spared no detail of what would await them. The family was plunged into despair, unable to appreciate their beautiful newborn, seeing only the challenges and hurdles that lay ahead.
Relatives and friends attempted to console them, to fill them with bitachon and hope, but the words of encouragement rang hollow, unable to reach their desired location. One day, a car pulled up in front of the family’s building and Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin and his wife Miri stepped out. They headed towards the apartment, knocked on the door, and introduced themselves. They sat down and began to speak, with their characteristic passion. They told the new parents about how their son would yet give them nachas, how they would enjoy raising him, how his father would experience the gratification of discussing sugyos in learning with him. The Sorotzkins told of happy days that awaited them, of laughter and love and an atmosphere of accomplishment.
The couple listened, touched by the obvious sincerity of their distinguished visitors.
The Sorotzkins thanked them for listening and then excused themselves. They went back down to the car, but instead of leaving, they opened the door and a handsome young man emerged.
They walked back up to the apartment, this time with the smiling, confident teenager on crutches between them.
They knocked on the door and were readmitted.
They introduced the young man. “This is our son, Yossi. He’s eighteen and among the most popular, successful bochurim in his yeshiva. He also has spina bifida.”
The new parents were comforted.
This story has nothing to do with Lev L’Achim, but it has everything to do with Lev L’Achim.
It’s a story that shows empathy, wisdom, and the readiness to get out there and do whatever it takes to make life a little brighter for another Yid.
It’s those gifts that shaped the organization.
As our responsibilities to the readers grew, we sensed a genuine interest on their part to be taken to the front lines of the battle for souls in Eretz Yisroel. Accounts of our trips to Eretz Yisroel were always shaped by the experiences of the p’eylim we visited and observed performing their holy work.
We shared in the paper the story of Avraham Saada, a simple, dedicated field worker near Netanya, who received commitments from several irreligious parents, through Project Rishum, to send their children to his gan. He wanted the facilities to look pleasant and exciting, so he prepared for the new school year by painting the gloomy miklat in vibrant colors, creating a happy home for the new children. All day, and then through the night, and the next day, Friday, until the sun went down, he worked alone, knowing that on Sunday morning, the room had to look perfect.
We told you about Avraham entering that Shabbos sweaty and exhausted, dragging himself, covered in paint, to the large central bais medrash of the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe in Netanya. Others in shul looked askance at the dirty, bedraggled Jew in the far corner, but the Rebbe picked him out, wishing him a warm gut Shabbos and commenting that his face had a special shine.
The Rebbe saw past the stains and grime. He saw the pure light of dedication.
We wrote about our fascination with Rav Zvi Schvartz and his work in Rechovot. We never cease to be amazed by him, his dedication and accomplishments. His brilliance and Torah greatness are overshadowed by his engaging personality, which the humble giant uses to try to cover up his gadlus. But if you speak to a person often enough, and you visit him in his home and walk with him in the street, the hidden giant emerges.
There were many trips and many nights driving through dusty development towns and narrow streets to observe firsthand both the hopelessness of Israeli street youth and, at the same time, the optimism and confidence of the talmidei chachomim walking up and down those very streets seeking them out.
I recall one trip in particular, when we were joined by Lev L’Achim’s national director in the United States, Rabbi Yosef Karmel. Rabbi Sorotzkin took us on a tour of the Project Rishum activity programs across Israel. We were in large cities and small outposts, in places I’d never heard of. The yeshiva bochurim and Lev L’Achim representatives all seemed very familiar with Rabbi Sorotzkin, almost as familiar as he was with the highways and small roads of Israel. Finally, we sang and danced at our last stop – I think it was Rosh Ha’ayin – and headed to the Sorotzkin home in Netanya for some sleep.
When we arrived at 3 a.m., Rabbi Karmel and I were whispering to each other about who gets the shower first. We didn’t want to wake up the sleeping family. To our utter surprise, Mrs. Sorotzkin came out of the kitchen as if it were midday. With a huge smile, she welcomed us to her home and served us a multi-course fresh supper, as if it was a normal thing to do in the wee hours of the morning. Quickly, a few things became clear. It was quite normal for her husband to come home in the wee hours of the morning, and she thought it was quite normal to serve him supper at that ungodly hour. It was obvious that she, too, appreciated the importance of the mission, and that she, too, was no stranger to activism and ahavas Yisroel. As the daughter of Rav Yisroel Meir Lau, she was charged with a holy fire.
Extraordinary people, investing extraordinary kochos, and making the extraordinary happen.
Rav Chaim Weintraub is a dynamic and inspiring Mitchazkim leader in the Krayot area near Chaifa. His “territory” includes Kiryat Bialik, Kiryat Motzkin, Kiryat Shmuel and Kiryat Ata, and he is relentless in his search for neshamos whom he can reconnect with their heritage.
Recently, a terrible tragedy befell Rav Chaim and his family. Their precious three-year-old, who had celebrated his upsherin just days earlier, felt sick while in school and was told by his teacher to lie down on a cot to rest. When she next checked on the boy, he was no longer among the living, Rachmana litzlan.
At one point during the shivah, Rav Chaim received a call from a particular group of Israeli kids whose acquaintance he had made by visiting their hangouts. The teenager on the phone informed Rav Weintraub that as a zechus for his son, they had taken upon themselves to keep one Shabbos. They would not smoke, drive their cars, or turn on lights for 24 hours.
After thanking the caller for the chizuk and asking him to convey his appreciation to all the boys in the group, Rav Chaim returned his attention to the people gathered around to be menachem avel him. One of those seated there expressed the cynical view that the gesture was touching but ultimately meaningless, since as soon as Shabbos would end, they would immediately revert to being mechalelei Shabbos and their undertaking would soon be forgotten.
“No,” Rav Chaim disagreed. “I don’t think you understand just how valuable a gift this is.” And he explained. “Do you have any idea how much I would be prepared to give up just to have my little son back with us for just one Shabbos? I would sell my apartment, liquidate my assets, and even sell my clothing to have my precious yingele back just for 24 hours. There is no price too high for the chance to hear him say the parsha one more time, sing zemiros with him on my lap, or walk to shul holding his little hand in mine.
“And now,” concluded the bereft father in a soft voice, “our Father in Heaven is going to have eight of his lost sons back with him for one Shabbos. How fortunate He is!”
These are the people of Lev L’Achim. It tells you everything you need to know.
And if we’re counting the gifts that Lev L’Achim has given us, what about their general?
Eighteen years ago, Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin and his army of volunteers, the best and brightest of the Israeli yeshiva world, were set into motion by Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach, who guided and led them until his strength gave out. On that sad day, they looked for inspiration to a quiet, hidden figure whom we in America had never heard of. The great people at Lev L’Achim knew the secret, however, and they crowned the humble tzaddik from Bnei Brak, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, as their leader.
We marched along with them, seeking his inspiration and wisdom, becoming – as did Yidden across the world – his fervent followers.
When I take a moment to contemplate how far they’ve come since that meeting back in a Spring Valley basement all those years ago, I feel suffused with gratitude to the Ribbono Shel Olam for allowing us to travel with them and to have a small share in their zechuyos by bringing their story to Klal Yisroel.
A closing thought: We are living in historic times, when every dot of light is significant. During my recent trip to Eretz Yisroel, I found myself thinking about the dichotomy of the country. On one hand, the State of Israel is suffering. There is constant in-fighting and the security situation is tenuous. The citizenry is suffering economically. Many can’t afford to feed their families. The cost of an apartment has skyrocketed and many can’t afford a place to live.
Secular Israeli culture has reached an all-time low. Many of the families from the original kibbutzim, the people once thought to represent the idealism of the Zionist dream, are experiencing a collective emptiness as they find themselves spiritually bankrupt.
Yet, somehow, amid all the despair and heartbreak, Hashem’s imprint is strikingly bold. Eretz Yisroel is flowing with the highest kedushah. And not just in cities like Bnei Brak and Kiryat Sefer, where there are communities brimming with the purest Torah. Even in Eilat, Ramle, Dimona and every other spiritually downtrodden area of the country, one can witness eruptions of kedushah. More than ever before in history, there is a yearning for authentic Yiddishkeit. The teshuvah movement has grown exponentially, its healing waters seeping into thousands upon thousands of once-lost Jewish souls. I saw it happening in the form of chavrusos between kollel yungeleit and secular business people. I saw it in the warm smiles of the kollel wives, reaching out to girls on the fringe and welcoming them to Torah classes. I saw it on the shining faces of the children enrolled in Torah schools for the first time.
The Chazon Ish once remarked, “Hasinah sheyesh bahem, hu machmas kedushah sheyesh bahem,” the deep animosity and mistrust that the secular Israeli feels toward his religious counterpart stems from the innate, Jewish holiness in his heart.
The opposite of love is indifference. Hate is a sign of care, and passionate hate is a sign of passionate care. The friction in Israel indicates that the time is ripe for our devoted p’eylim.
It was interesting to follow the reaction in Israel to the kindhearted Dr. Daniel Clair, chairman of the Department of Vascular Surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, who flew 6,000 miles to perform a delicate heart procedure on the elder posek of our generation, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. Predictably, the Torah world stormed the heavens with tefillos, and wherever the good doctor went, he was greeted by throngs of grateful Jews. What stood out was the private audience that Dr. Clair was granted with Israeli President Shimon Peres. This icon of secularism, the very president of the state, conveyed the thanks of “the entire Jewish Nation” to Dr. Clair. By saving such a venerable Torah leader, Peres told him, you have done a priceless service for all the people of Israel.
Deep down, they get it.
I know that Peres was zoche as a young boy to meet the Chofetz Chaim. I know that he grew up with a religious grandfather who learned with him and tried to keep him on the proper path back in the Lithuania of his youth. But I still don’t think his words to Dr. Clair are a reflection of a life spent in the forefront of building the secular state. I think that what Dr. Clair heard was the ruach of yearning, the acknowledgment of the truth and the reawakening of the “pintele Yid” in the populace, a sentiment that has become accepted enough so as to find its way into the public pronouncements of the president.
Yes, there is certainly good news to report in Eretz Yisroel. News that has gotten lost amidst the sea of negative reporting that seems to be our daily fare. So how does one go about getting to the core of this burgeoning phenomenon? By identifying it’s source.
And one of the fountains flowing into the Israeli heart is that of Lev L’Achim.
It is happening because of the mesirus nefesh of the Olam HaTorah, the foot soldiers who make up the ranks of Lev L’Achim and are reaching out to their unlearned brethren. It is happening because of the ahavas Yisroel that infuses every Lev L’Achim volunteer and professional in the their network. It is happening, also, because the estranged people of Israel are yearning for Torah and for emes. The boys and the girls, and the men and the women, who are giving up their ideals and dreams and are ready to build Torah homes, are becoming the heroes of this generation.
It was upon once again witnessing this transformation firsthand, and thinking that we need to share the good news with you, the readers of Yated Ne’eman, that we decided to send a reporter, Maayan Jaffe, on a special mission to Israel to capture the stories of the volunteers, the professionals and mostly the baalei teshuvah of Lev L’Achim in Eretz Yisroel. She wrote about Lev L’Achim for the Yated when she lived in Eretz Yisroel, and now that she is living in America, we thought that we should send her back there to continue where she left off with the Lev.
The result is a series that highlights the mesirus nefesh and altruism of individual baalei teshuvah. Each week, over the next 10 weeks, we will feature these vignettes in the Yated, so that you, too, can experience the miracles taking place in the Holy Land.
For us, this is the history of Klal Yisroel unfolding, and it’s also tinged with nostalgia. We, and all of Klal Yisroel, are grateful for being allowed to come along for the ride.
There is a gentleman I came to know thirty-one years ago. I met him on Rosh Hashanah in Congregation Orach Chaim on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Rabbi Kenneth Hain was the rabbi there in those years. My mother a”h was in her last days on this world and I was spending time with her in the hospital, which was near the shul. Rabbi Hain and his rebbetzin were more than kind to me and my family. I spent Shabbos and Yom Tov at their home while my mother was in the hospital.
The man I met there is a Yerushalayimer Yid from the Blau family. That year, we both found ourselves in that shul. We were mechazeik each other. I was mekareiv him and he was mekareiv me. Years went by and I didn’t see him again.
On the final Motzoei Shabbos of my recent trip, who did I bump in to? This gentleman. I took one look and knew that it was him, but he looked so old. He was walking slowly, by himself, engrossed in thought. I was sure that he wouldn’t remember me.
“Rav Bloi,” I said, “shalom aleichem.”
“Oy, git ah kook ver iz doh,” he answers.
“Vos macht ihr?” I ask.
He’s quiet, and I worry about him. Then he says with a twinkle in his eye, “Vos macht Rabbi Hain? Gedeinkst ehm? Ehr iz geven a feiner mentch.”
There I was on Rechov Chofetz Chaim in Guelah, talking to this old Yerushalmi yid, me the American Yankee, him the Yerushalmi m’beten u’mleidah, and he is asking about Rabbi Hain. Anoshim achim anachnu, no matter how we look, dress or act.
Vos macht Rabbi Hain. Such powerful words. He was letting me know that he remembered me, that he remembered how we met and where. He was letting me know that he knew that the people we were with in the hospital are no longer, but without saying it in so many words. And he was saying that though we are different we are all brothers, me, you and Rabbi Hain.
We spoke about that Rosh Hashanah we spent together. I said again, “Uber Rav Bloi, vos macht ihr?”
He finally responded. “You know,” he says, “in Israel today there is a new word: ‘Mitchazkim.'”
Mitchazkim is a term which refers to young people who have gone off the derech and are brought back. There are yeshivos for them, and people are tuned into helping them climb back. The word actually means to strengthen oneself.
“Ich zuch tzu veren ah mitchazeik,” said Rav Blau.
I looked at him and I thought, “Wow! So old, yet so sharp.” He took a word which is bandied about, and is used to describe young people who have strayed, and, in his humility, he turned it on himself. And yet he is so right. We all have to be mitchazeik. We all have to seek to strengthen ourselves and each other, young and old, Yerushalayimers and Amerikaners, and everyone in-between.
We, and all of Klal Yisroel, are being taken for a ride.
That ride will culminate with a dance toward Moshiach Tzidkeinu, when all of us, mitchazkim, mechazkim and mechuzakim, religious and nonreligious, young and old, together, achim anachnu, will finally join as one.
May it happen speedily in our day.