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Let the Light Shine In

Binyamin Rose

What happens when certain brave souls enter secular communities to spread the light of Torah? We went on a trip to three communities to hear the stories

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

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Rabbi Shlomo Raanan hit upon the idea of recruiting young Torah scholars, with strong people skills, to accept the challenges entailed in moving to these exclusively secular communities, to break down boundaries and discreetly plant seeds of religious infrastructure (Photos: Eli Cobin)

T here are compelling reasons why many Israelis choose to live in small towns instead of big cities.

The air is crisp and clean. There’s far less traffic. Farmers can live off the fat of their land. The country is compact enough that even a professor, scientist, or high-tech mogul can live a rural life with a manageable commute to a big city or university job.

And for secular Israelis, if there’s no synagogue within walking distance, or no shul for miles around, that’s just fine.

Many such communities were founded in the early years of statehood by hardcore, secular Zionists more intimate with the teachings of Marx than Moses. Some have a written charter defining the character of their town as “chiloni.” Others won’t put that in writing, but have aggressively distanced any whiff of religion from their sleepy towns.

Yet in recent years, something went awry with their master plan of secular forever.

Fifteen years ago, at the height of the Second Intifada and waves of suicide bombings, more than a dozen secular kibbutzim with lodging and recreational facilities began marketing to the religious community, who, back then, were among the only Israelis who retained enough emunah to travel the countryside fearlessly.

During this period, Rabbi Shlomo Raanan hit upon the idea of recruiting young Torah scholars, with strong people skills, to accept the challenges entailed in moving to these exclusively secular communities, to break down boundaries and discreetly plant seeds of religious infrastructure. Rabbi Raanan’s vehicle was Ayelet Hashachar, the nonprofit organization he founded in 1997 to initiate educational and cultural programs to bridge Israel’s gaping religious-secular divide.

 

No Place Is Beyond Hope

Nofit is a yishuv of 700 families (population 2,900) about 13 miles southeast of Haifa. It was founded in 1987 as a rustic, community village with a clear, secular mandate

Looking down from the highest elevation in Nofit, almost every red-roofed house appears neatly tucked away in forested seclusion. Each home has a carport, with a late-model vehicle or two. The streets are spotless.

Some park benches sport graffiti. One such slogan caught my eye: “Lashon hara doesn’t speak to me.” 

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When Rabbi Gerby first came to Nofit, the residents wanted to run him out of town. Today, every 13-year-old in the community knows how to put on tefillin

Tell that to Rabbi Shalom Gerby, who moved to Nofit 12 years ago, and he will tell you that the residents didn’t always feel that way.

“For my first six months, I was convinced everyone hated me,” said Rabbi Gerby, as we sip fresh-brewed coffee in his dining room beneath a portrait of his rosh yeshivah, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel ztz”l. “I would go to the makolet and people would scream at me, ‘You came to convert us, you’re all leeches.’ There wasn’t one epithet they skipped. One person told me he considered himself a Canaanite, not an Israeli.”

If they could have run Rabbi Gerby out of town, they might have, but he had rented a home in Nofit from a longstanding resident who had just lost his wife in an accident, so it would have been extremely bad form to pressure the landlord.

That didn’t prevent the yishuv’s head (mazkir) from pressuring Rabbi Gerby.

“The mazkir asked me point-blank, ‘Why did you move here?’”

“I told him we wanted to be near my in-laws, who live nearby in Kfar Chasidim.”

So go move there, suggested the mazkir.

“We want to live close, but not that close,” Rabbi Gerby retorted.

The mazkir accepted this plausible answer, then took a more aggressive tack: “You’re trying to make this place chareidi!”

Rabbi Gerby answered sarcastically: “Have you noticed any busloads of chareidim pulling into town since I arrived?” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 720)

 

Slow and Easy Wins the Race

Lavon was established in 1980 and named after former Defense Minister Pinchas Lavon.Today it’s home to 700 people. It’s located on a hilltop less than two miles from Karmiel, one of Israel’s high-tech centers

Many small yishuvim and kibbutzim in Israel have distinguished themselves by developing niche industries and technologies.

So has Lavon, which specializes in metals. Its tidy industrial park at the entrance is home to Colibri, a manufacturer for the tool-cutting industry. There is also Metalicone, a producer of high-precision machinery, partly owned by famed investor Warren Buffet. The Zur Lavon technology training center provides industrial, technological instruction to prepare high-school students, soldiers, and young adults for careers in industry.

So the first impression is of a place with a burgeoning business sector. But that impression soon gives way to something more residential: tree-lined streets, bathed with orange flowers and creeping purple wisteria. We make our way to the home of Rabbi Yehuda (Leonard) Oppenheimer and his wife, Rebbetzin Lonni Oppenheimer, Ayelet Hashachar’s rabbinic couple in the community.

Rabbi Oppenheimer, who also enjoyed careers as an engineer and attorney, was rabbi at the Young Israel of Forest Hills, Queens, for ten years, and cut his teeth in small-town rabbanus at Kesser Israel Synagogue in Portland, Oregon.

Rabbi Oppenheimer’s parents made aliyah from Monsey to Bayit Vegan when he was 14, and he was always seeking the right opportunity to return to Eretz Yisrael. Since Ayelet Hashachar is actively seeking to recruit American rabbanim (see box), this seemed like the perfect shidduch.

The Oppenheimers see Lavon as a place where they can carve their own niche. “The problem many rabbanim face in coming to Israel is that it’s hard to find a place to make a difference and break through the establishment,” Rabbi Oppenheimer opines as we sit in his spacious salon, amid the shipping boxes that are a reminder of their move at the end of Pesach.

However, some Lavon residents initially viewed the Oppenheimers’ move with consternation. “How did you ever land here?” was one form of greeting the Oppenheimer’s heard.

“I told them we were new immigrants, looking for a quiet community, and we just wanted to live in a place where we can meet people, build bridges, and live in peace,” Rabbi Oppenheimer explained. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 720)

 

The Gatekeepers of Ben Ami

Ben Ami is a small agricultural moshav on the outskirts of Nahariyah, founded in 1949 and named after a brigade commander who gave his life in Israel’s War of Independence. Today, some 220 families and 1,500 residents call Ben Ami home

The very first house on the right when entering Ben Ami is home to Rabbi Yisrael Glombak and his wife, Tammy, a gregarious couple whose enthusiasm is contagious. But it took some time until their new neighbors caught on.

“When we first got here 11 years ago, people would sometimes stop their car outside our home and just stare at us for a minute or two,” Tammy said.

As an avreich from Bnei Brak, Rabbi Glombak wasn’t prepared for his first Yom Kippur in Ben Ami, where the moshav’s one, neglected synagogue couldn’t even muster a minyan.

“It was like a slap in the face,” he said. “I wanted to leave.”

Instead, he dug in his heels, and attempted to organize a Friday night service, when he ran into a mazkir as tough as the one in Nofit. No go.

The following Purim, Rabbi Glombak was distributing mishloach manos when he noticed a motorcycle that had veered off the road and got stuck in front of their home. It was the mazkir’s. Rabbi Glombak ran inside, got a mishloach manos package for the mazkir, and helped him get back on the road.

Two days later, Rabbi Glombak asked the mazkir to return the favor and allow people to daven in the moshav’s clubhouse on Shabbos evening.

Failing to get a direct answer, Rabbi Glombak showed up for kabbalas Shabbos with eight others, mostly recruits from a nearby Hesder yeshivah. While outside, looking to pull in that elusive tenth man, along comes the mazkir, on his motorcycle, and not to sing Lecha Dodi. “He actually went as far as shutting off our electricity, but somehow, we convinced him to join us as the tenth man. Since then, we have had a minyan on the moshav every Shabbos.”

Today, approximately a dozen Ben Ami families are shomer Shabbos. Another 30 or 40 either attend synagogue regularly or participate in the now daily weekday minyanim and shiurim. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 720)

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