Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Charedi World

9 Tammuz 5759 - June 23, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Rabbi Tzvi Schwartz Vs. the Reform Movement

by Moshe Schapiro

Judging by the number of flyers distributed and posters hung, Rechovot City Hall should have been overrun by hordes of enraged residents and reduced to a smoldering ruin. But at six o'clock -- a full hour after the protest was meant to begin -- the building was still standing, and there were no more than four or five youths loitering in the foyer. One of them held a bullhorn self-consciously and stood next to a pile of shiny new placards stacked against the wall.

"What's going on?" I asked him in a friendly tone. "Where's the protest?" I looked meaningfully at my watch.

"They went to get some more guys," he stammered, his face turning crimson red. He shifted uneasily and looked away.

The truth is that I too felt kind of foolish for driving all the way from Yerushalayim to Rechovot to cover this nonstarter of an event. I should have known better, since the same pattern keeps playing itself out: Every time the Reform Movement tries to rear its ugly head in Eretz Yisroel -- and it's been trying very often lately -- all it manages to generate is lots of hype but no deeds. Plenty of extravagant media campaigns, but no substantial message; dozens of hired politicians parroting their vacuous slogans, but no public support; an overabundance of figureheads, but no real people behind the empty masks. Reform in Israel is a movement without followers; its local chieftains are leaders without a people.

The failed protest in Rechovot was initiated by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC -- the Reform Movement's operational arm in Eretz Yisroel) in response to the construction of Lev L'Achim's new facility in the predominantly nonobservant neighborhood of Ramat Yigal. Supposedly representing the interests of local residents, IRAC joined in an unholy alliance with Am Chofshi (Meretz's social action wing) and embarked on a multi-pronged attack against Rabbi Tzvi Schwartz, director of Lev L'Achim's local branch. The terms of the partnership are simple -- IRAC provides the funding, and Am Chofshi's Chairman Arnon Yekutieli takes care of the fieldwork.

The purpose of the City Hall protest was to pressure the municipality's Building Committee, which was then in session, to issue a work-stoppage order to prevent Rabbi Schwartz from completing the new facility. A source in City Hall reports that when the expected wave of local protesters failed to materialize, Am Chofshi hired two busses and imported a group of die-hard supporters from out of town.

At seven o'clock -- about one hour after my enlightening conversation with the youth holding the bullhorn -- two Meretz busses pulled up next to City Hall and disgorged approximately seventy protesters. With placards aloft they stormed into the building and burst into the chamber where the Building Committee was in session, banging on tables and creating a major disturbance.

Rechovot's mayor made a valiant attempt to restore order. He had chairs brought in for the protesters, and when everybody was seated, he patiently explained to the mob that all of the necessary building permits had been granted to Lev L'Achim, and that the construction project was perfectly legal. Even Meretz's own municipal council representative tried to explain to the protesters that all the permits were issued in accordance with the law. But nothing helped, for the protesters had come to shout, not to activate their brains and think. And that is exactly what they did -- very loudly. When screaming didn't get them anywhere they started getting physical, pushing and shoving council members around. At this point the mayor made a very smart move: he adjourned the meeting and everyone but the protesters went home.

Faced with this municipal defeat, IRAC and Am Chofshi have taken the battle to its next logical stage -- into the halls of the Supreme Court, from where leftist politicians seldom emerge without big smiles on their faces. The class action suit is comprised of thirty pages of thick legalese.

Mr. Tomer Glass, Lev L'Achim's attorney, let out a deep sigh when he saw the size of the complaint. "Don't these Reform people have anything better to do with their time than to write Supreme Court suits?" he asked rhetorically.

No. That's exactly the problem.

The class action suit, representing eighteen local residents, is based on a vague legal precedent issued in 1997:

"It would seem inappropriate to allocate to a religious educational facility a plot of land situated in a non- religious neighborhood. Such an allocation could hurt the interests of both sides and pose a potential threat to the public's safety. A municipal council has the right -- and perhaps the obligation -- to take into account the feelings of its constituents."

This then is the underlying premise of the class action suit: that local residents oppose the construction of the new Lev L'Achim facility in their neighborhood. The good news is that Rabbi Tzvi Schwartz has evidence indicating the opposite. Consider this letter to the mayor written by a woman living in the building overlooking the planned facility:

"As someone who has been living in this neighborhood for over twenty-one years, I would like to convey to you how I, and my friends, feel about the new Lev L'Achim building going up next door to our homes.

"This organization is true to its name -- it has tried hard to bridge the social schisms that are tearing our society apart, and all within the context of teaching non-religious people such as myself the beauty of our Jewish heritage. Under Rabbi Tzvi Schwartz's direction, the people at Lev L' Achim have infused a sense of respect and appreciation for our heritage among the citizens of Rechovot. They have done this not by means of coercion, but through open dialogue and, above all, personal example. I must confess that if anyone is guilty of coercion, it is the small and unrepresentative group of local residents who are determined to halt the construction of the new facility at all costs.

"In addition to instilling traditional values among our youth, Lev L'Achim organizes free loan societies and food packages for the city's disadvantaged families, which are distributed by volunteers at no charge. Furthermore, in twenty-one years of living in this city I cannot recall a single incident of anger or violence between non-religious residents and Rabbi Schwartz or any of his staff members. On the contrary -- we have always enjoyed an extremely cordial relationship and peaceful coexistence. The City of Rechovot should serve as a model for the rest of the country. Whenever problems have arisen, solutions were found by means of dialogue and mutual respect.

"Hence I see no reason to oppose the construction of Lev L'Achim's new facility. On the contrary -- it is comforting to have such a wonderful chessed organization as my neighbor. I have discussed this matter with friends and neighbors, and they too have the highest regard for Rabbi Schwartz, and see nothing wrong with the location of the building. I believe that the opposition to the building is political in nature, and that a group of outsiders who do not live in this neighborhood are the ones who are fanning the flames of hatred."

In only two days of petitioning local residents, Rabbi Schwartz has collected several letters and over fifty signatures in support of the building. Quite a few families in the area participate regularly in Lev L'Achim kiruv programs, and others have enrolled their children into Torah schools. Real, live human beings -- this is the chink in the armor of IRAC-Am Chofshi. Here is where Lev L'Achim is strong and the enemies of Torah are weak. In this kind of showdown the Torah world enjoys a major advantage.

Now the Supreme Court is the only unknown factor. Its legendary capriciousness is a gray area, a question mark casting an ominous shadow over the construction project. To preclude work-stoppage orders that may be issued in the future, Rabbi Schwartz is urging on the contractors to work around the clock and complete the building in less than half the time he had originally intended. The underground level has already been completed, and there is hope that the next two floors will be finished in a matter of weeks.

Rabbi Schwartz is confident that this crisis, too, shall pass. He is irritated by only one thing -- the amount of time and energy he has had to expend in this battle against the Reform Movement. "All those hours," he says, shaking his head in despair. "Do you know how many neshomos I could have reached in that time?"

That's Rabbi Schwartz through and through. The man has a one- track mind.

Another Lev L'Achim Building Goes Up

Ironically, Lev L'Achim celebrated the inauguration of its new facility in Chadera on the very same afternoon when Am Chofshi protested the construction of the complex in Rechovot.

Hundreds of Chadera residents who participate regularly in Lev L'Achim's outreach activities jammed the spacious, tastefully decorated new facility in order to join in the celebration. This is a partial list of the many Torah personalities who graced the event:

Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, who undertook the long journey from Bnei Brak to attend; the Ashkenazi and Sephardic chief rabbis of the city, Rav Dovid Werner and Rav Shimon Bitton, respectively; Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin, Director General of Lev L'Achim; and Rabbi Uri Zohar. The Mayor of Chadera, who played an instrumental role in the allocation of the building, attended the event as well.

However, the star of the night was Rabbi Yaakov Burshtein, Lev L'Achim's Chadera branch director, who moved there over twenty years ago when there were virtually no traces of religion. In those days the city lacked even the most basic necessities of a Jewish life, such as mikvo'os and Torah schools. Nevertheless Rabbi Burshtein spread the light of Torah among thousands of local residents through sheer persistence and determination.

Over the years, as ever-increasing numbers of individuals became fully observant in Chadera, a semblance of religious communal life gradually formed. Today Chadera's sizable religious community comprises a significant portion of the city's population. The overwhelming majority of these individuals rediscovered their heritage as a result of Rabbi Burshtein's efforts.

Little wonder, then, that the Reform Movement and Am Chofshi are so upset about the construction of the Rechovot facility. One does not have to be a genius to foresee the long-term consequences of new Lev L'Achim branches sprouting up throughout the country. Just look at what happened in Chadera.

People such as Rabbi Burshtein and Rabbi Schwartz make Meretz's hair stand on end. And with good reason.

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